OUR BRIDGES IN BRIEF
by John Thomson
Any account of our bridge and the 98 steps from the towpath to Conduit Road, today's MacArthur Boulevard, should start with the right-of-way from Walhonding Road down to the canal. While the canal steamers were running and Islanders could merely step ashore as the steamer passed the Island, this private property below the road was of little significance. Who wanted to climb that hill anyway? But with the end of the steamer run, access became all important. And by some forethought and a great deal of good fortune, Sycamore was granted the right-of-way just one month before the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the flood which marked the beginning of the end for the canal company. And then, after the flood, Mr. Baltzley the land owner and promoter of the National Chautauqua development at Glen Echo, had second thoughts and wanted us to agree to relinquish the right-of-way upon his request. We held on to it -- and it remains the access, public now, not ours alone, to the canal.
Our first bridge appears to have been built in 1889. There is no record of its construction in the minutes, but in August, 1890, the Captain of the Island and was given "the power to have all repairs attended to on the Island and to have the bridge across the canal placed in a safer condition than it is at present."
The members must have used it, but it was evidently of a temporary makeshift variety as the minutes of 1891 are concerned with the issue of ensuring the right-of-way and planning for a new bridge.
Our second bridge was completed in January 1892. The negotiations relating to the right-of-way and bridge were successful and the letters relating thereto were placed in the records of the club -- we have them still in our safe deposit box. The bid of Mr. Devine, the architect for the bridge, was accepted and a superior wooden bridge was built at a cost of $565. This placed a strain on club's finances and there was discussion whether to meet the costs by adding to the membership or borrowing. Matthew Ruppert loaned the club $300 at six per cent interest.
This second bridge was clearly more satisfactory than the first but it was costly to maintain. Six years later the club had to make a special appropriation of $95 for repairs.
Our third bridge, today's steel bridge, was built in 1904. Here the basic information is well recorded -- in 1916 -- but the detailed club minutes are missing. The retrospective minutes read as follows:
"The original wooden bridge across the canal having broken down, it became necessary to replace it, and at a meeting of the club held on July 10, 1904, a resolution was adopted authorizing the then president and treasurer to procure a loan of $700, to be devoted to constructing a steel bridge across the canal on the approach to club property and for defraying other present indebtedness of the club." Accordingly, on August 15, 1904, three 3-year notes, bearing interest of 6% per annum, were made by the club -- two for $250 each and one for $200 -- signed by the President, James E. Brophy, and the Treasurer, S.R. Brooks, payable to John J. Repetti, or order, and on September 14, 1904, a deed of trust on the club property was made and duly recorded at Rockville, MD, naming George R. Repetti and Michael I. Weller as Trustees. These notes subsequently passed into the hands of E. A. McIntyre, and on August 15, 1907 were extended for five years.
There is a footnote to this entry, obviously added years later: "The notes herein referred to were taken up during 1921."
For forty years -- from 1904 to 1944 -- one of the most onerous jobs the club had was the repair and maintenance of the bridge and the stairway down from the Sycamore Store. It became increasingly difficult, and members were constantly looking for help -- from their neighbors in the shacks (they were never called cabins) along the canal, and from the Park Service.
A June 1944 appeal to the Park Service, which had taken over the management of the canal from the defunct C & O Canal Company, was effective -- or appeared to have been. Mr. Irving Root of the National Capital Parks agreed to provide the lumber needed but stated he could not provide the labor. The club was most grateful. We were still struggling to pay for the new club house built after the 1936 flood, and the membership was down.
To everyone's surprise, the Park Service not only provided the lumber. It also provided the labor and repaired the bridge. A special letter of appreciation was written -- and the fat was in the fire. The Park Service, not permitted to make repairs on private property, rejected the letter stating it had no record that the bridge belonged to Sycamore. It belonged to the canal. Nothing could have suited our members better -- and, ultimately, having tried to give, cede or bequeath the bridge to the Park, we decided to accept its ownership without an exchange of documents.
For the first forty years Sycamore maintained the bridge we built. For these past forty years it has been the Park's responsibility and our chief function has been to observe and keep the Park Service informed on the state of the bridge and the stairs, now a zig-zag path, coming down from MacArthur Boulevard. It was this volunteer supervision which led to our fourth bridge. First Peter Day and then Greg and Susan Super alerted the Park Service to the serious decay -- rot and rust -- of the bridge. A thorough survey showed that the whole structure was in danger of collapse, and its renovation was placed on the projected maintenance list. A warning sign was placed on both ends of the bridge limiting the crossing to roughly two persons at a time -- a warning which was customarily ignored -- and ultimately a contract for the restoration of the bridge was signed. This required the temporary closing of the bridge.
Our fourth bridge, the Ken Fassler Temporary Bridge, took the place of the steel bridge for almost two years and almost all of us crossed the canal on it. This bridge was remarkable not only for its effectiveness and simplicity --beams from telephone poles, simple decking and solid rails -- but also for its costs. In this modern era it ran to only $200 and hours of unpaid labor.