The Aqueduct Bridge dates to the golden age of American canals in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Back before the advent of the locomotive, water was the only economical way to transport goods over America’s vast interior. Since the Potomac River isn’t navigable much above Georgetown, they conceived of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was to stretch all the way to the headwaters of the Ohio River, channeling the bounty of America’s bread basket and the coal wealth of Appalachia into the pockets of eastern investors at the dawn of the age capitalism.
Naturally, the city fathers of Roslyn over on the Virginia side of the Potomac wanted a cut, too, and so was conceived the Aqueduct Bridge. Cargo coming down the C & O could be transferred across the river on the calm waters of the Aqueduct Bridge without ever leaving the flatboat. For various reasons – the canal was never completed and railroads became faster and reliable with time – the canal and the bridge along with it never performed as expected. After several renovations and reinventions as a Civil War supply line, a toll bridge, and a leaky sieve, the Aqueduct Bridge was finally demolished in the 1920s and 30s. All except the abutment on the Georgetown side and lone pier near the Virginia bank.
The surviving abutment lies out of sight from the main drag of M Street, right where the tourists turn back toward such authentically Georgetown sights as ye old Urban Outfitters and Hagen Das. The imposing staircase seen in The Exorcist overlooks it, and in the morning, it literally lies in the shadow of its successor, the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Don’t wait this long to descend to the river bank, though, or you will find yourself stranded – sidewalks and crosswalks start to disappear west of Key Bridge, and anyway, you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of the C & O Canal with no way to cross. As it was, after braving the volley of Georgetown shoppers on M Street – all the ones from suburban America, where the car is king, this much walking is unfathomable, and even grown adults don’t know how to share a sidewalk, narrow and old-timey as it may be – I made this mistake.
Finding myself on the north side of the canal with the abutment in sight just a dozen tantalizing feet of murky, stagnant C & O water away, I decided to cross over the canal on the Key Bridge. To do so, I needed to scale the seven foot tall masonry embankment that holds M Street out of the Potomac. This I attempted, only to find my mighty leaps thwarted by a thick carpet of slippery leaves resting atop the retaining wall. After an anticlimactic backtrack along the towpath to cross on a pedestrian bridge, I was ready to hop the railing that halfheartedly guards the abutment from noisome pedestrians and overly-inebriated Georgetown students. The solid stone masonry of another era frames a green lawn ripe for picnics, yoga, and dog shit. In other words, a perfectly usable and distinctive green space carved from that which is disused.
I arrive at sunset on a winter afternoon, and there’s a couple here, locked in loving embrace twenty feet over the river. A team of professional photographers circles, offering encouragement with greedy snaps of their shutters. The Aqueduct Bridge abutment has become the ideal ruin for public consumption – safe enough for engagement photos and walking your dog. Frankly, it affords the best view of the Potomac I’ve ever seen. It’s an almost completely invisible monument to the busted future of two hundred years past, bypassed by the bustling traffic above, left to crumble and molder in peace below, an oasis of history in midst of booming third millennium consumerism above.
Graffiti artists have assertively claimed the space for their own, and one tag that appears repeatedly and with great prominence is “The Clinic.” As in, “for those who are weary and soulsick, threadbare and worn from the vehement monotony of modern life, for those who need some contemplative sojourn to another world, or to the ruins of one, at least.” I like to think that’s what he was going to write, anyway. The guy probably just ran out of spray paint.
In the shadow of Key Bridge