by Henry Lane Hull
Locally, as we continue to witness the routine band-aid applications being administered to the Robert O. Norris Jr. Memorial Bridge, perhaps we could do better by studying the projected replacement of the Harry Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River between Newburg, Md., and Dahlgren.
The Nice Bridge was in part the result of the 1936 presidential race during which President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned in Southern Maryland carrying a model bridge with him. After the election, plans began in earnest to span the Potomac with a bridge to replace the ferries that crossed between Morgantown, Maryland, and Potomac Beach in Westmoreland County.
Construction began in 1938, and two years later the bridge opened, with the ferries passing into history. Pilings of the ferry dock still can be seen off the shore of Potomac Beach, especially during low tides. In 1967 to honor the memory of Gov. Harry W. Nice, who had served as governor of Maryland from 1935-1939, during the planning and early construction of the bridge, the Maryland General Assembly voted to name the bridge for him, a posthumous recognition of his tireless work in promoting the construction of the facility.
The bridge is a narrow, two-lane structure without shoulders. Carrying U.S. Route 301 across the river, it brings more traffic into Virginia than any other highway that is not part of the Interstate Highway System. After nearly a half-century of service the bridge was in need of major overhauling, which began in the late 1980s. The result was a new surface and a complete replacement of the flat approach from the Virginia side to the truss section over the Potomac’s channel. The project required four years to complete, with its most notable change coming with the installation of Jersey beams to replace the former metal railing, thereby making drivers “feel” far safer in crossing. The bridge might be nerve-wrecking to some drivers today, but with respect to safety it is far better than it was prior to the renovation.
Now, 30 years later, Maryland is working on the design and initial steps to build a new four-lane bridge that should end the ever-present bottleneck attendant to paying the toll on the Maryland side, which is only slightly more bothersome than the similar bottleneck on the Virginia side. Initially, the bridge was toll both ways, but with the 1980s’ renovation, the toll became one way, albeit doubled for those leaving the Free State. The new system meant that one could enter Maryland for free, but had to pay to get out.
Gov. Harry Nice was an interesting political phenomenon in that he defeated Maryland’s longest serving governor, Albert Ritchie, only to serve four years in office himself. He previously had challenged Ritchie in 1919, losing then, but getting a slogan for 1934, “Right the Wrong of 1919.”
During his time in office, in addition to the Potomac River Bridge, his legacy includes having undertaken the revamping of the governor’s residence in Annapolis. The building was a great example of Victorian Italianate architecture, which he totally transformed to make into a neo-Georgian mansion.
In addition to the changes to the edifice, he purged all of the Victorian furniture by holding a public auction. A gentleman from the Northern Neck acquired the governor’s desk, which remained here for over 50 years. The late Maryland Congressman Gilbert Gude attempted to have funds raised to return it to Annapolis, but was unsuccessful in that endeavor.
Gov. Nice died at the age of 63 in Richmond a few months after the bridge that he had championed opened to traffic. He might have been a footnote to history had not the bridge been given his name nearly three decades after his death.
In a few years a new bridge will be in operation, which may or may not keep his name, but Maryland has bitten the bullet to build the new bridge. Will VDOT ever learn from the example and do the same for the Norris Bridge? Only time will tell.