Last Wednesday the new Harry Nice Bridge over the Potomac River opened two months ahead of schedule, thereby beginning a new era of local maritime history. On Thursday, my Good Wife and I crossed going to Washington, and returned coming home on Sunday. The transformation is astounding.
The new bridge is a four-lane structure with no truss system like the old bridge. The height appears to be approximately the same as that of the 1940 bridge, and the view crossing is unobstructed. The project has moved along very quickly, and the transfer to the new bridge has gone smoothly.
In the mid-1980s the old bridge was rebuilt from the river bottom up, the only part of the original structure having been retained was the truss over the channel. The old bridge had been a campaign promise of Franklin Roosevelt when he was running for his second term in 1936. It signaled the end of the Morgantown to Potomac Beach Ferry, and it changed the Northern Neck forever, however The Old Bay Line steamboats continued to ply the Potomac for another 22 years.
The new bridge is long overdue, having been needed for many years. An accident on the bridge or on the approach to it, could back traffic up more than five miles, way beyond Dahlgren into King George County, and all one could do was to sit and wait. With the new bridge, delays should be mere memories.
Unfortunately, the Maryland Department of Transportation is refusing to retain the old bridge as a fishing pier or a bike path. Given the rebuilding of the 1980s, it could last for decades to come, and would be an excellent tourist attraction for locals and visitors as well. That particular bend in the river below Matthias Point is one of the prime fishing locations for rockfish and hardhead in the entire Chesapeake region.
The long, flat expanse entering the old bridge from the Virginia side would provide wonderful fishing opportunities, especially for people who do not have a boat. Clearly, Virginia would retain the bridge for recreational purposes, but once again Maryland gets the upper hand given the state line being at the low water line on the Virginia side.
On the Maryland shore the bridge takes part of Aqualand, the amusement park and marina north of the landing. To the south the enormous power station is on the site of the Matthews farm. At present plans are in the works to close the station, which action would be a significant benefit for the lower Potomac. The late Bruce Matthews, who grew up on that farm, served for many years as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia.
On the Virginia shore the vast naval installation at Dahlgren occupies the land to the south of the bridge, and the farm, now long subdivided, of the late Rice Hoes is to the north. Caught in the tiny middle is the former welcome center that the Northern Neck counties pooled together to build in the early 1990s. Almost certainly, it will prove to be a casualty of the project.
Aside from the bridges in the Metropolitan Washington area, U.S. 301 brings more people into Virginia that any other port of entry. The Northern Neck deserves a good welcome center, which could be an important boost for local tourism. At this time the chances of getting the old bridge for a fishing pier or a new visitors’ center seem bleak.
I have been over the old bridge hundreds of times and under it fishing on many occasions, as well as once under it on a steamboat, The District of Columbia, between Washington and Old Point Comfort. As it passes into history and the new era begins, I cannot muster much nostalgia for it, given the many times I waited in those endless lines.