The late historian, C. Jackson Simmons, referred to the Northern Neck as “our moated Eden,” a place kept secure in its pristine environment because of its nearly complete encirclement by waterways. Until 1927, when the original Downing Bridge was built across the Rappahannock at Tappahannock, we were not connected to any other land south of Fredericksburg.
At the opening of that new bridge, two young boys, future Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. and future Representative Thomas Downing—both then in their early teens—were given the honor of cutting the ribbon. Tom Downing pulled out an oyster knife to cut his part.
In 1936, while campaigning for a second term, Franklin Roosevelt toured Southern Maryland carrying a model of a bridge he said he would build across the Potomac. After the election, plans began for the new bridge, which opened in 1940, thereby ending the bucolic ferry crossing from Morgantown, Maryland, to Potomac Beach in Westmoreland County. Some of the pilings of the ferry dock at Potomac Beach still can be seen at low tide.
That bridge later was named for Maryland Governor Harry W. Nice, who was in office for most of its planning and construction. In the 1980s, the bridge was deteriorating, and a massive rebuilding program was undertaken, leaving only the superstructure of the original in place, installing new pilings and surface from the Virginia shoreline to the ascent. Throughout that process, the bridge remained open to traffic on U.S. Route 301.
Our Eden again was connected to the rest of the world in the 1950s with the construction of the Robert O. Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock. Opened in 1957, from the beginning, travelers have referred to it as “the scary bridge,” due to its narrow lanes. By the 1990s, the condition of the bridge had deteriorated to such an extent that an extensive rebuilding was in order. In 1993, when VDOT, in its great wisdom, announced plans to close the bridge to nighttime traffic to allow for the rebuilding, the late Lancaster County supervisor, Betty Barrack, and her colleague, Donald Conaway, organized a large grassroots effort to force the bridge’s remaining open on a 24/7 schedule.
Most importantly, continuous opening was necessary to serve the needs not only of workers from the lower Northern Neck traveling to the shipyard in Newport News and other places, but to Middle Peninsula residents being able to have access to Rappahannock General Hospital, which at that time still was operating a maternity ward. I served for three years on the citizens’ advisory committee to keep the bridge open. During the course of the replenishment of the surface, numerous public meetings took place, resulting in the popular uprisings forcing VDOT to become responsive to the needs, indeed demands, of the local citizenry.
The original Downing Bridge was replaced in the 1960s, and today a new four-lane bridge is being constructed across the Potomac to replace the Nice Bridge. Route 301 is the source of more traffic coming into Virginia than any other point of entry aside from the Interstate Highways and the bridges in the Washington, D.C., area. The old bridge in its own right is equally as scary as the Norris Bridge; its replacement is long-overdue, particularly considering the decades of tolls it has collected.
Lastly, thanks to the good work of the current occupant of Betty Barrack’s seat on the Lancaster board of supervisors, Jason Bellows, and many others, the electric lines attached to the Norris Bridge are being removed, being replaced by underwater cables without Dominion Energy having been able to force its planned unsightly towers on the Middlesex and Lancaster communities. Free of the power lines, the next step forward should be the replacement of the bridge itself. The entry to “our moated Eden” deserves as much.