If you had a pick one place on a map to build a bridge across Potomac, the site of Chain Bridge might be the best. And the worst.
It’s an obvious choice because it’s the narrowest part of the river, squeezing through a passage of 90 feet wide. But that’s also what makes it so dangerous – it’s essentially the bottom of the funnel.
Pretty much every attempt to bridge the Potomac here has failed. The first, built in 1797, collapsed by 1804. The next burned down within six months after it was built. Finally a respectable 136-foot long chain suspension bridge – where it got its name – was built but was destroyed by floods in 1810.
The fourth one was a good one, another suspension bridge that Dolley Madison used to flee the British in 1814. That one lasted till 1840 before succumbing to floods. The fifth, built of chain and wood, went down in 1852.
Around this time, Charles Ellet – perhaps the closest rival to John Roebling, architect of the Brooklyn Bridge – proposed a suspension bridge across the more placid waters near the Three Sisters islands above Georgetown, but the thought of easier access to the District was scrapped as the Civil War unfolded. Instead, a wooden truss bridge was built at the old Chain Bridge site that was protected by four forts on the Virginia side and, as one solider put it, “large guns upon the bluff [that] can be depressed, if necessary, as to demolish the bridge in an instant.”
No need for that. The Rebs never attempted to take the bridge and a flood washed it out anyway in 1870.
The seventh one was built on strong stone pilings and made it until the 1936 flood, when it was closed down, and the current and eighth bridge, went into service in 1939.
Fed up with the wash-outs, in 1971 Congress appropriated funding for the building of a new bridge that would carry I-66 across the Three Sisters and onto the present-day Canal Road. Construction ensued but politics halted the project. A year later, Hurricane Agnes washed away the pilings for the incomplete Three Sisters Bridge and it died an unceremonious death in Congress, but Chain Bridge, which rests on pilings from the 1870s bridge, miraculously held despite water coming within feet of the roadway.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at Chain Bridge recently for the shad run, and the ruble of old bridges is everywhere. The banks on the Confederate side are littered with twisted chain anchors and a crumbling pier.
But, its location is exactly why I and countless other anglers are here in the first place – it’s the furthest place up-river that shad, an ocean species, can swim during their spring spawn.
They travel 1000 miles from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake, where they take a sharp right turn and swim another 270 miles up the Bay and into the Potomac, up to Chain Bridge.
That is one heck of ambitious fish. Like any long-distance traveler, they seem a bit irritable by the time they arrive and attack all baitfish – or chartreuse flies – invading their space. They run like a tuna and jump like a tarpon. Pound for pound, they’re the fightin’est fish around.
But Chain Bridge is about as far as they can get.
At the mouth of the Potomac at Cape Lookout, the river is about four miles wide. At the salt-line around Indian Head, the river is about a mile wide. At the tidal line at Chain Bridge, where the force of the tides is over-powered by the force of the current, the river squeezes through 90 feet. A lot of shad are competing for an ever-narrowing piece of river.
They are also competing against the river. Within that 90 feet passes about 10,000 cubic feet per second of water on a normal day in May. At its peak, that can rise to records of over 80,000. A Chevy Tahoe is 94 cubic square feet, so that is the equivalent of 851 Chevy Tahoes worth of water passing under Chain Bridge per second!
It’s at this point, on the seams and in the eddies of the current, that fish get totally piled up like rush hour traffic.
Captain John Smith made as far up-river in 1608 as present-day Chain Bridge, where he recalled the shad were so thick, “we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” When that didn’t work, “I amused myself by nailing them to the ground with my sword.”
Which is what brings me to Chain Bridge 400 years later. Rule #1 in fishing – find fish.
As long as they’re around, they’ll run up the Potomac every spring, and as long as they run, legions of fisherman will be there to greet them, and the whole time, the river will be letting them both know who’s boss.