ON THIS SPOT: How the Monroe Street Bridge Changed the Face of Brookland

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The Monroe Street bridge is about to undergo a complete and long-needed rehabilitation. The original bridge was not particularly exciting on a design level (neither is the planned replacement), nor was it supposed to be. It was a utilitarian bridge with a simple purpose - to get across the railroad tracks. It quietly opened in 1908, without the fanfare that accompanied the opening of the Michigan Avenue bridge 30 years later, but its effect on Brookland was enormous.

Before the Monroe Street bridge, Brookland’s commerical area was clustered around the intersection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks and Bunker Hill Road (soon to be renamed Michigan Avenue). In addition to the train station, there were coal and freight yards and numerous small shops, including a bakery, restaurant, grocery store, post office, and even a Town Hall building. But there was a hazard: that intersection was a grade crossing, with the railroad tracks level with Bunker Hill Road. 

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Looking west on Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue) in 1926. The B&O railroad tracks cross just past the first utility pole on the left. Click to enlarge and you can see the striped crossing gates and the small octagonal gatehouse. Catholic University’s Maloney Hall is on the right past the tracks. Photo Historical Society of Washington.

Grade crossings were dangerous, and as traffic increased in our region, so did accidents, close calls, and even some deaths. Beginning in 1904, the Brookland Citizens Association began calling for a solution, namely a bridge. There were a number of issues involved. Safety was certainly one, but improving transit options was a close second.

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The B&O Railroad connected with the main depot downtown, but that alone was not enough to serve Brookland’s growing commuter needs. Nor were horse-drawn buses from downtown which were painfully slow. But a new electric streetcar had been introduced in 1888, and it could help overcome the sluggish growth of the neighborhood’s first decade. In 1889 a streetcar line was run from downtown along 4th Street to Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue) -- great for Catholic University travelers, but a hefty walk for Brooklanders (see map right; click to enlarge). In 1894, the line was extended east along Bunker Hill Road to the railroad tracks and University Station. That was much more convenient, but the streetcars couldn’t cross the railroad tracks, so service still didn’t go into the heart of Brookland (see map below; click to enlarge). 

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Although a bridge over the tracks was the natural first choice, there were difficulties with the concept. According to an article in the Evening Star, “owing to the fact that the crossing is near the bottom of a dip in the land, such an arrangement would not only prove very costly, it is stated, but the tall embankment erected would be unsightly.” The shop owners along Bunker Hill Road didn’t like the idea either, worried about how a bridge with a high embankment right in front of their stores would affect business.

If not over the tracks, how about under them? Studies actually were made for an undergrade crossing, but to achieve that, Bunker Hill Road would have had to be further lowered to a point where it would be too steep for streetcars to traverse. So that idea was out too.

If you couldn’t go over or under the tracks at Bunker Hill Road, what was left? Monroe Street was the answer. Because the configuration of the land was different there, a bridge wouldn’t have to be nearly as high, making it possible for streetcar passage. And it would be far less costly. It would also divert vehicle and pedestrian traffic away from the dangerous grade crossing. 

The drive to build the Monroe Street bridge was spearheaded by Arthur Kinnan, president of the Brookland Citizens Association, and father of future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Kinnan had a multi-pronged approach. He needed to secure permission for the bridge from the city commissioners, make sure they and the streetcar company would approve shifting the tracks to Monroe Street, and get the construction funded by Congress. To sweeten the deal, Kinnan even offered to have the citizens of Brookland pay for grading the approaches to the bridge. Since the benefits of the bridge were pretty obvious, he was able to obtain encouraging responses to all those matters.

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There was one more issue that needed to be resolved, and it was a big one -- Monroe Street did not connect to Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue). Monroe had originally ended at the railroad tracks, but later was extended for a single block on the west side of the tracks, ending at 7th Street (see 1907 map, right; click to enlarge). To hook up with the streetcar line on Michigan Avenue, Monroe Street would need to extend another block farther west. But that land was owned by the Sulpician Fathers, who weren’t particularly inclined to see a street run through their property. It took months of tough negotiations, but the Sulpicians eventually relented and the Monroe Street extension was finally agreed upon. 

$44,000 was approved by Congress in 1907 and bids were taken to construct “a concrete steel bridge across the railroad tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Monroe Street.”  The Charles B. Clark company won the bridge contract for $32,480. Construction was completed in 1908. 

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A closeup of an aerial view from 1928 showing the completed Monroe Street bridge. Photo courtesy Catholic University of America Archives.

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All that remained now was for the tracks to be pulled up from Michigan Avenue and moved to Monroe Street, but the City and Suburban Railway Company was dragging its heels. Over a year passed with no action until Congress stepped in and set a deadline for completion. Finally, in November 1910 the tracks were laid over the new Monroe Street bridge. At first they stopped on the east side of the bridge and that became the new terminus for the line. Within a few months the rails were extended up Monroe to 12th Street, then north on 12th to Quincy Street and the turnaround (see map right). Brookland was finally opened up to streetcar service. 

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Photo taken sometime between 1908 and 1910, looking east down Monroe Street with Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue) running northeast down to the railroad tracks. The Monroe Street bridge has been completed at this point, but the streetcar tracks have not yet been changed, with the rails still running along Michigan Avenue. Click to enlarge and you can see a streetcar at the terminus on Michigan Avenue, as well as a few horse-drawn carts. Photo from Willard R. Ross Postcard Collection at the DC Public Library.

With that, things began to change in the neighborhood fairly quickly. In 1911, the Masonic Hall was built at the corner of 12th and Monroe, then small shops started to pop up next to it. Soon, 12th Street took over as the commercial heart of the community, while the shops around the Michigan Avenue intersection began a slow fade. Take a look at the image below. The upper photo shows the block of 12th Street between Monroe and Newton in 1896. It is empty, except for the Brookland Baptist Church on the north side of Newton Street (where the CVS is now). The block was still empty in 1910, when the Monroe Street bridge opened. Compare it to the bottom picture showing the same block in 1925. 

With the opening of the bridge and new streetcar service, Brookland underwent a spurt of growth and became a true commuter neighborhood. In short, the Monroe Street bridge let Brookland grow up. 

This won’t be the first reconstruction of the bridge. That happened in 1931, when the bridge was widened from 30 feet to 50. It also underwent a major rehab in 1974. Let’s hope the District Department of Transportation’s reconstruction of the Monroe Street Bridge is done well enough to last another 100 years. 

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Reconstructed Monroe Street bridge rendering from DDOT. Click to link to their page.

All the maps in this post are from the Library of Congress, including this 1913 Baist real estate map showing the finished bridge and Monroe Street extension.

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© Robert Malesky 2016