The Opening of the Michigan Avenue Viaduct

Anyone who has ever walked across a set of railroad tracks and felt the rumbling of an approaching train knows grade crossings can be dangerous. That’s why the Michigan Park Citizens Association, starting in the mid-1920s, agitated for more than a decade to get a bridge built over the railroad tracks at Michigan Avenue. 

A 1926 photo looking west up Michigan Avenue. The tracks are difficult to see, but they cross just beyond the first tall utility pole on the left. If you enlarge the picture you can see the striped signal gates. Beyond the tracks on the right is Catholic University’s Maloney Hall, with other school buildings past it. Historical Society of Washington.

Over that time a number of bills authorizing construction were brought forward but none made it through the municipal legislative process. It was the Depression, and funding was tight. By 1936 there were only two grade crossings left in DC, the one at Michigan Avenue, and one a half mile farther north at Bates Street. (That Bates street and its grade crossing no longer exist, but that’s another story.) 

Although there had been no deaths at the Michigan Avenue intersection, the Michigan Park Citizens Association pointed out the high number of accidents and close calls there, in addition to traffic tie-ups when freight trains rolled through. Finally construction was approved and on May 22, 1937, what was officially known as the Michigan Avenue Viaduct was ready to be dedicated. Plans were made, guests were invited, speakers and bands arranged for. But Washington weather decided to intervene. Here’s how the Washington Post described it:

Nearly 2,000 marchers, including school children, legionnaires and U.S. cavalrymen, swung up the avenue to be greeted at the very approach to the pass by a windstorm so strong it all but knocked a tuba player on his ear. Limbs from overhanging trees cut down across auto tops, and policemen went scampering for their caps. Then, as dignitaries approached the canopied speakers’ stand, the rain poured. Somehow the paraders vanished – no one afterward knew where. And about 1,000 Michigan Park and Brookland spectators ducked for nearby homes.

The rain finally let up enough for the program to continue, and then it was time to cut the ribbon. Five-year-old Lorraine Carhart had been assigned the task and she was ready, but the ribbon wasn’t. It had blown away in the windstorm. They found a small remnant and brought it under the canopy where a likely disgruntled little Lorraine finally cut it. John M. DeMarco of the Michigan Park Citizens Association then became the first person to drive over the new bridge.

The same view in 2014

It wasn’t until much later that the bridge was named for Dr. Charles R. Drew, the brilliant surgeon and medical researcher and father of former DC Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis. 

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