Chain Bridge Notes

Reference in C&O Canal Companion: Mile 4.2

An unusual 1839 illustration of one of the true "chain bridges" at Little Falls,
by Augustus Kollner, showing the warehouses at Pimmit Run.
(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, LC-USZ61-1344)

Added to Mile 4.2 in Updated Edition:

A pedestrian ramp leads up to the latest incarnation of Chain Bridge, which marks the head of navigation on the Potomac. The passage cut by Pimmit Run on the Virginia side also made this an important crossing-point for traffic to Leesburg. A tobacco inspection warehouse was built on the Virginia side in 1742, followed by a grist mill, brewery, distillery, cooper, and blacksmith shops.


The first bridge over Little Falls opened to traffic on July 3, 1797. On the 19th of that month George Washington used it for the first time, and is said to have complained that the toll was so high that he should have taken the ferry over to Georgetown instead.


The low-slung modern version was built after the catastrophic flood of 1936. Finished in 1939, it bears little resemblance to its predecessors, though it sits on piers that date back to the 1870s.


Scott's reprieve was short-lived, but he died bravely next spring at the battle of Lee's Mill during the Peninsula Campaign, April 16, 1862.


To be added

Mile 4.2:

First Land Patent and the tobacco warehouse. Thomas Lee had the foresight to patent the land here in 1719, some 32 years before Georgetown was formally established. At the time, he was acting as the resident Northern Neck agent for Lady Culpeper, having replaced Robert "King" Carter in 1711 at the tender age of 21. Lee's days as the chief superintendent of the Northern Neck ended with Lady Culpeper's death in 1719, when the Northern Neck passed on to her son, the 6th Lord Fairfax. Like Carter, though, Lee profited quite handsomely in representing the proprietress--he ended up accumulating 16,000 acres of land upriver, much of it between Great Falls and Little Falls. Although Thomas Lee encouraged settlement around the falls of the Potomac, he chose a place called the Clifts for his stately home of Stratford Hall, which is perhaps best known today as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

In 1742 the General Assembly of Virginia authorized numerous "public warehouses for the inspection of tobacco," including one "on the lands of the Honorable Thomas Lee, Esquire, at the Falls of the Patowmack." Thomas Lee would soon be outdone in entrepreneurial exploits by his distant relation, Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, who tried to start a small industrial village at Great Falls called Matildaville, and purchased tracts of land rich in iron ore at Point of Rocks and Elk Run. (See Structures>Water Industry>Ironworking in the C&O Canal Companion.)


Additional Notes

During one of his inspections of the falls for the Patowmack Company in 1785, George Washington stayed overnight at the house of Lewis Hipkins near the tobacco warehouse. See entry for September 22, 1785, with annotation by editors in the The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 4. Donald Jackson, and Dorothy Twohig, eds. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. [George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress]

Sleeping sentinel. For background on the popularity of the story of "the sleeping sentinel," see Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson (pages 102-103 and 243-244). The most thorough analysis of the historical basis for the story is found in Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont, by Waldo Glover.

An excellent recent discussion is found in the introduction to Thomas P. Lowry's Don't Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice. Lowry also discusses sleeping sentinel cases in general in Chapter 14 of the book, and concludes that 1,922 men were tried for sleeping on duty, 78 received death sentences, and that it appears from available records that "Lincoln spared the life of every man who was found asleep on duty as a sentry, guard, picket, or sentinel."

In Civil War Justice, Robert I. Alotta lists nine Union soldiers executed in 1861, out of at least 275 known executions over the course of the war. At the time of Scott's court-martial, two soldiers had been executed for murder and one for mutiny. Alotta's listing indicates that soldiers were most commonly executed for murder, mutiny, rape, "quitting post to plunder and pillage," and desertion. He also raises questions about the fairness of military justice during the Civil War, pointing out that disproportionate numbers of foreign-born and black soldiers were sentenced to death.

Chronology of the Bridges at Little Falls

(Bridges 1-2) The "bridge at Little Falls," as it was first known, was an important link between the fledgling city of Georgetown and the produce of Loudoun County. The first bridge was being completed when Washington noted on June 26, 1797:

"The Public buildings in the Federal City go on well ... An elegant bridge is thrown over the Potomack at the little Falls, and the navigation of the River above will be completed, nearly, this season; through which an immensity of Produce must flow to the Shipping Ports thereon."

The bridge was opened July 3 of 1797, and George Washington's diary notes for July 19th of that month:
"Went [from the Federal City] by the bridge at the little falls to the Gt. Falls & returned home in the afternoon."

Text from: George Washington to David Humphreys, June 26, 1797,
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799.
John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.--vol. 35.
Library of Congress American Memory Web site

The architect Benjamin Latrobe depicted it as a single arching span over the Potomac, resting on two high abutments, with two more piers standing on the floodplain. ("Bridge at the Little Falls of the Potomac River, above Georgetown," watercolor in the possession of the Maryland Historical Society.)

The first bridge rotted and collapsed in 1804. Its immediate successor, of similar construction, burned six months after its completion.


(Bridges 3-5) It wasn't until four years later that another bridge was completed at this site. The "Chain Bridge" was built in 1808 -- it was the third bridge at Little Falls, but the first to use chain suspension support. It was destroyed by flood in 1810.

The fourth bridge used similar construction but was severly damaged by floods in 1815, prompting the company to seek federal support. This bridge was replaced in 1840 by a new bridge built of chain and wood.


(Bridge 6) In the 1850s, the bridge was rebuilt as a wooden truss bridge, resembling the Aqueduct Bridge and the Long Bridge downstream. During the Civil War, this important approach to the capital was closely guarded by Union forces.



(Bridges 7-8) After the truss bridge was swept away in the 1870 flood, a new lightweight iron truss bridge was erected in 1872-74. This bridge was durable but proved inadequate for the automobile traffic of the 20th Century. Weight and speed restrictions on traffic were imposed in 1927, and the bridge finally had to be closed after the record flood of 1936. The bridge was redesigned as a continuous steel girder structure and work was completed in 1939. Most of the stonework for the bridge piers, however, dates back to the 1850s or 1870s construction (there's some ambiguity as to which).


Dates based on discussion of Chain Bridge in:
  • Bridges and the City of Washington, Donald Beekman Myer, AIA, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, DC., 1974
  • Civil Engineering Landmarks of the Nation's Capital, edited by Gary A. Borch and Steven M. Pennington, for The Committee on History and Heritage of the National Capital Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington, DC 1982

Other Sources:

  • The Lees of Virginia, Seven Generations of an American Family, Paul C. Nagel, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990. [Thomas Lee's activities as land agent for the Northern Neck proprietry are discussed on pages 31 and 34-36.]
  • For licensing of warehouse at Pimmit Run in 1742, see Volume 5 of the Statutes at Large of Virginia, compiled by William Waller Henings.
  • Virginia Baron, The Story of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax, by Stuart E. Brown, Jr., Chesapeake Book Company, Berryville, Virginia, 1965.
  • Diary of My Travels in America, Louis Philippe, King of France, 1830-1848, Translated by Stephen Becker, published by Delacorte Press, New York, NY, 1977. [Translated from Journal de Mon Voyage d'Amerique, published by Librairie Ernest Flammarion in 1976--includes a helpful description of the first bridge as it was nearing completion on April 4, 1797, as well as mentioning the locks for the skirting canal.)
  • Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont, by Waldo Glover, published by The Vermont Historical Society in 1936 and reprinted in 1998.
  • Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Don't Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice, Thomas P. Lowry, Savas Publishing Company, 1999.
  • Civil War Justice, Union Army Executions under Lincoln, Robert I. Alotta, White Mane Publishing Co., 1999.
  • Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, White Mane Publishing Company, 1988. [Detailed and profusely illustrated--discusses Fort Ethan Allen and Fort Marcy along the Virginia approaches to the bridge, as well as the works on the north side of the river.]

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