Old Long Bridge canes

The Old Long Bridge played an important role in the Civil War. It was the main route from Washington D.C. over the Potomac River to Virginia and as such, was the primary jumping off point for Union forces traveling southward.  It is estimated that a million men passed over it.

On February 8, 1808, the Washington Bridge Company was authorized by an Act of Congress to construct the “Long Bridge” as a toll crossing of the Potomac River. President Thomas Jefferson signed the authorization into law.

The bridge was designed as a timber pile structure with two draw spans to connect the western end of Maryland Ave. at the foot of 14th Street SW with the Virginia shore of our Nation’s Capital. Interestingly, the bridge’s name seems to have been derived from its planned size and not as a memorial to any particular individual.

On May 20, 1809, Long Bridge was opened to traffic. Five years later, on August 25, 1814, following their successful victory at the Battle of Bladensburg the previous day, the invading British, led by General Robert Ross, set fire to the north end of the Long Bridge as they entered our Nation’s Capital. Simultaneously, the American forces set fire to the south end of the bridge, now behind their rather hasty retreat into Virginia.

After the cessation of hostilities, the bridge was restored to service by 1816. On February 22, 1831, high water and ice carried away several spans of the Long Bridge.

In 1832 Congress purchased the bridge for $20,000 and quickly appropriated $60,000 for its repair and upgrading. Additional appropriations were necessary to bring the bridge up to full specifications.

Amid a great deal of pomp and ceremony, it was reopened by President Andrew Jackson and his Cabinet on October 30, 1835 who crossed the rebuilt structure to mark the momentous occasion.

Throughout its early 45-year history, only foot, horse and stagecoach traffic used the structure. This circumstance remained until the mid-1850’s, when a number of railroad lines were either operating or planning operation by the middle 1850’s.

With the outbreak of hostilities between North & South and Virginia’s May 23, 1861 secession from the Union, the Long Bridge now took on a new, added importance.

Alexandria was quickly occupied by the Union Army and the US Military RR and the bridge’s north and south shores were well guarded by Federal troops, ever vigilant for spies, infiltrators, contraband and of course, invasion. Let us remember that the White House, President Lincoln, the Capitol and the entire Federal Legislature were less than three miles from water’s edge.

Rails were now placed on the ancient, rickety bridge. It was quickly confirmed that the structure could not safely support the weight of locomotives and freight cars. Instead, lightly loaded railroad cars were transhipped across the mile-long structure, pulled by good old-fashioned horse power.

Not until 1863 was a new, stronger, parallel structure completed, one which could hold the weight of newer, heavier locomotives and freight cars.  This new bridge was constructed about 100′ down river and had two draw spans like its parallel predecessor. Both structures remained in use throughout the remainder of the Civil War.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, rather than performing a major and needed rebuild of the Long Bridge, “rip-rap” was dumped beside their piers, choking the openings and creating a partial dam, with predictable results.

Long Bridge was damaged by floods (freshets) in 1831, 1841, 1856, 1860, 1863, 1866, 1867, 1870, 1881, 1887 and by the same May 31, 1889 storms which caused the famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood.

Each and every time, Long Bridge was repaired and brought back to “reasonable” specifications.

By June 6, 1896, the Long Bridge was also taking passage of one of the newest rages in the country; for an interurban trolley line also crossed the Potomac River on this structure, sharing rights on the Pennsylvania RR controlled bridge.

This ancient, single-track, antiquated structure was now being tested to its thoroughly congested limits. No fewer than 250 trains of all classes were scheduled on a daily basis. It is recorded that there seemed to always be a train of some sort waiting to cross the river.

Some time after late 1906 the old, unsightly Long Bridge was demolished.

Silver plated brass (plate has worn off) cap stamped “Old Long Bridge.”
Above: A relic cane/walking stick made from Georgia pine, taken from the upper part of Old Long Bridge in 1907. Old Long Bridge was the main bridge from D.C. to Arlington, VA and was the primary jumping-off point for Union forces entering Virginia during the war. Old Long Bridge was demolished sometime after 1906, which is likely when this cane was made. 36 1/2″ long.

Long Bridge was an important historical structure that stood until 1907, when these canes were made. On page 176 of Catherine Dike’s book Canes in the United States” a brief history and background of Old Long Bridge canes is given, gleaned from an old newspaper flyer (see picture below), a sales offering before a GAR reunion at Gettysburg. About 4,000 canes were made from the timber of Old Long Bridge, some of oak and some of Georgia pine, many more of pine. The oak canes were made from the bridge piles and the pine canes from the upper part of the bridge. Many did not survive and they are uncommon today.

The above old brochure was a sales offering before a GAR reunion at Gettysburg. Printed on P. 176 of Catherine Dike’s book Canes in the United States is the old brochure along with history and background of Old Long Bridge canes. At the time Dike’s book was published, no known Old Long Bridge canes were in private hands, and noted one located at the Wisconsin Historical Society and one at the Vermont Historical Society. Although about 4,000 canes were made, many did not survive and they are uncommon today.
Old Long Bridge, Washington, D.C. ca. 1865.


1. http://www.dcnrhs.org/learn/washington-d-c-railroad-history/history-of-the-long-bridge.

2. Dike, Catherine, Canes in the United States, P. 176.

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