Washington’s First Traffic Jam: Some Things Never Change – Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Courtesy of the Washington Post

The traffic was coming from all sides, squeezing together, trying to get onto the bridge. Caught in the middle was the president’s limousine, pinched so tightly that its wheel hubs scraped the cars on either side.

Three times, the Secret Service pulled the limousine off the road and took the president and first lady on a hair-raising ride across the bumpy fields of Potomac Park, desperate to find some way around the 3,000 vehicles that had slowed to a stop on the roads and bridges between the District and Arlington.

Washington experienced its first major traffic jam November 11, 1921, a three-hour affair that left the city buzzing for days.

The idea that cars — which were rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly line offering the promise of freedom and mobility — could sputter to a stop and essentially imprison their occupants was a stunning revelation.

“In so many cases, there are previews of the future,” notes Bob Marbourg, WTOP radio’s longtime traffic reporter, “and we don’t grasp their significance until we look in the rear-view mirror.”

Several women stuck in the 1921 jam fainted, according to newspaper accounts.

“President Harding has traveled many miles in automobiles in this city and in other cities and over country roads and mountain passes, but he never before experienced anything like the ride yesterday,” the Washington Star reported in its front-page story.

In true Washington form, a investigation was immediately launched.

Certainly, there had been smaller traffic knots since the first automobile rattled down a Washington street in 1897. But this was the first time that red brake lights stretched for miles and thousands of people steamed in their cars, unable to move forward or turn back. It was a precursor to thousands of traffic tie-ups that have come to flavor life in metropolitan Washington. The region usually places near the top of annual rankings of the most congested areas in the country, and some Washingtonians take a perverse pride in considering their traffic quality as nearly equal to the legendary logjam of Los Angeles. The term “rush hour” is antiquated; today the morning and evening rush period lasts a combined six hours.

The first massive tie-up took place on Armistice Day, as a procession of national and foreign leaders led by President Warren G. Harding headed from the U.S. Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery to bury the Unknown Soldier.

“In Washington we have a long history of traffic resulting from special events,” said Justin McNaull, spokesman for AAA, “and from not-so-special events.”

At the time, there were just two ways to reach Arlington from the District — over the Aqueduct Bridge, a forerunner of the Key Bridge, or across the Highway Bridge, predecessor to the 14th Street bridge.

As the procession moved across the Potomac River toward the cemetery, Arlington became so crowded, it couldn’t absorb additional vehicles. The concept of parking lots hadn’t yet taken hold — after the cars filled fields surrounding the cemetery, there was no place for the remainder to go. Traffic on both narrow spans just stopped, backing up cars, Army trucks and a half-dozen sightseeing buses onto District roads. Some electric cars stalled and could not be restarted, further complicating the mess.

“It was simply a case of the dead stoppage of vehicles from the cemetery grounds clear to the District of Columbia, brought about by congestion of the roadways and parking space in the vicinity of the cemetery,” the police superintendent, Major Henry L. Gessford, wrote in his report about the incident.

Some, including Secretary of State Charles Hughes, abandoned their cars, walked across the Highway Bridge and hitched a ride to the cemetery. Others, stuck near the Aqueduct Bridge, borrowed canoes from Georgetown boat houses and paddled across the river.

The president’s motorcade — his limousine, several motorcycle police, one car of Secret Service agents and two cars of local detectives — fought its way across the Highway Bridge after stopping an estimated 50 times. Harding reached the cemetery moments before he was to begin the noon ceremony, and he was not, it was said, in a good mood.

“It is understood that the President more than once during the journey expressed himself very forcibly regarding the confusion,” the Washington Star reported the next day.

The ride home wasn’t much better. Many people didn’t reach the District until 6 p.m., even though the ceremony ended at 1:30.

The police blamed the Army, which was in charge of the Armistice Day program, and the Army blamed the police.

The public focused on Gessford, the police superintendent, as the chief villain after learning he had assigned only three police officers to traffic control. (Mechanical signals weren’t installed in the District until 1925.) Ridiculed in newspaper editorials, Gessford resigned within weeks. Years later, his obituary said the calamity caused an immediate breakdown in his health.

The traffic crush persists today despite decades of technological advances that allowphysicists in Los Alamos, N.M., to forecast Washington highway congestion and a motorist in Vienna to watch the traffic flow on Route 66 from a home computer.

Washington was a relatively affluent town in 1921, filled with federal workers earning stable incomes who could afford automobiles, said Joseph Passonneau, a local transportation consultant. With the price of a Model T under $500, about 19,000 vehicles were registered that year, city records show.

Sightseers could visit Mount Vernon by taking the ferry at Seventh Street to Alexandria and then
transferring to the inter-urban trolley. Courtesy of Stephen Patrick, Arlington, whose great-aunt Effie Davis used this schedule.

Until then, commuters could either ride the streetcars that crisscrossed the city or venture out on bicycles, which were used for transportation, not recreation, at the turn of the 20th century. The automobile was more private than the former and more comfortable than the latter.

Also, Washington’s layout seemed to invite cars. “L’Enfant’s avenues created extraordinary space to stuff all these cars into the city,” Passonneau said. More cars entered Washington daily in 1930 than enter the Chicago Loop today, he said.

In the ’20s, cars clogged Pennsylvania Avenue, cutting off the electric streetcars and squeezing out the few remaining horse-drawn vehicles. Automobiles were haphazardly parked throughout the city; the Mall was used as a massive parking lot.

Despite the replacement of streetcars with an extensive bus network, the creation of the hugely popular Metro subway system and the development of two commuter railroads, the majority of people who live and work in the region today remain loyal to the private automobile.

Now, about 80,000 vehicles pour into downtown Washington during the peak of the morning commute — more than any other part of the country except downtown Manhattan, Passonneau said.

Shortly after the Armistice Day traffic jam, Congress approved money to begin work on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which would provide a direct link between the Lincoln Memorial and the Lee Mansion in Arlington, now at the heart of the cemetery. The idea to build such a bridge had been floating around for nearly a century, since Andrew Jackson suggested it as a symbolic link between North and South. It took the traffic jam to get the project moving.

“The speed of action is part of the quaintness of the story,” said Dan Tangherlini, the District’s acting transportation director. “A traffic jam was a new, scary thing that required action.”

Memorial Bridge was designed to handle traffic: It was 20 feet wider than the other 40-foot bridges of the day. It opened in 1932 and instantly became the grandest of Washington’s river crossings.

Made from steel, with a covering of North Carolina granite, the bridge ends in 35-foot pylons topped with eight-foot sculpted eagles on the Arlington side. On the Washington end, the pylons are adorned with sparkling gold figures cast in Italy as a gift from that country.

Arlington Cemetery, just off the bridge, now has parking spaces for 585 cars and 42 buses and a Metro station that disgorges 2,341 passengers on an average weekday. The last time a president visited the Tomb of the Unknowns, as President Bush did on Memorial Day 2001, his 3 1/2-mile trip from the White House took less than 10 minutes.

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