Let’s talk about bridges and troubled water — an oil-slicked, burning creek
I grew up in Bethesda in the 1950s and 1960s and have many memories of the Great Falls of the Potomac. One of them nags at me because I’m not sure if it’s a false memory or not. Were there once wooden footbridges going out to the falls (before the ones washed away in 1972 by Hurricane Agnes), and did one of them collapse while people were on it, resulting in many casualties? I can find no mention of such an accident anywhere.
That said, I also clearly remember the fire at the petroleum storage depot on River Road in November 1958, which sent burning oil down Little Falls Creek and threatened to immolate an entire neighborhood. The fire incident was a big deal at the time but gets only a couple of notices in a Web search, so it is perhaps not surprising that the Great Falls incident (if it actually occurred) doesn’t turn up at all. Please excuse the morbid drift of this inquiry, which was triggered by all of the disaster coverage lately. — Martin Murphy, Richmond Memory is a tricky thing. Sometimes it seems that we can fabricate an entire memory out of half-remembered, or misremembered, scraps. Answer Man is not suggesting that’s the case here, but he could find no reference to a Great Falls bridge collapse. Nor could Karen Gray, a volunteer historian at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Perhaps the question-asker remembers a story from 1955, when cables supporting a footbridge over the Oconaluftee River on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina snapped, plunging 60 sightseers onto the rocks below and killing two women.
Of course, there have been many injuries and deaths over the years at Great Falls, mostly because of drownings in the roiling waters. Any footbridge violence has been done to the spans, not by them.
The first footbridge was built in 1880 by the owners of the nearby C&O Canal as a moneymaking scheme. Tourists could pay to traverse the bridge to get a closer look at the cataracts.
A flood destroyed the bridge the following year, the start of a common cycle.
In 1972, debris-choked floodwater from Hurricane Agnes scoured away the bridges. It was 20 years before they were rebuilt.
Five new footbridges — ranging from 31 to 100 feet long — were opened in 1992, allowing visitors to again reach Olmsted Island in the middle of the river. These bridges were designed with handrails that could be removed, so tree limbs and other bits of flotsam didn’t get stuck.
Winter flooding in 1996 damaged some of the bridges, but the 100-foot span to Olmsted Island survived.
As for the Great Fire of Little Falls Creek, Answer Man found plenty of fuel, so to speak. The fire broke out on Nov. 23, 1958, a Sunday evening.
“We all knew that if we ever got a call from Butler Road, we were in for it,” Joseph A. Giammatteo, chief of the Glen Echo Fire Department, recalled later to a Washington Post reporter.
That’s because Butler Road, off River Road between Little Falls Parkway and today’s Capital Crescent Trail, was home to three companies that stored fuel oil and gasoline.
The first call came in about 6:30 p.m. What had started as a small blaze — possibly from a cigarette or match tossed on the fuel-soaked ground — had grown big enough to melt the steel supports under a set of large storage tanks.
Five of the 20,000-gallon tanks buckled, shearing off their feeder lines and sending burning fuel oil into Little Falls Creek.
The creek became a river of flames 30 feet high. Smoke from the main fire rose to 3,500 feet and was reported by pilots landing at National Airport.
More than 200 firefighters responded to the blaze, some from as far away as Virginia. Their efforts were hampered by an estimated 10,000 spectators who gathered to watch the fire. When flame-suppressing foam ran out, more was dispatched from Andrews Air Force Base.
Seven firefighters were injured in the fire, which took four hours to knock down and consumed 225,000 gallons of oil owned by Colonial Fuel Oil. Spared was a 450,000-gallon tank. Robert W. Hook, a 24year-old firefighter, entered the flame area as colleagues covered him in foam from two streaming hoses. Hook was able to turn off a valve midway between the pump house and the tank.
“The kid saved the day,” Giammatteo told The Post. “If that tank had ever gone up, we’d never have gotten this fire out.”
Footbridges at Great Falls Park on the Potomac were roughed up by winter floods in 1996. The park had also taken damage decades earlier when Hurricane Agnes scoured the bridges away in 1972.
John Kelly's Washington