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Battle of the Three Sisters Bridge: 1969 | by Washington Area Spark
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Battle of the Three Sisters Bridge: 1969

Police lead a bloodied protester away after a battle with police near the site of the Three Sisters Island Bridge near Foxhall Road and Canal Road NW Washington, D.C. October 20, 1969.


Nine were arrested after a portion of the crowd of 150 tried to outflank police and rushed toward the riverside construction site.


Shouting “Free D.C., Free D.C.,” the demonstrators descended the steep side of the towpath toward the Potomac River.


Police rushed to meet them freely swinging their nightclubs. The protesters re-grouped at the towpath and began raining stones down on the police.


A leader of the protesters, William Treanor, said, “We’re not going to protest construction of the bridge, we’re going to stop construction of the bridge.” He was later arrested for using a voice amplifier without a permit.


Opposition to the bridge was composed of a diverse, but unwieldy coalition that included neighborhood associations, Students for a Democratic Society, Student Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, preservationists, environmentalists and African American activists.


The bridge was intended to connect Route 66 in Virginia with a D.C highway system that included a north leg that would have displaced thousands of African Americans in the Cardozo and Shaw areas and divided their neighborhoods as it connected with what is now both I-95 and I-270.


This demonstration marked the latest in a series of protests at the bridge site.


Protesters attempted to occupy the Three Sisters islets to prevent construction, and numerous rallies (some with as many as 500 people) were held at the likely construction site to protest the decision.


The demonstrations and civil disobedience did not stop the construction but galvanized public opinion against the bridge project.


Bridge foes and the city sponsored an unofficial referendum on the project, which was placed on the November 4, 1969, general election ballot. The bridge was opposed by 85 percent of voters in the city. The day before the election, construction trailers at the construction site were firebombed.


The larger fight was over whether to spend funds on more freeways or to build the Washington, D.C. Metro system.


The residents of the greater Washington area overwhelmingly supported Metro while congressional leaders, particularly William Natcher (D-Ky.), who as chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for the District of Columbia of the House Committee on Appropriations blocked Metro construction funds and insisted on building highways.


Natcher was a key ally of the highway construction lobby.


A series of court actions and opposition from local bodies consistently delayed Natcher’s freeway plans and Natcher in turn blocked Metro construction funds.


After years of delay, Metro proponents finally out-maneuvered Natcher with the help of President Richard Nixon. The House voted in 196 to 183 with a significant number of Republicans joining Democrats to defeat Natcher and release Metro construction funds.


The Three Sisters Bridge and the Center Leg Freeway died many deaths and were resurrected many times.


Hurricane Agnes washed away the partially finished piers that had been built in 1972.


Finally in 1976, Virginia altered the route of I-66 due to opposition from residents of Arlington County. The route made construction of the Three Sisters Bridge moot.


Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. agreed that, if DOT approved the route change, he would transfer Virginia's share of the bridge construction funds ($30 million) to Metro construction. The change was approved in July 1976, leaving no funds for the construction of the bridge.


In May 1977, the Department of Transportation permitted the District of Columbia to remove the Three Sisters Bridge from its formal master transportation plan. Noting that the bridge was "killed" yet again, the Washington Post said, "This time it looks unusually permanent."


The result of the more than 10-year fight against the proposed freeway system for the District was the building of the Washington Metrorail system.


The faltering and ultimately dissipation of the broad-based coalition that led to building the Metro is one of the reasons that the city’s rail system was denied sufficient capital funds to overhaul the system as it aged while multi-billion dollar projects like Beltway widening, a new Wilson Bridge, a new Springfield interchange and other major highway projects moved forward in recent decades.


For more information and related images, see


Photo by Joseph Silverman. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

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Taken on October 20, 1969