Sperryville’s little bridge, retired at 82

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Engineering plans, photos and more are included in this web-only sidebar compiled by Don Audette.

The Sperryville bridge has come to the end of its life. It was a brave little bridge. Day and night, for 82 years, it helped vehicles cross the south branch of the Thornton River at Sperryville. Cars, trucks with giant logs, pickup trucks, tractor-trailers, farm vehicles, bikers, gravel trucks, cement trucks, emergency vehicles, you name it. Only 60 feet long, it went unnoticed by most travelers. It gave its heart and soul to Sperryville. Brave little bridge, we will miss you.

It certainly arrived at a propitious time back in 1929. Construction of Lee Highway was fast approaching Sperryville from east and west. Lee Highway was meant to be the South’s counterpart to the Lincoln Highway. Both were transcontinental highways starting in New York City and ending in San Francisco. The vision for Lee Highway, from Washington, D.C. to New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, was that of a magnificent tree-lined, dual-lane boulevard, with flanking auxiliary roads at its sides for local traffic. It required a 200-foot right-of-way. (You can still see elements of the design near the beginning of Arlington Boulevard, U.S. Route 50, just outside of Washington, D.C.)

Back in the 1920s, it was expected that visitors from all over the western U.S. would approach the nation’s capital via Lee Highway, descending out of the Blue Ridge Mountains along a wide boulevard that eventually rose up over the hill at Fort Myer to reveal a spectacular vista laid out before them: the nation’s capital, from the new Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Mall, the White House and the Washington Monument, and the Capitol in the distance.

Lee Highway never lived up to its dream. Tight-fisted citizens along the way would not give up their land for a right-of-way, speculators and developers drove up prices and heated arguments arose about the route. In the end, Lee Highway was completed on a much smaller scale, but still significant for the times.

Rappahannock County was a laggard in this project. In a slick publication put out by the Lee Highway Association in 1926, describing the transcontinental highway in some detail, it notes a section east of Ben Venue, going toward Amissville, as follows: “This road is now under construction eastward to connect with the pavement west of Warrenton. This is one of the few gaps totaling 200 miles, which breaks the continuity of a transcontinental highway. The State has graded this section and keeps it in good condition. It is even now a very good road, except that it is slippery after rain.”

In Sperryville, Lee Highway followed Water Street and Main Street. How could Main Street – or especially Water Street – handle millions of potential visitors traveling to and from the West? Hence the building of the bypass of current U.S. 211, plus the Sperryville bridge to siphon off local traffic and make connections with Culpeper and Madison. Water Street and Main Street were thus saved by the Sperryville bridge from certain destruction. But, for a short time, they were part of Lee Highway.

There is not much known about the installation of the Sperryville bridge. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Highways (the forerunner of VDOT) had prepared a schematic of the proposed bridge, dated Nov. 19, 1928. It was built – as its nameplates proclaimed for more than 80 years – by the Roanoke Iron and Bridge Works, Inc., of Walnut Street SE, in Roanoke. The company was founded in Roanoke in 1915 and by 1930 had 236 employees. Since the Virginia Department of Transportation standardized metal truss bridge plans after 1909, there were 59 such bridges constructed in Virginia the 1920s. The Sperryville bridge was one of them: in place and on time.

But what of that unfinished portion of Lee Highway? It was a really sore point with the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. At a supervisors’ meeting on Nov. 7, 1929, the board passed a stern resolution to be sent to each member of the Virginia Highway Commission. It cited three facts – the Virginia General Assembly in 1922 created Lee Highway in memory of Gen. Robert E. Lee; the gap in the construction in Rappahannock County; and the imminent opening of the new Arlington Memorial Bridge in 1931 – and then got to the heart of the matter.

Virginia, it said, “ . . . is getting very adverse advertising by reason of the condition of this stretch of road which cannot be properly maintained owing to the present character of construction of this road and the heavy traffic on it. In fact, people outside of the state traveling over this road remark that Virginia has constructed no memorial to our great leader, if the road they are traveling over can be considered such a memorial.”

The Virginia Commissioner of Highways – Mr. Wade H. Massie of Rappahannock County – got the message. Improvements were made to complete the work on Lee Highway here. This work joined the new bypass. And the Sperryville bridge was ready for its future.

So long, little buddy.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.