[ Panel 1]
"... in our midst exists one of the most imposing and wonderful structures which engineering skill could devise ..." —William T.S. Curtis, November 1, 1897, from a paper read before the Columbia Historical Society.
As late as the mid-19th century, Georgetown and Washington, D.C. lacked a plentiful and reliable source of safe drinking water and adequate water for fighting fires. In 1851 Congress commissioned studies to solve the city's water problem well into the future.
The brilliant young U.S. Army engineer, Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs (soon to be Captain and later General) conceived the plan for the Washington Aqueduct and supervised its construction. Completion of the Aqueduct 12 years later allowed delivery of nearly 100 million gallons of water each day to the nation's capital.
The building of the Washington Aqueduct was an internationally renowned engineering accomplishment. The crowning achievement and most celebrated aspect of the original Washington Aqueduct is the Cabin John Bridge, also known as the Union Arch Bridge, has supplied drinking water to the city of Washington since 1863.
Building the Cabin John Bridge.
"During the striking of the center the closest instrumental observation failed to discover the slightest settlement in this, the largest stone arch in the world, 220 feet in span." —M. C. Meigs in his final report, September 30, 1861.
To transport materials to the bridge site, a dam was built on Cabin John Creek below the bridge location, and the resulting pool was connected by a lock to the C&O Canal, 1,000 feet to the south. Materials were loaded on canal barges, either at Georgetown or at the Seneca Quarry to the west, and the barges were floated to a point beneath the bridge. A heavy timber trestle supported derricks and a traveling crane which was used to hoist the timbers and stone into place. A center arch of timbers supported the masonry during construction. The cut stone arch of Quincy granite, transported by ship from Massachusetts, was "keyed" on December 4th 1858. The centering structure was removed on August 12th 1861 when spandrel arches were nearly completed and the maximum load was resting on the granite arch.
These three panels were prepared by Gerald Quinn with the support of the Cabin John Citizens Association and a grant from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center (Montgomery County Government). The panels are based in part on prior work done by Mr. Quinn and Peter Vogt, both Cabin John residents. The steel base of the display, which reflects the graceful curve of the bridge itself, was designed by Mr. Quinn and constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers-Washington Aqueduct Division. The effort by the local community, Montgomery County, and the Army celebrates this important engineering feat, and also celebrates the important role of the bridge in the history and culture of Cabin John, Glen Echo, and our nation's capital.
November 17, 2001;
Completion of the Cabin John Bridge Restoration.
[ Panel 2 ]
"The best scenery lies beyond the city, especially in the neighborhood of Cabin John Creek . . ." Report of the McMillan Commission, 1902.
In the late 19th century the scenery and climate were so renowned that people traveled from distant points seeking the serenity and pleasures that Cabin John offered. They came for the fishing and to view the largest stone arch in the world, an engineering marvel by the standards of any era. They came to spend a few days at the opulent Cabin John Bridge Hotel, enjoying some relief from Washington's malarial summers. The rhododendron-filled valley of the Cabin John attracted bird-watchers from around the world. Then, as now, Cabin John was a destination for bicyclists taking advantage of the flat and relatively smooth Conduit Road along the palisades. But before that, people came here to work. They came in the 1820s to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the new nation's most ambitious public works project. The area we now call Cabin John was known to the canal builders and boatmen as "Seven Locks." In the 1850s when the city of Washington needed a secure source of fresh water, U.S. Army engineers came here to build the Union Arch to carry an aqueduct across the deep Cabin John Creek valley.
These two unprecedented engineering projects-the canal and the aqueduct-first defined Cabin John as a distinct location, and the hotel became the first outpost in the development that landed us here in Cabin John today.
The place where you now stand as shown in a 1917 map [above]. The hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1931, and part of the creek valley was paved over in the 1960s. The Cabin John Bridge still supplies water to the city, and the C&O Canal is now a National Park.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
There are more switch locks in the vicinity of Cabin John than any place else in the 185-mile waterway. The canal rises high above the river here to lift the canal to the level of an old streambed. The concentration of locks created a community of lockkeepers and center of activity along this stretch of the canal. Seven Locks Road linked local farms and commerce to the canal.
The Canal is accessible by a footpath that begins near the opposite side of the Cabin John Bridge.
The Cabin John Bridge.
Also called the Union Arch Bridge, it is a landmark of engineering achievement. It encloses a ten-foot diameter brick aqueduct that has supplied drinking water to the city of Washington since 1863. When completed, it was the longest stone arch in the world. Employing the same basic technology as Roman aqueducts, the Union Arch will outlast most of the "permanent" structures in service today.
The image above is a detail of the china pattern used at the Cabin John Bridge Hotel.
The Cabin John Bridge Hotel.
The Bobinger brothers' hotel was very nearly as fanciful as the advertising illustration, above. The hotel was located on the site of the Cabin John Gardens community (named for the extensive gardens of the hotel), about fifty feet from where you now stand. The hotel emerged as a palace of the Gilded Age, then declined and became a casualty of Prohibition and changed styles. It was destroyed by a fire in 1931.
[ Panel 3 ]
". . . an extravagant expression of Victorian romanticism."
Guests at the Bobinger brothers' Cabin John Hotel entered the grounds by way of an ornate iron foot bridge crossing Cabin John Creek and ascended along manicured paths to the garden entrance shown here. The place was extravagant in every way, even by the standards of its era. Gazebos and summer cottages were scattered along wooded paths. Forty acres of lawns overlooked the river and creek valleys. There were ballrooms with gilded ceilings. Many of the furnishings were imported from Europe, including beveled windows and stained glass. A complex of utility buildings included an ice house, smoke house, dairy, stables, and the only surviving structure, a gas house where acetylene was made for lighting. There were extensive vegetable gardens, and fish pens on the creek that supplied fresh bass. At a bandstand on the lawn, John Philip Sousa and his band first performed the "Washington Post March" at a party for the newspaper's staff.
The story of the Cabin John Bridge Hotel began when Joseph Bobinger came to America from Alsace-Lorraine and found work as a stone mason on the Washington Aqueduct. His wife, Rosa, began preparing dinners each day for her husband's chums and some of the engineers as well. Mrs. Bobinger soon opened a stand at a renovated construction shed beside the bridge where she sold cigars, snuff, candles, drinks, and pies.
In 1870, after the aqueduct was completed, the Bobingers bought one hundred acres and built the central part of their wooden hotel, modeled after a German tavern and painted a creamy yellow. As business prospered, the inn grew turrets, porches and gingerbread scrollwork.
The hotel had forty guest rooms, and space for a hundred dinners in each of its splendid banquet halls. There were several private dining rooms, two parlors, two bars, a barber shop, and a pool hall. At one time the hotel employed seventeen bartenders and forty waiters. Joseph and Rosa's fine food and hospitality attracted an illustrious clientele and a stream of guests even before trolley cars made Cabin John easily accessible.
When electricity arrived with the streetcar line, a thousand electric lights glowed among the trees. The Bobingers added a narrow lover's lane bridge over the canal and later an iron bridge over the creek for trolley passengers. Its arches sparkled with five hundred colored lights.
On the garden side of the hotel they built a huge octagonal "Orchestrion," a powered band organ the used rolls of punched paper to create the sounds of an orchestra. The music could be heard throughout the grounds.
The cool breezes, broad verandas, and the noble Cabin John Bridge brought out the crowds from the city, first by horse and buggy or bicycles, and later by trolley or automobile.
When the trolley came to Cabin John it brought huge weekend crowds. The Bobingers built a theater and a small amusement park and added slot machines. But it was the food that brought the customers back. The Bobinger's made their own bakery goods, and offered fine wines from their well-stocked cellar. Some of the wines came from the vineyards in the valley of the Cabin John Creek. Joseph Bobinger died in May 1881. Left with two small boys, Rosa operated the hotel until her death in 1893, at which time her sons, George and William took over.
After his brother's death, William ran the hotel through both its best and then its declining years when Prohibition cut deeply into the business and more modern attractions drew customers away. He was one of the first in the area to show motion pictures, but business continued to decline. In 1914 he leased out the hotel, and others ran it until his death in 1926 when the hotel closed.
On the night of April 7, 1931, the uninsured hotel burned, still full of antiques, silver, china and glass and its guest register full of the autographs of many prominent and famous guests. The small brick gas house next to the Cabin John tennis courts is all that remains today of the grand and luxurious Cabin John Bridge Hotel.
(Adapted from Bethesda, a Social History by William Offut.)