Work on the Marshall Street viaduct, 1970 Image courtsey of the Valentine Richmond History Center
Smiles and noble sentiments greeted the Sept. 17, 1976, dedication of the six-lane expressway-style Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge in Richmond's East End. As per period tradition, a Model T driven by irrepressible booster Henry R. Gonner of the Central Richmond Association went across first. State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, who'd pushed for the bridge, attended the ceremony, as did Mayor Thomas J. Bliley Jr. Vice Mayor Henry L. Marsh III remarked that the span linking the majority-black East End with downtown was "symbolic of the kind of unity Dr. King talked of and worked for and is [a] symbolic beginning for Richmond."
The MLK symbolized Richmond for other, less lofty reasons, too. The bridge, which replaced the notable Marshall Street Viaduct (1911-1973), saw its original plan for four lanes get expanded to six, the cost bloated to nine times the original projected price tag, and two workers died during construction. The agenda behind the bridge's lane growth — adding a crosstown expressway to further hem in public-housing projects — was halted by community organizers and historic preservationists.
Among the spectators in 1976 was Mrs. C.L. Hite, who on Feb. 12, 1911, as 20-year-old Ida Anderson, had greeted the opening of the Marshall Street Viaduct. The metal and wood structure stood atop 90-foot-high steel supports and stretched a half mile from College and Marshall streets, through the present Massey Cancer Center, to Marshall and 21st streets at Jefferson Park.
Anderson bought new spring clothes for the event and stood in line with a friend awaiting the official opening from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Church Hill end. "I can still see the scissors and the sun glistening on them when they cut the ribbon," Hite recalled. "My girl friend and I took off … and were the first ones across it." She added, "That bridge meant a lot to us on Church Hill. It was hard walking to town up Broad Street hill."
Planners hadn't taken into account that the viaduct ran above the yard of the city jail. This led to the installation of screens to prevent passersby from dropping contraband into waiting arms.
An early tiered toll system included horses and cattle at four cents a head; a two-seat automobile, five cents, or 10 cents for more than two seats; wheelbarrows and pushcarts, two cents. Tolls ceased on Aug. 30, 1935, as fees from the then-tolled Lee Bridge went toward viaduct maintenance. A streetcar line operated across the span. An elevator brought passengers transferring from 18th Street to the viaduct. The ride cost five cents. The elevator in 1947 made 389 trips a day, but the final ascent occurred on Nov. 14, 1948. The trolley tracks came up in 1952.
The construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, which destroyed hundreds of houses in Jackson Ward and Navy Hill, dumped earth and rubble onto Shockoe Valley, over the site of the Burial Ground foNegroes and the old jail, and surrounded the concrete cofferdams designed to protect the viaduct's supports.
Deferred maintenance underscored the viaduct's later history. In 1966, the city contemplated a $2.9 million four-lane replacement, but it wasn't budgeted. By 1970, every day after the morning rush, city inspector
G. Craig Wingfield walked across looking for deterioration. On Oct. 22, 1970, New York City consulting engineers Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas urged an immediate closure to traffic.
East Enders castigated the city for delaying the viaduct's repair while knowing its condition. Wilder deplored Richmond's "short-sightedness," noting that a new viaduct should've been "a priority item for some time." Curtis Holt Sr., president of the Creighton Court Civic Association, described the closing as "another iron chain put against the poor people."
City officials had two options. One was to spend $450,000 (about $2.5 million in today's dollars) to repair the viaduct by narrowing the four-lane bridge to two lanes to accommodate pedestrians, leaving two lanes for vehicles moving no faster than 20 mph. The officials decided, however, to follow the suggestion of engineers and build a new bridge for $5.5 million ($32.5 million in 2012). The project ultimately cost $26,328,200 ($136 million today), though due to federal and state funding, the city had to kick in only 15 percent of the total.
That was just the money.
On the morning of March 17, 1976, a scaffold holding workers painting the underside of the bridge broke, dropping three men 68 feet. Dead were Benjamin Hardwich, 35, of South Boston, and James Pollard, 22, of Newport News. James Steven Lindsey, 21, of Clarksville, sustained broken fingers, wrists, arms and jaw. A year and a half earlier, Colonial Heights ironworker Robert Rhodes, 29, had plummeted in darkness 10 feet into the bottom of a V-shaped beam. He broke no bones, the Times-Dispatch reported.
Meanwhile, the Church Hill Area Revitalization Team (CHART), a group endeavoring to guide an equitable rehabilitation of Church Hill, learned of a long-standing city-state plan to run a six-lane divided highway from Eastern Henrico County through Church Hill and into what remained of Jackson Ward that I-95's construction hadn't taken.
The Rev. Ben Campbell, author of the recent Richmond's Unhealed History, worked in CHART with activist James Elam. Campbell writes of residents' surprise at the extent and size of the "Leigh Street Viaduct." He writes, "Strangely, the bridge ended in Church Hill in a confused network of narrow cobblestone streets." He adds, "Richmond's five major public housing projects would thus be completely fenced in by limited-access superhighways."
The national historic landmark of the Maggie L. Walker House sat in the middle of the planned route's western end. This and the lack of African-American support on City Council halted the highway, which Campbell described in his book as the "artifact of white control and the supremacy of state government over the city."
Late in 2011, following an East End public design forum, a proposal was made for the bridge to undergo lane shrinkage in order to allow greater access for bicyclists and pedestrians