SILVER SPRING – Fifty neighbors of the 100-year-old Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring said goodbye to the deteriorating one-lane wooden structure that once was the only way for African Americans to get to work and shop.
“I called it our lifeline to civilization,” Charlotte Coffield said during the respectful June 3 candlelight vigil.
Coffield, who will turn 86 this month, recalled how she used to cross the bridge and then walk several blocks to Georgia Avenue, where she then took public transportation.
Lyttonsville was an all-black enclave in Silver Spring founded in the 1850s by Samuel Lytton, a freed slave. All normal amenities and services were located in the nearby whites-only section of the town.
Coffield has lived in Lyttonsville all her life — the third of five generations of her family to call Lyttonsville home and the bridge played a huge role in her family’s everyday life, she said.
“I’ve traveled a lot, but my roots are deep here. My grandfather helped us get the two-room schoolhouse,” she attended in Lyttonsville, Coffield noted.
The bridge closed to vehicular traffic in May 2017 due to safety concerns. It has remained open for pedestrians and bicyclists, but now is blocked off completely as of June 4.
Crews already have begun disassembling the guardrail leading up to the bridge. The next step is to build the crane mat, which will be followed by the actual demolition, according to John Undeland, a spokesperson for Purple Line Transit Partners.
Details for the new bridge still are being finalized, he said.
Under the proposal, the bridge will open in 2020 and will be made of steel and concrete. It will be aligned differently to make the turns more gradual than the current bridge, thereby improving sight-lines for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
It will be wider and longer, to span over the new two Purple Line tracks. The current bridge is 18-feet wide. The new one will be 45 to 55 feet wide and will allow for two lanes of traffic with a sidewalk.
When Patricia Tyson was young, she often crossed the bridge to get to Georgia Avenue.
“This was a two-lane bridge. The boards rattled and made a lot of noise,” she said.
For several years, Tyson, along with others, tried to get the county to repair the bridge that rose over the CSX tracks. “The county never paid any attention to us. They just waited for it to fall down,” she said.
Rev. Ella Redfield recalled living in Lyttonsville during the days of Jim Crow, when laws mandated that African American and White people led separate lives.
The bridge connected her and her neighbors to a grocery and other stores, and the houses they were permitted to clean but not live in.
“It brought us into the larger Silver Spring community where we did business,” Redfield said.
To go into Washington, D.C., her family would cross the bridge and walk several blocks to Georgia Avenue, the nearest public transportation to their homes.
Several people at the vigil recalled taking the bus on Georgia to get to a movie theater, hospital and other places that welcomed people of color.
Anna White, who lives a block from the bridge, moved to the North Woodside area about 10 years ago. It was an all-white community many years ago.
“Like a lot of people who lived here, I did not know the history of the bridge,” she said.
When she first moved to North Woodside, she was attracted to “the quaint bridge” immediately and enjoyed hearing the “bump, bump, bump” noise of crossing it. When her son was young, he loved watching the trains and even dressed as a train for Halloween two years in a row, she recalled.
“Now that we know the history, the bridge has become more meaningful. It once divided us, and now it has brought us together,” she said of the biracial group attending the evening candlelight vigil.
She was one of several neighbors who coordinated the vigil. Many attendees signed a goodbye poster, which they planned to leave for the demolition crew.
“It’s a historic occasion. I wanted to be here,” said Janie Newhagen, who found out about the bridge only recently.
Neighbors had tried to have the bridge relocated and saved for historic reasons, but it was deemed in too poor a condition and too expensive to do so.
However, some of the large girders that formed the framework of the bridge will be relocated along the Capital Crescent Trail. Those girders weigh 11,000 pounds, said White.