There is no question that the bridge carrying Talbot Avenue over the CSX Railroad tracks in Silver Spring, Maryland, is historic. Two Maryland state agencies, the Montgomery County Planning Department, and the Federal Transit Administration all agree that the small bridge has historic merit and is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The agencies also agree that the bridge needs to be replaced to accommodate construction of a new light rail line connecting suburban Washington, D.C., communities. But do the agencies understand why the Talbot Avenue Bridge is historically significant?
Built in 1918 by the B&O Railroad, the bridge carries automobile, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic over the railroad now owned and operated by CSX. The bridge connects the historically African-American Lyttonsville community with early twentieth century residential subdivisions established on the periphery of unincorporated Silver Spring. Lyttonsville was founded in the 1850s by a freed slave named Samuel Lytton and it became one of several dozen African American hamlets scattered throughout Montgomery County. Silver Spring and its residential subdivisions were a sundown suburb: racialized space where African Americans were unable to live because of racially restrictive deed covenants and where public space and private businesses were governed by strict Jim Crow segregation.
The Talbot Avenue Bridge may be the last surviving historically significant structure in the Lyttonsville community. This post explores the various historic preservation efforts undertaken to document the bridge and the community’s perspectives on the bridge and its history. The reasons why the Talbot Avenue Bridge isn’t better understood and isn’t protected from demolition like other officially designated Montgomery County buildings and structures may be a policy gray area but they are clearly visible in black and white terms.
Previous Historic Preservation Research
The bridge was first documented in Maryland Historical Trust files in a research form completed in 1995 by an archaeological consultant. Additional research on the bridge was undertaken in 1997 by another consultant working on behalf of the State of Maryland. According to the consultants, the Talbot Avenue Bridge appeared to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural and engineering qualities as “a significant example of metal girdrer construction.” The consultants found no significant ties to neighboring communities: “There is no evidence that the construction of this bridge had a significant impact on the growth and development of this area.” The Maryland Historical Trust agreed with the earlier research and determined that the Talbot Avenue Bridge was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under one of four criteria for evaluation: Criterion C for its architectural and engineering qualities.
Consultants working under contract to the Maryland Transit Authority evaluated the Talbot Avenue Bridge to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act in the planning stages for the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail facility connecting communities in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, Maryland. This law requires federal agencies and others who received federal funds and permits to identify historic properties and evaluate impacts to them.
The Purple Line consultants quoted the earlier historic preservation research about the Talbot Avenue Bridge, i.e., that it was historic for its architectural and engineering qualities. “The bridge, including its superstructure and abutment elements, was determined to be eligible for the NRHP as an individual property in 2001 as an excellent example of a plate and rolled girder bridge. It is also a contributing element to the NRHP-eligible Metropolitan Branch,” they wrote.
Construction plans for the Purple Line segment where Talbot Avenue crosses the CSX right-of-way through which the Purple Line would run require the demolition and replacement of the bridge. MTA consultants determined that the bridge removal would adversely affect the historic property. The determination that the historic property would be adversely affected by the Purple Line construction only addressed impacts to the physical structure; the corridor through which the bridge passed and the neighborhoods it connected were omitted from the determination of effects.
According to the historic resources evaluation document included in the Purple Line Environmental Impact Statement (emphasis in the original),
The Preferred Alternative would be located adjacent to the existing Metropolitan Branch from Kansas Avenue in Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring, when the routes diverge. The majority of the contributing elements related to the Metropolitan Branch would not be modified (Figure 36). The rail corridor would retain the same width, and the configuration of the light rail generally is consistent with historic rail patterns in this area. However, the Talbot Avenue Bridge would be removed and a new structure will be built in its place …. Removal of the entire historic bridge structure would have an Adverse Effect on the Talbot Avenue Bridge.
Although most of the Metropolitan Branch, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would remain unchanged, the removal and replacement of the Talbot Avenue Bridge, a contributing element to the historic property, would alter the property and diminish its integrity of design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. The location would not change, but a notable visual element would be removed from the historic railroad corridor. This element is representative of the technological improvements in both materials and structural advances that occurred along the track in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Because of the proposed removal of a contributing element, the project would have an Adverse Effect on the Metropolitan Branch, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Reviewers in local, state, and federal agencies agreed with the historic resources survey and determination of effects. The adverse effects to the Talbot Avenue Bridge are to be resolved by documenting the bridge according to Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) standards: large-format photos, a report documenting the bridge’s history, design, and construction, and (perhaps) measured drawings. The documentation would be archived in the HAER Collection in the Library of Congress.
The Talbot Avenue Bridge is not listed in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation nor the county’s interim list of unevaluated but potentially historic places, the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, along with local preservation advocacy groups – Montgomery Preservation, Inc., and the Silver Spring Historical Society – were consulting parties in the Purple Line Section 106 process and they are listed in the Programmatic Agreement executed to resolve the adverse effects to historic properties by the proposed rail line. 
I reached out to the local historic preservation groups to ask about their involvement with the Talbot Avenue Bridge consultations. “SSHS had no discussions with MoCoGov officials regarding the Talbot Avenue Bridge,” wrote the Silver Spring Historical Society (SSHS). An officer with Montgomery Preservation, Inc., replied, “I don’t recall MPI receiving any notice about this bridge from public officials or through the usual planning process.“
The Lyttonsville Perspective
Patricia Tyson has lived in Lyttonsville since the early 1940s. Her family has owned land in the community since at least the early twentieth century and she grew up in a house not far from the Talbot Avenue Bridge. “We could sit on our porch down on Kansas Avenue and it seemed like you could hear the boards rattling as people came across,” she recalled as we spoke in the dining room of her Lyttonsville home.
To Tyson and other longtime Lyttonsville residents, the Talbot Avenue Bridge isn’t simply an engineering artifact associated with an old railroad corridor. It’s an integral part of their community and their history.
For most of its history, Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s “other side of the tracks,” the place where the African Americans who worked in Silver Spring’s businesses and homes lived. The bridge is the connective tissue linking two Silver Springs, one historically white and the other historically black.
Widespread racially restrictive deed covenants, redlining, and other discriminatory policies prevented African Americans from living in most of Silver Spring for much of the twentieth century. Tyson placed Lyttonsville within the larger context of Jim Crow segregation common throughout the South: “When you go into a town and there was a black community, it was on the other side of the railroad track. Most communities were built around, near the railroad track,” she said. “Most that I have gone to. And it may have in certain areas of the country it wasn’t so, but basically if you look especially most of the communities in Montgomery County, they’re by the railroad track.”
The Talbot Avenue Bridge was the only way in and out of the community for much of the twentieth century. It connected residents with Silver Spring and to Washington, D.C. The railroad tracks were, and are, a significant boundary separating mostly African American Lyttonsville with historically all-white Silver Spring residential subdivisions.
Because public transportation didn’t serve Lyttonsville, the neighborhood’s residents walked across the bridge to Grace Church Road and finally Georgia Avenue where buses were caught to take adults to work; children to school in the District; and, families to the restaurants, theaters, and other places that would serve them because Silver Spring was rigidly segregated. It’s a walk that Tyson and her neighbor (and President of the Lyttonville Civic Association), Charlotte Coffield, vividly remember.
We walked across it to go to – if you wanted to catch a bus, you had to go to Georgia Avenue. I went downtown to the theater, when I was grown, I had to walk to Georgia Avenue. It was too expensive. I wasn’t going to call a taxi. So, a lot of people walked. They walked. They walked everywhere they needed to go.
Montgomery County didn’t get around to paving Lyttonsville’s streets until the 1960s. As a result, the community endured rutted and muddy roads, especially when it rained. Private taxis filled the transportation gap. Tyson recalls that taxis charged more to cross the bridge into Lyttonsville, especially after a rain. To reduce transportation costs, she said, folks would meet taxis at the bridge.
I asked Tyson what the bridge means to the community. “It’s now a symbol of history,” she replied. I then asked if the bridge is historic: “It’s never been declared historic. Because it exemplifies the – even though it exemplifies history of, you know, one entrance for you and that’s it.”
Joel Teitelbaum is an anthropologist who lives near Lyttonsville. He grew up in nearby Montgomery Hills in the 1950s and graduated from Montgomery Blair High School before leaving for college and graduate school. In 1979 he brought his wife and children back to the community where he was raised.
Teitelbaum also thinks the Talbot Avenue Bridge is important to the community and that it is historic. He frames the bridge’s role linking black and white Silver Spring more starkly than other folks with whom I’ve spoken. Teitelbaum believes that repeated efforts to close the bridge by residents living in neighborhoods opposite the tracks to Lyttonsville may, in part, be racially motivated. “There had been an ongoing series of what would you call it, claims that the Talbot Avenue Bridge, the rickety wooden bridge over the railway, should or should not be closed down,” Teitelbaum told me. “The people on the Woodside, the eastern side of it, in their single-family homes were mainly white, mainly middle-class. They didn’t like people from this area, mainly minorities, using that bridge and driving through their neighborhoods.”
So they wanted to close the bridge since another bridge now existed over to Brookville Road. There was East-West Highway and several other streets cutting through the area. The people on this side, including the residents of the subdivisions, wanted to keep it open for a variety reasons because it was an easy commute over to the Georgia Avenue side. And because the fire department was located on Seminary Road, the only fire station in the area, and it needed that bridge to get over into this area to put out fires in the local area as well as at the school itself, located right next to the bridge.
A Matter of Black and White?
The Talbot Avenue bridge is not the only vehicular bridge carrying county roads over the former B&O Railroad in Montgomery County. The Washington Grove Humpback Bridge, located in northern Montgomery County, was built in 1945 (and rebuilt in 1988) to carry East Deer Park Avenue over the railroad corridor. Unlike the Talbot Avenue Bridge, the Washington Grove bridge has been a protected Montgomery County historic site since it was listed in the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites.
Why is the Washington Grove bridge protected and not Talbot Avenue? Why did local historic preservation groups fail to notice the historical significance of the Talbot Avenue bridge? Observers can chalk it up to agency laziness and incompetence. Or, as the MPI
officer I asked about this bridge wrote to me in an email, “We cannot be everywhere nor please everyone, including ourselves.”
Is the reason that the Talbot Avenue bridge is slated for demolition more complex and related to race? Perhaps. When it comes to historic preservation and treatment in local histories, Patricia Tyson believes Lyttonsville has been overlooked. “Lyttonsville is just one of many … African American communities that was overlooked. We weren’t the only ones,” she said.
Lyttonsville has struggled with environmental racism and marginalization throughout its history. Montgomery County in the 1940s built its dump and incinerator next to the community and over the years, as residents say, they have been Silver Spring and Montgomery County’s “dumping ground.” Whether it was proposed industrial rezoning along nearby Brookville Road; proposed rail yards for Metro and later the Purple Line; or now, proposed rezoning for mixed use development and higher densities, Lyttonsville residents have a long history of isolation, marginalization, and racialized public policies not found in other Montgomery County communities.
Urban renewal in the 1970s and later developments resulted in the demolition and significant alteration of most of Lyttonsville’s historic buildings and cultural landscape. I asked Charlotte Coffield where someone can go to find historic places in Lyttonsville. “No really historic buildings here,” she answered. “There are a few homes that are the original homes but they’ve been renovated and so they look very different than they did back in the early days.”
History in Lyttonsville is preserved in the memories of the residents and the material culture they have collected to tell their stories. Some of it has been curated in an exhibition first displayed in 2008 in the Gwendolyn Coffield Recreation Center. Except for the Talbot Avenue bridge, which meets every legal test for historical significance, there are no surviving historic resources in Lyttonsville. “There’s nothing here. It’s all been excised, all been removed,” says Joel Teitelbaum. He later added, “I mean you can see it if you know, if you’re an archaeologist and you look underneath, but you can’t see it on the surface.”
Though the exhibit and other community efforts to preserve and tell their story are important, they are no substitute for actual objects, buildings, and structures — the stuff that makes history come alive for future generations and connects the past with the present.
Teitelbaum agrees. In recent Planning Department efforts to update the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan he has been a vocal critic of the Montgomery County Planning Department. “Planning Department is willing to do it – on paper – and willing to put plaques up,” Teitelbaum said in answer to a question about the proposed plan’s historic preservation component. “But they want to raze the properties anyway; they’re not interested in the physical properties. They just want to put what I call signage up and let people have museum exhibits. But there’s no museum.”
Should the Talbot Avenue bridge be re-evaluated for its historical significance? The National Historic Preservation Act anticipates the discovery of new historic properties and new information even after pre-construction Section 106 studies are completed. Known as “post-review discoveries,” these include buried archaeological resources uncovered during construction activities as well as historic properties not identified earlier. According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, “a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties may well not be exhaustive and, therefore, some properties might be identified as the project is implemented.”
The Programmatic Agreement executed for the Purple Line precludes consideration of such discoveries; they are limited to “unanticipated for archeological properties including human remains.” Based on the rules implementing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the fact that a programmatic agreement was executed as an allowed substitute for those rules, it appears that the Talbot Avenue bridge case is over and what may be one of the last surviving historic properties in Lyttonsville will be demolished.
- A Programmatic Agreement is an alternative Section 106 process developed for federal agencies and their state, local, and private-sector partners that streamlines compliance and tailors it to specific circumstances. The Maryland and federal governments executed what is known as a “project programmatic agreement, which is executed “prior to approving the undertaking, the federal agency cannot fully determine how a particular undertaking may affect historic properties or the location of historic properties and their significance and character. For instance, the agency may be required by law to make a final decision on an undertaking within a timeframe that simply cannot accommodate the standard Section 106 process, particularly when the undertaking’s area of potential effects encompasses large areas of land or when the undertaking may consist of multiple activities that could adversely affect historic properties.”
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein