July 13, 2017

Residents Fight to Preserve a Little-Known Piece of Maryland History

The bridge was an important part of the African American community's past

photo by: Austin MacDougall/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland, was a crucial point of connection for African-Americans in the 20th century.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge may not seem like much to people outside Lyttonsville, Maryland. Without context, it looks like nothing more than a single-lane span over a CSX rail line—so old and deteriorated that it was closed to cars in May.

But to residents of this small Silver Spring community—particularly African-Americans with roots in the area—it represents much more.

When it was built by the B&O Railroad in 1918, the bridge was one of the only crossings for Lyttonsville residents into other parts of segregated Silver Spring, connecting the community to jobs and retail in white neighborhoods. For some, it was one of the only paths to prosperity.

During much of the 20th century, as restrictive zoning and redlining kept African-Americans from moving into wealthier areas of Montgomery County, transportation options were also limited. Residents had to cross the bridge just to reach a bus line that went downtown.

Charlotte Coffield, whose family has been in Lyttonsville for three generations, told the Washington Post about what the bridge meant to the community.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland

photo by: Dan Reed/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Deterioration and plans for Maryland's Purple Line light rail threaten the bridge.

“It was really our lifeline to all the amenities on the other side,” she said. “Anything we needed that people normally would have, we had to use the bridge to get to it. … We’ve all benefited from that bridge.”

Urban renewal initiatives in the 1970s destroyed much of Lyttonsville’s physical history, but the tiny crossing survived. Today, though, it’s being threatened once again—this time by Maryland’s plans for a 16-mile Purple Line light rail. The new tracks would run adjacent to the CSX line, and even if the bridge could be returned to good condition, it wouldn’t be long enough for the widened span.

When the Maryland Transit Administration first laid out its plan for the area, the wood and steel structure was slated for demolition and replacement. But after its history was detailed by local historian David S. Rosenstein, residents quickly spoke up, pressuring local officials to preserve the bridge—and the memory of its significance—for future generations.

In February, the Montgomery County Council responded, announcing that it would explore options for the bridge’s preservation and relocation. Activists are hardly declaring victory, but the county is considering moving the structure to one of its parks, or incorporating pieces into designs for the Lyttonsville Purple Line station. Residents are just hopeful that this reminder of the community’s past won’t be lost forever.

“We have deep feelings about the bridge,” Coffield told the Washington Post. “People who grew up here and the people here years before us have a very close connection to that bridge.”

Jared Foretek is an editorial intern at the National Trust. He enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces.

jforetek@savingplaces.org

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