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Baltimore's Key Bridge was built in the '70s, but has a deep and patriotic history

Artwork of Francis Scott key Composing "Star- Spangled Banner" after watching the failed British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Baltimore Harbor in 1814.
AP
Artwork of Francis Scott key Composing "Star- Spangled Banner" after watching the failed British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Baltimore Harbor in 1814.

Baltimore's Key Bridge, which collapsed after being hit by a cargo ship early Tuesday morning, isn't just a vital transitand shippingroute. It also has a special historical significance.

The structure was built between 1972 and 1977, opening to the public on March 23 of that year. But its history goes much deeper than that, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Scholars believe it stood within 100 yards of the site where its namesake, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the failed British bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814.

The bombardment was a key turning point in the War of 1812, forcing the British to abandon the land assault on the crucial port city of Baltimore. The two sides went on to reach a peace agreement later that year.

British warships fired thousands of exploding mortar shells, cannonballs and rockets at the fort for more than 25 hours, but inflicted only minor damage because it was so heavily fortified. The Americans raised their 30-by-42-foot garrison flag the next morning.

Key, an American lawyer, witnessed the battle from the British warship he had boarded to negotiate the release of a detained American civilian.

The awe he felt at seeing the flag rise the next morning inspired him to write "Defense of Fort McHenry," which was renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" and became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

It also overlooks an abandoned artificial island

An aerial view of the cargo ship the Dali and pieces of the Key Bridge after its collapse on Tuesday. The hexagonal island of Fort Carroll can be seen on the left.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
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Getty Images
An aerial view of the cargo ship the Dali and pieces of the Key Bridge after its collapse on Tuesday. The hexagonal island of Fort Carroll can be seen on the left.

Just southeast of the bridge are the ruins of Fort Carroll, a 3.4-acre, hexagonal island created in 1848 under the supervision of then-Brevet-Colonel Robert E. Lee to house a fort aimed at protecting Baltimore from naval attacks (since Fort McHenry was the only other military defensive structure between Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay up until that point).

Construction of the fort itself was never completed, though the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County says it featured impressive architecture like curved granite stairs and brick archways, and was originally home to 350 cannon ports, a blacksmith shop and a carpentry shop.

Torrential rains flooded the island in 1864 and rendered it vulnerable, and it was used in the decades that followed to store mines, hold seamen and as a pistol range.

The U.S. government abandoned it as a military post in 1920 and declared it excess property in 1923.

A Baltimore attorney purchased the island for $10,000 in 1958, but it was never developed and is now deserted. According to Atlas Obscura, the island is so overgrown that it's become an "accidental bird sanctuary."

The bridge became a commute staple and local landmark

A cargo ship passes below the Francis Scott Key Bridge in 2021.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A cargo ship passes below the Francis Scott Key Bridge in 2021.

The bridge is the outermost of three toll crossings of Baltimore's Harbor, and the only one that's not a tunnel. It was constructed to alleviate traffic and provide a route for vehicles carrying hazardous materials, which are not allowed in the tunnels.

The project cost an estimated $110 million and took five years to complete. When the bridge opened in 1977, it became the final link in Interstate 695, known locally as the Baltimore Beltway.

Interestingly, the bridge was hit by a ship in 1980 but left relatively intact, according to a 1983 report by the National Research Council.

A vessel sailing at 12 knots "lost all propulsion and control about 600 yards" from the bridge and drifted into the main pier at a speed of about 6 knots, the council said. A protective concrete structure was destroyed.

Over the decades, the bridge has become a vital transportation route for Maryland residents and many other drivers traversing the East Coast, especially between New York and Washington, D.C. The 1.6-mile bridge saw about 30,000 commuters a day and an overall traffic volume of some 11.3 million vehicles each year.

It was also a Baltimore landmark in its own right.

"The words 'the Key Bridge is gone,' it's still sinking in," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said at a briefing on Tuesday. "For 47 years, that's all we've known. It's not just unprecedented; it's heartbreaking."

Officials' focus on Tuesday was on searching for the six construction workers who fell into the water when the bridge collapsed and are now presumed dead. They said discussions about how to rebuild would come later.

President Biden said in remarks that he wants the federal government to fund the reconstruction of the bridge, which would require support from Congress.

"This is going to take some time," he said. "The people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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