At the north end of the bridge, in East Potomac Park, the three roadways merge and split into two two-way bridges over the Washington Channel into downtown Washington, one carrying traffic (including northbound US 1) north onto 14th Street, and the other carrying I-395 (and southbound US 1) traffic onto the Southwest Freeway. The Metro line enters a tunnel in the East Potomac Park, and the main line railroad from the Long Bridge passes over I-395 and runs over the Washington Channel just downstream of the 14th Street approach before turning northeast along the line of Maryland Avenue. The original bridge ran to the junction of 14th Street and Maryland Avenue, with access to either for cars.
The complex as a whole is named for the street that feeds into it on the D.C. end (carrying northbound US 1 off the bridge), 14th Street. Each of the five separate bridge spans also has its own name. From south to north, the bridges are named as follows:
The western portion was carried away by an ice freshet on February 23, 1831, and Congress decided to purchase the franchise of the Washington Bridge Company on July 14, 1832. A ferry carried traffic across the river until the bridge was reopened by President Andrew Jackson on October 30, 1835. Another freshet closed the bridge from February 10, 1840 to 1843.
The Washington Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road had served Washington from the north since 1835. The Alexandria and Washington Railway, allied with the B&O, was chartered in 1855 to connect the B&O in Washington to other railroads in Alexandria, by then part of Virginia. A Washington ordinance passed July 27, 1855, authorized the A&W to build tracks from the Long Bridge along Maryland Avenue towards the U.S. Capitol and up First Street to connect with the B&O. The line in Washington was completed to the north end of the Long Bridge in December, but never opened due to local opposition and the inability to get tracks on the bridge. On November 25, 1856, the rest of the A&W was completed, from the south end of the bridge to downtown Alexandria. To reach Washington and the B&O, freight and passengers had to use an omnibus connection over the bridge. The bridge was again washed out by a flood in February 1857, but was reopened by the end of the year, as revenue service on the A&W with connecting service over the bridge began December 21, 1857.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the bridge became militarily important. Union troops occupied the bridge May 24, and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad soon became a major center for the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps. Rails were placed on the bridge, and the new connection opened February 9, 1862. Due to weight restrictions, horse power had to be used over the bridge. A new stronger bridge was completed about 100 feet (30 m) downriver July 23, 1864 and opened February 21, 1865. The new bridge carried only railroad traffic, and the old one was kept for other traffic. On November 15, 1865, with the end of the war, the U.S. Military Railroad gave the old bridge to the U.S. Department of the Interior; the new bridge became part of the Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown Railroad, leased by the B&O.
In 1872 the Pennsylvania Railroad obtained control of the bridge and railroad through its Baltimore and Potomac Railroad. On July 2, the Alexandria and Fredericksburg Railway opened, providing the first direct all-rail connection between the north and Richmond, Virginia. The B&O regained its link to the south on March 10, 1874 with a car float between Shepherds Point in Washington and the Washington City, Virginia Midland and Great Southern Railroad in Alexandria. (The temporary Shepherd's Landing Bridge would be built there during World War II.)
By June 6, 1896, an interurban streetcar line—the Mount Vernon, Alexandria and Washington Railway—also crossed the bridge. A new railroad-only bridge opened August 25, 1904, about 150 feet (45 m) upriver from the old one, providing two tracks across the river.
In 1901, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, a bridge line owned equally by six companies including the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (which obtained trackage rights over the PRR to reach the bridge July 1, 1904), obtained trackage rights over the bridge. The RF&P was merged into CSX Transportation in 1991, and in 1998, with the Conrail breakup, CSX acquired the bridge.
A new swing-span bridge called the Highway Bridge, 500 feet (150 m) upriver from that bridge, opened February 12, 1906 to serve non-railroad traffic including streetcars.
On November 9, 1943, a replacement to the railroad bridge (keeping the old 1903 draw span) was opened.
A new northbound highway bridge opened May 9, 1950, halfway between the other two bridges, named the Rochambeau Bridge. The new George Mason Memorial Bridge opened in 1962, replacing the old Highway Bridge (then southbound only). The Highway Bridge was finally removed from the site in 1967, and was moved to the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division for bombing practice. In 1972, a third bridge opened, just downriver from the southbound (Mason) bridge, carrying two express lanes in each direction. Over time, the lanes were reserved as high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The final bridge, the Charles R. Fenwick Bridge, carrying the Yellow Line, opened April 30, 1983.
The 1950 and 1962 spans incorporated draw spans whose control houses are still visible, complementing the railroad bridge swing bridge downstream and the Arlington Memorial Bridge upstream. Later bridges did not incorporate this feature and the draw mechanisms were abandoned.
The northbound I-395 span was damaged by the Air Florida Flight 90 disaster on January 13, 1982. The Boeing 737-222 had become bogged down by ice during a delay, and was unable to ascend after takeoff, quickly stalling and falling on the bridge before tipping over and slamming into the iced-over Potomac River, killing 73 passengers and crew instantly and four in cars on the bridge. The repaired span was rededicated the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge. It was named for one of the six survivors of the crash, who sacrificed his life by passing the lifeline on to the other five survivors before permitting himself to be rescued. He died when he succumbed to hypothermia and drowned while rescuers dealt with difficulties rescuing the last of the survivors he passed the line to. The name of Rochambeau Bridge was placed on the previously unnamed express-lane bridge at the same time.
In July 1989, the 14th Street Bridge gained national notoriety when police officers, frustrated by inability to clean up the problem in D.C.'s 14th Street red-light district, ordered a group of prostitutes to march from the Thomas Circle area, down 14th Street, and nearly to the bridge to Virginia. As the parade started up the approach ramp to the bridge, Washington Post photographer Stephen Jaffe happened by, followed by a Post reporter, causing the police officers to flee. The women returned to Thomas Circle. They never crossed the bridge, but because they were on the approach ramp, it's clear that the police officers' intent was to make them march into Virginia. The next day, after politicians from Virginia complained, others noted that Virginia police had sent homeless people across bridges into D.C.
In addition to the Air Florida Flight 90 disaster, another incident occurred at the 14th Street Bridge in 1994. Abubakar Sadiq Ibrahim, an unemployed journalist, who said he wanted to see the daughter who lived with his estranged wife, crashed his Mercedes-Benz into a retaining wall on the span and threatened to explode a bomb. A black canvas bag on his front seat turned out to contain books and clothes.