The history of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge

Written by on March 26, 2024

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

A cargo ship struck Baltimore’s historic Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday, causing a partial structural collapse and plunging multiple vehicles from the bridge into the water.

The 1.6-mile bridge on the I-695 beltway crosses the Patapsco River, where Key was inspired to write the words of the U.S. national anthem in 1814, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA).

“The Star-Spangled Banner” and Francis Scott Key

In September 1814, after a 25-hour bombardment from British forces against U.S. soldiers at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Key watched as U.S. soldiers raised the American flag at the fort in defiance of the attacks, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

This sight inspired Key to write “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” a four-line stanza that “spread like wildfire,” according to the NPS. This would later be retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner” and set to the tune of an existing song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” before, in 1931, it officially became the U.S. national anthem.

At the time, Key was helping negotiate with British forces for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prominent physician who had been captured prior to the Battle of Baltimore, according to the NPS.

Key, after whom the bridge was named, was also an advisor to Andrew Jackson, served as the district attorney for the District of Columbia from 1833 to 1841, and was a slave owner, according to the NPS.

Construction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge

Construction on the bridge, which was intended to ease traffic and maintenance concerns regarding the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel that serviced the waterway, began in 1972 and finished in March 1977, according to the MDTA, at an estimated cost of $110 million.

According to Preservation Maryland, the Francis Scott Key Bridge was “a significant engineering accomplishment,” as it’s one of the longest continuous truss bridges in the United States.

Including its connecting approaches, the bridge project is 10.9 miles in length and has an annual traffic volume of 11.3 million vehicles, the MDTA reports.

Information from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration shows that the Francis Scott Key Bridge met acceptable standards and that the deck, superstructure and substructure were in “satisfactory condition” as of 2023.

Tuesday morning, the container ship Dali, a Singapore-flagged vessel, struck the bridge at about 1:30 a.m., according to MarineTraffic, a maritime tracking company.

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