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The country's economy was struggling, jobs were scarce and a transportation route south of Maryland across the Potomac River was needed.

The year was 1938.

The Potomac River Bridge, now known as the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, was built for $5 million, $79.7 million in 2013 dollars, based on federal Consumer Price Index average inflation of 3.76 percent.

But why was the bridge renamed in 1968 for a lawyer who was born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Baltimore, and became governor of Maryland in 1934?

“He wasn't really associated with the Southern Maryland area,” said Anita Warnes, College of Southern Maryland library circulation manager.

Nice was born Dec. 5, 1877. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1899, where he studied law.

Nice and his wife Edna Viola Amos were married in 1905 and had two sons, Harry W. Nice Jr. and William Stone. William died in childhood, according to the Maryland State Archives.

According to Frank F. White Jr.'s book, “The Governors of Maryland, 1777-1970,” the first time Nice ran for governor of Maryland, in 1919, he lost by only 165 votes to Albert C. Ritchie. Ritchie remained governor of Maryland until 1934, when Nice defeated him by more than 6,000 votes. Nice was the third Republican to become governor of Maryland.

Nice's time as governor was a time of economic hardship for Americans in a world on the verge of war.

During Nice's administration, legislation was passed for the system of toll roads and bridges in Maryland that today's system is modeled after, according to a Maryland Independent article about the renaming of the bridge, dated April 18, 1968.

His time as governor also would be remembered for the renovations he and his wife insisted on making to the Governor's mansion in Annapolis. According to an article in The Baltimore Sun on Dec. 19, 1935, $100,000 was appropriated for renovation costs: $50,000 from the state legislature, $25,000 that was not spent during Ritchie's administration and $22,000 from a “cushion fund.”

The Potomac River Bridge was the first bridge south of Washington, D.C., to connect Maryland and Virginia. The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The bridge opened for traffic in December 1940 after almost two years of construction.

The toll for southbound two-axle traffic into Virginia was 75 cents one way, said John Sales, public affairs manager at the Maryland Transportation Authority. The toll is now $6.

“Tolls were collected in both the northbound and southbound directions when the bridge opened,” Sales said. “Southbound-only tolling was implemented in October 1991.”

In 1968, the bridge was renamed the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge. A ceremony was held and Nice's grandnephew, Harry W. Nice III, and then-Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew attended, according to the Independent article.

The Independent article quotes Agnew's speech: “Bridges are traditionally regarded as symbols of progress; the means to reach a better future and brighter hopes upon a distant horizon.

“From the moment of its conception, this bridge crossing the Potomac became a tangible symbol of progress and faith in a better, brighter future.”

Agnew went on to say in his speech that the bridge represented Maryland's “confidence in the future and our leadership's vision of what the future would hold,” despite the bridge being built during an economic depression.

In 2012, 6.7 million vehicles passed over the 1.9 mile-long Nice Bridge, Sales said. The bridge is 135 feet tall at its highest point.

Sales said that the bridge is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because it has been the site of several historic events and is the only known metal cantilever bridge — containing segments that are structurally supported only at one end — in Maryland.

Before the Nice Bridge was built, Sales said, motorists traveled across the Potomac River on U.S. 1 — where Interstate 395 crosses the river in Southeast Washington, D.C., now.

“The Nice Bridge and U.S. 301 are part of both the National Highway System and the Strategic Highway Network — roadways deemed necessary for emergency mobilization in support of U.S. military operations,” Sales said. “Additionally, the bridge is designated as a critical link on an evacuation route from Washington, D.C.”

Sales said that the bridge is also home to peregrine falcons, a protected species monitored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“In renaming the Potomac River Bridge the Governor Harry W. Nice Bridge, we are honoring the man who led Maryland during” hard times, Agnew said in his speech. “We pay tribute to a man, who dedicated many years of his life to the service of his community and State. Governor Nice was a successful lawyer and a warm and vibrant personality. Above all it was Governor Nice who piloted Maryland through and out of the dark years of depression with good sense and a good heart.”

While on their way back from a trip to Florida, Nice and his wife stopped to visit friends in Richmond, Va. He suffered a second heart attack on Feb. 25, 1941, and died. Nice is buried in Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery.

rbarnabi@somdnews.com