Pour one out. The conspiratorial “Hunter Hiden” message on the CSX railway bridge over the Capital Beltway has been covered up, as of this past weekend.
The bit of political wordplay is only the most recent of many terms that have marred (or brightened?) the bridge, which overlooks Interstate 495 near Kensington and sits in the shadow of the towering Washington, D.C. Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The graffiti have long been a source of ire to CSX employees, who would scrub off or cover up the spray-painted lettering only to see it pop up again when the perpetrators repainted it. Removing graffiti on railway bridges can cost thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars, according to reports from railway companies.
The most recent graffiti appeared in December. The message is an apparent reference to President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, subject of an IRS investigation, a Justice Department probe, and unending anger from those who allege that Twitter’s suppression of stories about his laptop contributed to Donald Trump’s election loss in 2020. Or maybe it just sounds clever and memorable? The artist hasn’t revealed themselves.
The long and storied history of cheeky messages on the bridge began shortly after the temple opened in September 1974.
According to The Washington Post, the first “Surrender Dorothy” prank was played by Catholic school girls at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac. The school play that year was “The Wizard of Oz.” During a sleepover that October, a group of 13 Holy Child students took wadded-up newspaper pages and stuck them in the chain-link fence on Linden Lane, spelling out “SURRENDER DOROTHY.” The overlooking temple resembles the City of Oz off in the distance.
Decades later in 2011, several of those students talked to John Kelly of The Washington Post about the prank.
“We thought it was brilliant,” Chris Brennan, Holy Child Class of 1975, told the Post, “but being good girls we didn’t want to deface any property, so we came up with the idea to use wadded newspapers to spell out the letters.”
Throughout the following decades, the “Surrender Dorothy” message became a common sight for drivers on the beltway. Throughout the 1980s and thereafter, the message appeared in paint on the bridge, but nobody seems to have taken credit. The earliest known photo of the graffiti was featured in the Washington Star on April 16, 1981.
The graffiti tradition is so popular that it even has its own section on the Wikipedia page that references the Surrender Dorothy scene in the Wizard of Oz movie.
Rockville brewery 7 Locks Brewing created a rye pale ale in called Surrender Dorothy in 2021 based on the graffiti. Turner Entertainment, which owns the rights to the Wizard of Oz movie, sued over 7 Locks’ effort to trademark the name later that year. The beer is now simply called the Surrender RyePA. The new can artwork depicts a worker painting over the letters on the bridge. The brewery was also forced to remove the yellow brick road imagery from the can label.
In 2018, a D.C.-based left-leaning, anti-GOP political action committee called Mad Dog, run by Claude Taylor, claimed responsibility for plastering “Surrender Donald” on the bridge, as a reference to then-President Donald Trump. Instead of paint, the PAC used removal magnets to spell out the letters. That same message was painted on the bridge again in 2020, around the time Trump was refusing to accept the results of the presidential election, but the culprit is unknown.
A year prior in 2017, someone painted “bridges not walls” on the bridge, presumably in response to Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall and crackdown on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. “Bridges not walls” had become a mantra for protestors of the policy and echoed statements made by the U.N. and Pope Francis.
Not all the messages have been political, however. In 2014, someone painted the name of D.C. punk band Fugazi on the bridge. The band played its last live show in 2002.
There’s no way to know when or if Montgomery County and D.C.-area drivers will see another message on their daily commutes up I-495, but if history serves as any indication, the bridge won’t stay blank for long.