The temperature was a sweltering 100 degrees the other day and the traffic was backed up in both directions when -- adding insult to injury -- the drawbridge refused to close.
No one ever said crossing the Choptank River is easy, especially on a hot Saturday in August. Over the past few years, in fact, the Emerson C. Harrington Bridge -- as the bridge connecting Cambridge and Talbot County is officially known -- has acquired a notoriety second only to the Bay Bridge for vacationers heading for Ocean City and the Atlantic beaches.
As the summer draws to an unofficial close this weekend and Route 50 is backed up again with cars trying to cross the bridge, more than a few motorists no doubt will hope they never see the Choptank Bridge again.
They may be happy to learn that a bill has been filed in the Maryland legislature to provide $75 million through a bond sale to replace the two-lane bottleneck with a four-lane span. That's the good news.
The bad news is that -- even if the bill passes -- a replacement is years away.
"This is one we're gonna win," predicts the bill's sponsor, State Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr. (D-Dorchester), "not because they have any great love for us country boys but because the city boys will have a hell of a time getting to Ocean City without it."
The bridge that has become the bane of beachgoers once was a breakthrough in transportation, the longest span in Maryland when it was dedicated in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A "splendid bridge" he called it. It was part of Roosevelt's new deal that gave jobs to the unemployed -- including Malkus, who earned $13 a week helping to build the bridge that he now calls "a monument to putting people to work" if nothing else.
Today the bridge is also an anachronism, a picturesque platform for hook-and-liners whose escape from city streets ends at this poor man's fishing pier, and a place for drawbridge pilots to collect overtime watching television because so few boats require their services.
Over the past five years, more than 100 accidents have occurred on the bridge, clogging traffic, killing one person and injuring 41 others. The fatality occurred last October when a 27-year-old Cambridge woman who stepped out of her disabled car was hit by a tractor-trailer.
The woman's death prompted the ministers of Dorchester Country to gather 5,000 signatures on a petition to Gov. Harry Hughes on behalf of a new, safer span. This spring, the preachers threatened to hold a "bridge walk" that would dramatize their cause by disrupting traffic. Officials for the first time posted a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit but advised against the protest of safety grounds.
If the bridge's auto accidents are well documented, questions about its structural safety are less easy to resolve. Malkus and the ministers point to eroding concrete pilings underneath to argue that the bridge is unsafe at any speed.
Parts of the bridge are a bit, well threadbare. The sidewalk is chipped and metal plates are missing in places. One of the two pylons that marked the southern entrance to the once-magnificent structure is missing from the Cambridge end of the bridge.
"Sacrificial materials," said James W. Magill, the state district highway engineer, dismissing an unsophisticated those who would say otherwise. "There is no structural damage."
Repairs, scheduled to begin soon after a cost of $2 million, will add a decade to the draw span's life span, state officials say.
"They said the same thing about the bridge at Denton," scoffed Malkus about the official prognosis, "and it fell onto the middle of the river within a year."
For years after it was dedicated, the Harrington bridge was hardly used. The Bay Bridge that would bring hordes of sun-seeking city people was years in the future: urbanities still flocked to Chesapeake resorts, and Ocean City contained just a few frame hotels to lure only the more venturesome vacationers.
Those who ventured south across the new bridge into the dry lower shore could stop at Last Chance Liquors or, coming the other way at First Chance Liquors, on the Talbot side.
The lower shore repealed its ban on booze in 1949, and the Bay Bridge came along five years later to end forever the Eastern Shore's isolation, kill many of the Chesapeake resorts and open up the ocean to tourists. Almost overnight, the Choptank Bridge was jammed.
On most days, it takes 20 minutes or less to drive the 16 miles from Easton to Cambridge, but on some summer weekends when U.S. 50 narrows from four lanes to two just above the bridge, the trip can take an eternity.
The traffic has done little to promote local travel and commerce. It simply chokes it. "They won't pull out of line to come to me, and transit traffic from Cambridge don't come across the bridge because they figure they can't get back" said Joseph Willey, the manager of the liquor store that retains its prohibition-inspired name.
"The first couple of years we were open," said Margaret Tubman, manager of the Bay Country Shop at the northern end of bridge across from the liquor store, "my son went up the line selling Coke. They just threw money at him, dollar bills. They didn't want any change. We made more money selling drinks than we did in the store then."
Today, she said. "By the time people have to wait in line to get across the Bay Bridge and traffic backs up for four miles here, there's no extra time to stop here and shop. It kills our business."
On the south side of the bridge, four traffic signals strung along Rte. 50 carrying Cambridge residents to their shopping centers across the highway. But often the ocean-bound cars creep into the intersections. The result is to freeze local traffic in place, creating an acute case of "grid-lock," Eastern-Shore-style.
When the state proposed a Cambridge bypass along with the new bridge, however, Rte. 50 merchants who benefit from the traffic when there isn't much of it howled. State Highway Administrator M. Slade Calrider dropped the idea in favor of a span parallel to the existing one that would continue the same traffic pattern and cost half as much.
When the new bridge is completed, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce has proposed that part of the old structure be kept for fishing. Ever since anyone can remember, people have come here to fish from the single sidewalk on the bridge -- day and night and elbow-to-elbow on weekends.
Whether or not part of the old bridge is left for rod-and-reelers, the new bridge will be too high for fishing and high enough (65 feet) for the tallest boats to clear. The drawbridge will exist then only as history.
It is already mostly out of synch. Boat traffic upriver has dwindled, but the laws require the drawbridge be tended at all times. Thus, three men each put in 56 hours a week -- including 16 hours of overtime -- just in case some craft wants to wind its way through.
They inhabit a small "pilot house" fifteen feet above the two lanes of traffic. It's cold in winter, hot in summer and it shakes every time a big truck goes by.
Most of the time there's little excitement. Charley Wheatley practices playing hymns on his trumpet, Bill Cheesman crabs and fishes and Bobby Perry, an ex-Green Beret, reads adventure novels and fantasizes fighting another war, for money and glory. He had, in fact, planned to go to Rhodesia but peace killed his dream.
One day last week, Perry -- a paratrooper tattoo on his left arm -- commanded the pilot house in jogging shorts and a tee-shirt, purchased through "Soldier of Fortune" magazine, that contained a skull with wings and the legend: "Airborne -- Death From Above."
On the bridge below a blue compact rumbled by, trying to cross the span with a flat tire. The southbound car bumped to a halt just over half way. Traffic came to a standstill, a mini-midweek tie-up that would end with the arrival of a tow truck less than 30 minutes later.
"There's nothing I can do about it," shrugged bridge turner Perry, returning to a paperback potboiler entitled "CIA: Mission to Burundi."