Burton on the Bay:

No More Crossing This Bridge

This rover crossed over many a bridge, but never one leading to more bounty than the old Knapps Narrows overhead counterweight bascule bridge

Wasn't it Rosemary Clooney who sang "Cross Over the Bridge"? It matters not; today we're more interested in passing under the bridge.

But I had to bring Rosemary into it for old times sake. It was in 1948 when I escorted her to a party thrown by then Vermont governor Ernest Gibson. She was a $35-a-week backup big band singer; I was a cocky $50-a-week news editor at WSKI, a Montpelier radio station less than a year old.

Rosemary went on to reap in a hell of a lot more money and fame than I did, but I've done a few things I doubt she did. Among them is passing under and over the old Tilghman Island Bridge, which no longer is at busy Knapps Narrows.

That well-known steel drawbridge is now setting up shop at St. Michaels where, once resettled, it will be among the featured attractions at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Only trouble is, there will be no water running under it, just a passageway for automobiles.

Maybe Rosemary will take a drive with me under it - my Subaru station wagon is only six years old, much newer than the dilapidated Whippet more than 20 years old when the budding vocalist and beginning newshound were barely in their 20s a half century ago.

Why back then, the 63-year-old bridge was also a youngster, all 45 tons of it, which was recently loaded by crane onto a barge for delivery to the popular and growing museum.

After its barge ride and trucking across dry land to Talbot Street and the Museum's new entrance to its new home in downtown St. Michaels, the venerable old bridge will remain partially open to give visitors an idea of what an overhead counterweight bascule bridge is all about.


Bridge Up

I like the idea of the bridge open; it will always be a reminder of one of the most amusing incidents I've had in journeys to Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island. A drawbridge can have advantages - as well as mechanical disadvantages.

It was perhaps 35 years ago when a New Jersey fishing party booked lodging and fishing reservations at Chesapeake House. Its members enjoyed the traditional fried chicken and crabcake dinner in what was a small and unpretentious dining room of about four tables, then decided to bring in their booze and play poker. Everyone else went to bed.

They played and partied until almost time to leave the docks, stumbled into bed and passed out. Louise, the old inn's jack of all trades, couldn't rouse them for breakfast, nor a bit later for the drive to Harrison's Oyster House, situated next to the bridge, the old home port for the Chesapeake House's then small charter fleet.

The late Capt. Ronnie Harrison had the single engine of the old Bay-built charterboat Capt. Lev perking and was getting impatient. He drove back to Chesapeake House, but couldn't rouse them either, so he made plans to do some work on the boat.

Mid-morning, the fishermen stumbled into the dining room to announce they were ready to go fishing. Capt. Lev Harrison, the genial and quiet-spoken father of Ronnie and Capt. Buddy, now the Harrison's fleet admiral and innkeeper, apologized. There wasn't a big fleet nor roster of available skippers back then, so he couldn't get them out on the water for a few hours.

It was about then that I ambled in from a fishing junket to Ocean City and ready to fish the following day with Buddy aboard the old LevRonSon. The hung-over boss of the Jersey angling group was considerably agitated: the party wanted to go fishing now. Now, or go home.

Capt. Lev apologized again, told them there would be no charge for the lost day of fishing, just pay for the lodging and come back again. Capt. Lev was the kind of guy who never spoke bad words about anyone, so he patiently listened to the tirade while remaining firm. No way could he get them on a boat instantly.

The party announced it was leaving and wasn't about to pay - no fishing no pay - and it probably would have been that way because easy-going Capt. Lev, a lifetime waterman and fisherman, would do about anything to avoid trouble. But just before they packed up and left, who comes back for lunch at Chesapeake House but Ronnie all dirtied up from working in the bilge of the Capt. Lev.

Ronnie was big and, unlike his dad, not given to avoiding a scene, so the party quickly decided to end the debate and just go home - but without paying. As they headed up the road in their station wagon, Ronnie was on the phone with a message for the drawbridge attendant.

When the Jersey fellows got to the drawbridge, it was open, but no boat was passing through. Meanwhile, Ronnie also called the Talbot County sheriff. Guess who drove back to settle the bill - and not with so much as a murmur as a not very hospitable Ronnie watched his father collect?

The fishermen departed, crossing over the now-lowered bridge never to be seen on the island again. They learned one can't depend on a drawbridge for a tactical retreat.


Hail and Farewell

So the old slow and creaking drawbridge that was raised and lowered about 12,000 times a year is gone. No longer able to cope with the increasing traffic to Tilghman Island, it's replaced with a brand-spanking-new and higher drawbridge that Capt. Stanley Larrimore of the charterboat Lady Bobbie tells me already clanks and clunks more than the old one that in 1934 joined Tilghman Island to the Eastern Shore and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

That old counterweight-balanced drawspan of 54 feet, 78 feet overall, destined to be a museum relic, has taken me to the best crabcakes, fishing and hospitality of my life. I don't know how many times I've crossed it - or passed under it. But I've fished with Buddy (who I understand wanted to bid on the bridge for display at Chesapeake House until his wife Bobbie nixed the suggestion) more than anyone else, and the gateway to his succession of chartercraft has been that bridge over Knapps Narrows.

Seeing that enough oysters, rockfish, crabs, clams and other bounty of the Bay have passed under it to stock the entire Chesapeake from Cape Charles to the Susquehanna River, it deserves recognition in the National Register of Historic Places, for which, I understand, it is eligible.

If this comes about, they ought to invite Rosemary to sing her "Cross Over the Bridge" song. I'll be in the front row; maybe even wife Lois will join me.

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Volume VI Number 42
October 22-28, 1998
New Bay Times

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