The JFK Highway: 'Essential to the progress of our people'

First of two parts

Fifty years ago Thursday, President John F. Kennedy traveled to the Maryland-Delaware state line to celebrate one of the largest transportation accomplishments of the era, one that would have a profound effect on Harford County in the ensuing half a century.


It was estimated that as many as 5,000 people – although some put the crowd in the hundreds, not thousands – gathered to witness the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of the Northeastern Expressway, linking Baltimore and Wilmington, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1963.

President Kennedy, along with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes, Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel and the chairs of the two states' highway commissions attended the ceremony.


When the first vehicle entered about eight hours later, the Northeastern Expressway became the first modern-day toll road in Maryland.

In the mid-1950s, when the Maryland General Assembly first passed legislation authorizing the construction of the Northeastern Expressway, it was to be a toll facility used to bring commerce into the area.

A year later, the federal Interstate Act of 1956 was passed, which could have changed the status of the road to make it toll free. With both states having used federal highway money on other projects, however, bonds were to finance construction, and tolls were needed to repay them. A $74 million bond issue, paying 4.125 percent interest, was floated to build the toll road.

The timeline of the 12-year project was bumped up and, in just 18 months, construction workers built the 42-mile dual lane Maryland portion of the expressway from the White Marsh area of eastern Baltimore County to the Delaware State line, what became part of the I-95 system running along the East Coast.

Another eight miles, from White Marsh to Moravia Road and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway in east Baltimore, was a free road, built with federal funds, and the White Marsh exit was designed as an "escape route" for motorists who didn't want to pay the toll to jump off onto Route 40.


To construct the highway, a wide right-of-way had to be purchased and excavated in Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties. Forested areas were cleared, and many farmers sacrificed their properties to progress.

Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James remembers her late father, William S. James, was a Maryland senator during the construction of the highway. Sen. James was instrumental in securing funding for the highway and in helping to determine its final route through Harford.

James said her father's chief concern was to do as little damage as possible to the environment.

"I was a little girl at the time," James said. "[I-95] was one of the things my father was proudest of because he was very much a conservationist."

James said it was important to her father that as many trees as possible stayed up around the highway. She said the Maryland portion of I-95 looks different than almost any other portion because it has limited "gaudy" signage. Her father wrote legislation to keep out the tall signs – "jumbos," as he called them – around interchanges that would eventually show up along I-95 in other states.

James said I-95 shows environmental, business and political communities can come together for a common good and without a lot of tension. She said the construction of the expressway required "cooperative undertakings at all levels of government."


Quicker Route

The Northeastern Expressway was designed to be a quicker alternative route to driving along Route 40, which at the time, was the major route for motor transportation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

W. Dale Hess, a Harford County delegate when the highway was built, said that Route 40, like any road, "gets over capacity with people using it."

Hess, another Harford legislator who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, said there was too much traffic using Route 40 to travel from New York and Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington and points south, as well as the local traffic from communities in Harford and Baltimore counties.

On the eve of the opening, newspaper articles focused on expectations of time savings and safety from the new highway.

The expressway was anticipated to save 22 minutes in travel time for commuters driving between New York and the Nation's Capital, according to estimates at the time of its construction.

With much traffic expected to abandon Route 40, with its scores of intersections and private entrances, for a more modern, safer road, many lives were expected to be saved, as well.

Unmanned tolls

The route of the new expressway required the construction of a new Susquehanna River crossing, the most expensive aspect of the Maryland segment of the project.

The choice of location for what became the bridge named in memory of Havre de Grace resident and U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings, sparked considerable political debate and horse trading in the halls of the State House in Annapolis, as well as among the movers and shakers in Harford politics and businesses, before the location a few miles north of downtown Havre de Grace was picked.

In addition to a toll barrier in Cecil County, just north of the bridge, automatic unmanned toll booths, which depended on a driver's honesty to pay, were constructed in Harford at the interchanges with Routes 22, 24 and 155. The toll at the bridge was $1; a quarter at the interchanges. (The Route 152 interchange in Joppa was added some years later and also had an unmanned toll booth southbound.)

The first few days of implementation of the toll roads were not the smoothest.

A large amount of bent coins and tokens were removed from the three toll machine in the county, according to accounts published in Harford's three newspapers at the time. Often, even when a driver paid the fare, the violation bell would still sound, signaling a non-payment.

Despite the early glitches, which would persist for the ensuing two decades before the automatic tolls were removed, The Aegis reported the majority of motorists were actually abiding by the rules, and the machines showed a high yield of coins, "indicating as unexpected honest policy on the part of motorist."

Many businesses affected

As the weeks grew closer to the opening of the Northeastern Expressway, local restaurant, motel and gas station owners along the Route 40 corridor feared the coming highway would wipe out their business clientele.

From the jump, the worst was realized. Within days of the opening of the Northeastern Expressway, many of the businesses along the Route 40 corridor saw their client base cut nearly in half, according to a report in The Aegis.

"I-95 Expressway opened up commerce and people's ability to travel, but it wasn't without controversy," James said. "My dad and many other people had to stick with the vision that highway would help."

Experts figured the Northeastern Expressway would cause harm to the motel business, but reckoned other businesses would fare better, as locals would continue to patronize them. In addition, the new highway was expected to bring thousands of new residents to the counties along its route, who would in turn spur more commerce.


For The Bayou, an American style restaurant along Route 40 in Havre de Grace, some of hypotheses held true.


Amanda DiDomenico-McFadden, 54, whose family opened the restaurant in 1950, said the entire business community along the Route 40 corridor was concerned about the coming highway.

"When my parents started the restaurant Route 40 was a thoroughfare," DiDomenico-McFadden said. "If you were going anywhere you were going to pass the restaurant and when I-95 came it took some of the clientele from the restaurant."

The Bayou was able to survive despite the expressway because of its large local client base, DiDomenico-McFadden said. She said she does not recall her parents complaining much about the highway's impact in comparison to the motel across Route 40 from the Bayou, which was owned by friends of the family.

"We were lucky, my parents had a lot of local customers so they weren't depending on just the traffic of people going by," DiDomenico-McFadden said.

Despite the highway, the Bayou's clientele continued to expand and the owners eventually built an add-on banquet area. DiDomenico's parents retired and sold the restaurant in 1982 to the current owner, Lou Ward, who continues to do a good business with diners and banquets.

In the first few years of the new highway, large local employers, such as Aberdeen Proving Ground and Bata Shoe, kept the Route 40 corridor afloat, William H. Cox Jr. said. Cox was a Harford delegate from 1971-91 and was involved in many of the ensuing changes and improvements made to the highway as it grew older, including the later addition of the Route 543 interchange in Riverside.

"Bata Shoe Company had a lot of employees, which helped to keep the area stabilized," Cox said. "But when Bata Shoe started slowing down in the 1970s," he said, many of the surviving locally owned businesses along the corridor folded or sold out.

After the closing of the Bata Shoe 40 factory, Aberdeen Proving Ground became Harford's economic engine, Cox said.

Safety Concerns

Prior to construction of the Northeastern Expressway, the safety of Route 40 had become a major concern.

Between Baltimore and Delaware, there were approximately 1,450 accidents per year and 950 personal injuries, The Aegis reported. On that stretch, there were 1,000 commercial and private entrances and 87 intersections.

To mitigate accidents on the new road, a number of safety features were implemented.

Driving up I-95 from Baltimore toward Harford County today, drivers often notice the slight twists, turns and hills in the highway.

According to newspaper accounts, the expressway was designed to prevent "turnpike hypnosis," which was called "a new hazard of modern driving." The Northeastern Expressway was full of strategically placed "hills" to present drivers with a slight challenge while driving, to keep them alert and awake.

Initially, a 35-officer, 28-vehicle police unit was established to patrol the Northeastern Expressway. It was based at a new administration building erected near the bridge toll barrier in Perryville, what is today the JFK Barrack of the Maryland State Police.

'Opening is celebrated'

During the ceremony to celebrate the opening of the highway, Robert B. Moses, superhighway and public facilities expert from New York, called President Kennedy the "chief architect of our modern highway system," The Aegis reported.

Hess, who was elected to the legislature at age 24, said he had not planned to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony until the governor invited him.

"Gov. Tawes was much older than me, I was a young buck," Hess said. "He said he was going up for the ribbon cutting and asked me if I wanted to go with him."

Hess said he drove up and met former Gov. Tawes at the ceremony.

During his speech the president said the highway "symbolizes the partnership between the federal government and states, which is essential to the progress of our people," The Aegis reported on Nov. 21, 1963.

"It was quite a performance up there," Hess recalled. "We had to wait for Kennedy to come in on a helicopter. Tawes was set to walk out with Kennedy; he told me 'walk out with me.'"

Hess said it was a great opportunity to have the governor walk him out to meet President Kennedy. He said it was his first time meeting a president and he witnessed the ribbon cutting up close.

Rough first days

During the first three days of the highway's opening, The Aegis reported there were four accidents, all involving cars hitting deer.

According to Lt. Hugh M. Everline, the first commander of the 35-man expressway police unit, another 63 drivers who ran out of gasoline were assisted by police officers during the early days of the highway.

The first personal injury accident on the Northeastern Expressway occurred before the highway was even open to the motoring public.

An automobile carrying four construction workers crashed into a sand pile in the middle of the roadway on the morning of Oct. 26, 19 days before the official opening. They were transported to Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace for medical care, The Aegis reported.

An estimated 15,000 vehicles traveled on the highway on each of its first three days. At that volume, it was forecast that about 5.64 million vehicles would be using the highway each year.

A week after the expressway opened, it experienced its first personal injury motor vehicle crash.

In the early morning on Nov. 25, 1963, a car traveling near Joppa was hit by a tractor-trailer truck. The driver of the car, Philip Manzie, of Hoboken, N.J. complained of back pain following the accident, according to a account of the accident in The Aegis. Richard Green, of Fernandina Beach, Fla., who was driving the truck, was charged with "changing lanes when unsafe."

Memorial to Kennedy

The assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, just eight days after he dedicated the new expressway, stunned the world. In the communities in Harford and Cecil counties, businesses and other activities shut down for days, as people wept and mourned the death of the young president.

"The new Northeastern Expressway experienced heavy traffic on Sunday as thousands headed toward the national capitol to pay their final respects," The Aegis reported on Nov. 28, 1963.

It was reported that about 25,000 cars drove to Washington, D.C. via the expressway for the president's state funeral.


Days following the assassination, The Aegis reported "since [Kennedy's] death, there have been suggestions to rename the modern road in his honor."

In 1964, the Northeastern Expressway officially was renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway to honor the fallen president.

Coming Nov. 22: JFK and Harford

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