Eastern Shore residents clamor for replacement of Dover Bridge 85-year-old span over Choptank often gets stuck while open


TANYARD -- Here are two words that can raise hackles on the Eastern Shore: Dover Bridge.

Like a rusty gate, the 65-year-old swing span four miles east of Easton regularly gets stuck in the open position. Drivers unlucky enough to be trapped on the wrong side of the Choptank River face an hourlong detour through the back roads of Talbot and Caroline counties, longer when beach traffic is bad.

For a region that already feels like Maryland's forgotten stepchild, the bridge's 21 breakdowns in three years have touched a nerve. With thousands of people dependent on the bridge to get to the area's only hospital, in Easton, it has become the dominant civic cause across three counties.

"Someone has to speak up," said Audrey Fluharty of Federalsburg, a retiree who was recently trapped by the bridge with her ailing 79-year-old husband. "My husband was in pain. The detour seemed like a million miles."

"Every time they open that bridge, it seems to get hung up," said Carole F. Noble, a receptionist who lives in nearby Preston and who was caught in a bridge breakdown on the afternoon of Sept. 21.

At Chance's Country Store, about a mile east of the bridge, the talk among regulars sipping Marie Chance's fresh-brewed coffee is the same as it has been for months: the state's inability to get the two-lane bridge to work.

"The people the state sends down here don't know anything about running a bridge," said Tom Marine, 54, a produce truck driver who used more polite terms than some of his fellow morning commuters.

"For what they spent on that bridge the last few years, they could have built a new one," said his brother Bill, 53, a data processor in Easton.

State Highway Administration officials have become all too familiar with Dover Bridge's problems and with their equally miserable repair record. Last weekend's one-hour breakdown was traced to an unexpected culprit: a faulty $150 electrical contact that had been replaced two months earlier.

"People may not believe it, but I really don't want this bridge to break down," said Joseph R. Miller, the highway agency's chief of bridge inspection and repair. "There are so many little, goofy things that go wrong. We're feeling a little snake-bit."

When the bridge hasn't been stuck open, it has occasionally been stuck closed, a potential disaster for Choptank River boaters, who, unlike motorists, have no detour to take.

"Why can't they solve this?" said Bob Stine, owner of Black Dog Boat Works, a Denton marina that has been hurt by the bridge problems. "If someone can't get through the bridge, they're going to take their business elsewhere."

State highway officials think the problem is the bridge's advanced age. As a swing span, its center section pivots rather than rises. It is one of three such bridges in the state. (The others are on Weems Creek in Annapolis and on the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland.)

As a result of its age and uncommon design, new parts are nearly impossible to find and usually have to be machined to order. Since 1994, the SHA has spent $86,423 on bridge repairs, records indicate, not counting employee hours.

Link to hospital

For local residents, the situation is not only infuriating, it is potentially dangerous. Dover Bridge is a critical link for ambulances coming from southern Caroline and northern Dorchester counties to Memorial Hospital in Easton.

"I worry that something drastic will happen," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican. "What if one of these ambulances gets held up?"

Those kinds of worries have not gone unnoticed, in large part because of an unlikely crusader, H. George Jackson Jr., a 49-year-old Caroline County tree stump grinder and one-time Republican candidate for county commissioner.

To catch Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attention, Jackson created a huge scroll with messages from 860 people who want the bridge replaced. He enlisted help from a local school, Colonel Richardson High in Federalsburg, persuading freshmen to tackle the issue as a way to fulfill state community service requirements.

"You've got to try a little harder to get noticed when you're on the Eastern Shore," Jackson said.

The campaign has shown results. Glendening recently pledged to spend $200,000 to study the feasibility of a replacement, and state highway officials expect a new bridge to be built within six years.

Residents skeptical

But local residents are still skeptical that the General Assembly will approve the $15 million needed to replace the bridge with a high span. And they worry about environmental roadblocks, particularly the fact that the bridge would have to be built on top of a large tidal marsh.

"When you look at transportation, it's the projects that are important to the big counties that happen," said Clinton S. Bradley III, president of the Talbot County Council. "It certainly wasn't high on the priority list until George Jackson started making some noise."

Highway administration officials say the bridge is structurally sound and that the problems have been mostly operational ones, such as the bad wiring, or have resulted from occasional mistakes by bridge tenders. But local residents find that explanation suspiciously familiar.

Twenty-one years ago, a two-lane drawbridge in Denton collapsed into the Choptank a month after a state inspector had pronounced it safe.

'I hold my breath'

"I hold my breath and say a prayer whenever I drive across Dover Bridge," said Janet Hutson Councell, 72, of Goldsboro, a retired teacher who was on the Denton Bridge when it fell into the river and nearly took along her 1969 Chrysler.

At Colonel Richardson High, teachers said their ninth-graders are more excited about Dover Bridge than about any service learning project in recent memory.

"It's really gotten them engaged," said Principal Brian Spiering. "People really care about this. If the kids can make an impact, it can change their lives."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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