The View from the Bridge House

"The building is highly decorative, with a bell-cast metal roof topped by a round finial, and a variety of ornamental details cast into its concrete walls. This building's unique design contributes significantly to the esthetic appeal of the Fredericktown-Georgetown crossing." — from a 1980 report by the Maryland Historical Trust
“The building is highly decorative, with a bell-cast metal roof topped by a round finial, and a variety of ornamental details cast into its concrete walls. This building’s unique design contributes significantly to the esthetic appeal of the Fredericktown-Georgetown crossing.” — from a 1980 report by the Maryland Historical Trust

Why is the bridge such a big deal, you might ask? It’s just an old drawbridge… not much happens there, does it? Well, I had to ask: how would we, from our cars — or from our boats, for that matter — have the faintest idea what happens there?

It struck me that there is something about the intersection of road and river that is venerably important. Not so very long ago, the means of getting across a river was a vital consideration. Judging from the architectural details of the old Sassafras bridge, such as the ornamental facade of the bridge house and the proud historical marker, these things were kind of a big deal, even as recently as 1913. That slow-flowing, long view of things was something that Sean shared with his buddy, Father Hunter, and both men recognized in young Robinson.

Lowering - Hill's strong hands operate the lowering controls of the two bridge sections. Large electric motors raise the bridge automatically but when the sections are lowered they must be guided into the lock position very carefully.
Lowering – Hill’s strong hands operate the lowering controls of the two bridge sections. Large electric motors raise the bridge automatically but when the sections are lowered they must be guided into the lock position very carefully.

Back in 1968 the Cecil Whig ran an illustrated profile of the Sassafras bridge tender. I’m indebted to a kind and helpful clerk at the Elkton Public Library for these images, which helped me to imagine Sean’s command post.

The tenders… are responsible for raising and lowering the two center sections for boat traffic. The passageway under the bridge fluctuates with the tides but is usually about five feet high. Cable-winding electric motors pull the sections up for passing boats but it is up to the operator to guide the two sections together during the lowering phase.

The Keeper - As a former aide to Governor Theodore McKeldin and an employee of the State Roads Commission, Mr. Hill claims to have traveled every road on the Eastern Shore. He knows most of the residents on both sides of the bridge and is on a first name basis with the fishermen and boaters who come to the Sassafras during the summer months.
The Keeper – As a former aide to Governor Theodore McKeldin and an employee of the State Roads Commission, Mr. Hill claims to have traveled every road on the Eastern Shore. He knows most of the residents on both sides of the bridge and is on a first name basis with the fishermen and boaters who come to the Sassafras during the summer months.

The tender interviewed for the article, D. Raymond Hill,

is a native Eastern Shoreman and founder of the Kennedyville Fire Company…. When Hill first started working on the bridge, there were quite a few sailboats passing through; now, he says, most of them have moved down river. Still, during a summer weekend, he stays quite busy. The highest number of boats to pass through in one day, he says, is 90.

The Sassafras bridge had a good run, to be sure. It was replaced in 1984 with a new bridge whose draw had only one leaf — possibly decreasing the skill required of the bridge’s tender. There is anecdotal evidence that the old bridge did sometimes shift in its bed. I grew up within sight of the bridge, and I never saw the state highway crew called in to get it closed — so I have to presume that the tenders possessed a skill-set that wasn’t widely understood!

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