Signs of 'progress' on Smith Island

November 11, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

Ewell -- FIRST THEY were told to register their cars and trucks, even though they have less than three miles of paved roads to travel.

Then they were informed that a public restroom would be built in their midst for the pleasure of the tourists who come to gawk at their homes and boats.

And now they are being asked to refer to the lanes where they live by the names on the new street signs the county recently erected.

Ah, what price civilization? Today street signs. Tomorrow speed bumps?

No more is it just "front road" for the main artery that runs along the waterfront in the largest of three villages on Smith Island. It's Caleb Jones Road, thank you, and please use the full name so no one will get itconfused with the two other Jones Roads back on the Somerset County mainland.

No more "back road" either. Somers Road it is, at least according to the green sign with while letters, one of a couple dozen that declare for native and tourist alike what to call the little streets in Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point.

Residents of marshy Smith Island, the state's only inhabited island not accessible by bridge, have been living without street signs for centuries. Everyone knows where everyone else lives and there's never been a need to put up signs identifying this alley or that lane.

Until now, that is, according to John Somers, an island native and the county's director of emergency services. Under guidelines of the area's upgraded 911 emergency response system, all streets must have name signs and all houses numbers to make it easier for fire and ambulance crews to get to the site of a call.

Locals may know each other's whereabouts, says Somers, but emergency crews on the mainland don't. And besides, he continues, what if someone has a stroke and can dial 911 but can't talk? Making use of the new identification system and 911 technology, the address of the caller will appear on a computer screen, providing a response team with what could be life-saving seconds in the time it takes to go into action.

That means that for the first time in its history, Smith Island roads and houses are formally identified. Many streets carry the traditional names used for years by the locals. If a road was nameless or could be confused with another street, it was given a new name by the 911 system panel. The signs -- green for county roads and brown for private lanes with at least three houses -- were put up this summer by county workers. Four- and five-digit address numbers are appearing on houses, too.

Aside from the practical applications of the formal address system, the new street names have little effect on the everyday lives of the islanders.

"We knew everybody anyway," says Ewell postmaster Maxine Evans. "It hasn't changed us."

Island native Tim Marshall, who shops by telephone from mail-order houses, says he used to have fun making up names for the previously anonymous lane he lives on.

"I'd say I lived on Love Street or Rock Street or Peace Road," he says. "They said I had to give a street name so I just made up a phoney address. Everybody did it."

Since the signs went up this summer, several have fallen -- literally -- victim of errant driving. The sign marking Marshall's road, Kitching Lane, lies flat weeks after someone towing a mobile home failed to make a wide enough turn and clipped the sign at its base.

No one has bothered to put it back up.

"It's likely to stay down," says Marshall. "I thought Halloween would take care of most of them. Sooner or later they'll all be down."

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