Crossing To A Simpler Time

August 04, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

OLDTOWN -- Blink and you'll speed right past the way to the Oldtown Toll Bridge, where for a couple quarters in a tin cup you can drive your car across an odd piece of Americana into West Virginia, one way.

You'll not see a sign naming the bridge. The only visible clue along Route 51, a rural highway that parallels the Potomac River in this rugged and remote stretch of Allegany County, is a small, green sign with an arrow pointing southward.

It simply reads, "Green Spring, W.Va."

Miss that road marker, and by something like 50 miles of circuitous driving, you also miss the quickest route into West Virginia without having to go through either Cumberland to the west or Paw Paw, W.Va., to the east.

Specifically, you miss a low, oak-plank bridge that spans a narrow spot of the Potomac River's North Branch near this riverside town and affords paying customers more than convenient passage to West Virginia.

"It's a step back in time," says Frank Fulton, a spokesman for the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates the bridge's operations. "It's the kind of bridge where people stop and talk at the toll gate. You don't see that on modern toll facilities."

The Oldtown bridge, just 12 feet wide and 360 feet long, is the only privately owned toll-bridge in Maryland and one of few in the United States. A two-lane bridge built a few years ago, spans the Red River, linking North Dakota and Minnesota. Another two-lane bridge, built in 1900, links Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area.

The Oldtown bridge was originally built more than half-a-century ago at a shallow spot Indians had forded for centuries.

Drivers of pickup trucks and station wagons with West Virginia and Maryland license plates blare horns or wave as they pass the little red-brick toll house on the Maryland shore.

"It gets busy sometimes," says Phyllis Dennison, a 40-year-old Oldtown resident who, along with members of her family, shares toll-collecting duties at the bridge seven days a week.

Little has changed since M. R. Carpenter, a sawmill operator, built the bridge in 1937 as a service to the community. Mr. Carpenter wanted to provide Maryland workers with quicker access to railroad-related plants in West Virginia.

Workers at Koppers Co.'s railroad-tie creosoting plant in Green Spring still use the bridge today.

Fares have doubled -- to 50 cents a car now from the original 25 cents -- and ownership has changed hands.

Frances Walters, a septuagenarian who prefers her gardens and orchards on nearby Warrior Mountain to spending time at the bridge, is the owner.

Her late husband, Charles O. "Mutt" Walters, an excavator and mail carrier, bought the bridge from Mr. Carpenter in 1970 for $53,000. Mr. Walters, who died three years ago, was interested in the bridge because he had done the span's maintenance work for years.

Although the bridge is far from the beaten path of interstates, connecting a pair of hamlets most people have never heard of, the span provides a decent living, Mrs. Walters says.

She declines to discuss figures, though, volunteering only this: "I'm not hurting."

She employs four people to staff the tollhouse from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, except Christmas. After hours and on Christmas, the crossing is free.

Toll collectors like Mrs. Dennison work eight-hour shifts, holding out tin cups to collect tolls from motorists. One-way fares range from 20 cents for walkers and bicyclists to $1.50 for tractor-trailers, which often cross the bridge to take railroad ties to the Koppers plant.

The tollkeepers also keep track of who crosses the bridge, writing down license plates and the types of vehicle. In 1992, for instance, 66,457 cars, 43,281 trucks, 847 tractor-trailers, 394 motorcycles, 61 bicyclists and 54 pedestrians crossed the bridge.

Pedestrians and bicyclists -- not to mention tourists -- sometimes discover the bridge while visiting the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, just a stone's throw away.

"People are surprised to find the bridge," Mrs. Dennison says. "Sometimes people complain about having to pay to go across, but others make a special trip here just to cross."

For some, like Mary Corbett, who lives in Green Spring on the West Virginia side, the bridge provides a daily life-line to family and friends on the Maryland side.

Mrs. Corbett said she crosses the span two or three times a day to visit her mother, father and sister in Oldtown -- a cluster of homes, churches and a general store.

"I'd only go over there once a week if the bridge wasn't there," she says. "I don't know what I'd do without it. I think I'd cry."

Over the years, the bridge has survived ice and floods, only occasionally closing because of severe weather. An ice storm several years ago knocked the bridge out of commission, but Mrs. Walters said her husband rebuilt the span -- spending twice the purchase price.

"My husband said if it ever goes out again, don't dare put it back," Mrs. Walters recalls.

In the late 1980s, before Mr. Walters died, the couple put the bridge up for sale, but didn't find any buyers. Mrs. Walters figures the span is worth a couple hundred thousand dollars these days.

"I ain't intending on selling," she says. "I've told my daughters that when I'm dead and gone, I don't care what you do with it. It's up to them."

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