Bridge defines a town

Landmark: The high span and Chesapeake & Delaware Canal dominate life in Chesapeake City. Two tragedies have brought widespread attention.

May 18, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE CITY -- An envelope holding $260 in checks sits in a desk drawer in Town Hall. It's not a lot of money, not when measured against a life lost or when compared to the cost of a weekend getaway in this waterfront retreat. It would, however, help two children in Guatemala -- if it ever gets there.

The money was collected in memory of Marco Barrientos, who painted bridges and water towers from Maryland to the Midwest and always sent money to his family in Central America. On Oct. 19, he was helping to repair the bridge that binds the two halves of this Cecil County town. That's where he died. He was 38.

He was on the steel bridge's arch -- or "camelback," as at least one worker calls it -- when the bolts holding the framework for a makeshift canopy apparently gave way. The contraption folded like a huge accordion. Barrientos was crushed against the span -- 15 stories above the canal that links the upper Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River.

The 14-mile Chesapeake & Delaware Canal isn't usually in the news. But a week ago, a tugboat capsized at its Delaware end, trapping a 45-year-old deckhand underwater and closing the waterway. Salvage crews began to remove the vessel last night but have not found the body.

Seven months ago, the canal was last brought to wide public attention -- with a metal-against-metal crash loud enough to startle people in Chesapeake City.

But here, the canal and the big bridge over it dominate every day.

Dine on the brick patio at the Bayard House Restaurant, and the bridge frames the water view. Relax in the parlor at the Inn at the Canal, and the span is in the window. Step from the Back Creek General Store with freshly bought fudge, as Jack Bailey and Bob Dunbar did the other day, and see what you see down First Street.

"Look at the bridge," Bailey says. "It really hovers over the town, that's for sure."

It's so high -- 135 feet to the road bed, another 90 feet to the top of its span -- to allow freight containers the size of apartment buildings to pass under it on their way to or from the port of Baltimore.

Franz Portmann manages the Bayard House, and he says the customers always say the same thing when a huge Toyota carrier passes: "It's not going to fit under the bridge!"

Rafael Villarreal, who was working on the bridge when Barrientos died, holds his fingers about 3 inches apart as he recalls the ships' close shaves: "It looked like they were almost touching."

The accident left him swinging from a safety harness, metal banging against his leg, pummeling his knee. When Barrientos died, he lost his best friend and roommate. "My brother," he says.

His mind, though tortured by his friend's death, has room for memories of the view from the Chesapeake City bridge. "I used to sit on the very tippy top of the hump and look everywhere, down the canal," he says. "Beautiful."

Residents here see their home as a Christmas garden of a town. Seen from the bridge, Chesapeake City looks like two small villages separated by a watery band. If the bridge ties the two sides of town together, the canal is the gulf between.

Which explains, for instance, why a Chesapeake City household's quarterly water bill can be more than $200. When the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal was dredged and widened in the early 1960s, the lines from the southside water plant could no longer run under the canal. So a new water tower was erected on the north side -- meaning a town of fewer than 800 people has to pay for two water plants.

But no one can dispute that Chesapeake City owes its existence to the waterway. Historians say a canal connecting the Chesapeake and Delaware bays was proposed for the area as long ago as 1661. In 1829, it opened for business. A town grew around the canal, and by 1839 Chesapeake City was a name on the map.

Now, the water views and the sight of pilots steering 600-foot container ships help explain why town bed-and-breakfasts can charge $150 a night, and its restaurants with picture windows can serve $16 lunch specials. In Chesapeake City, it is play to watch people work.

Work on repainting the bridge and repairing its concrete piers went on much of last summer as part of a $4 million project. The work had moved to the center span by Oct. 19 -- the day Marco Barrientos died.

The accident was the talk of the small town. For one thing, the bridge, and thus Route 213, was closed for most of two days, snarling traffic. And it was hard, and for some residents it is still hard, to look at the bridge and not think about the lost life.

Shortly after Barrientos' death, the town published a note in its newsletter. It said that he had also been part of a crew that painted one of the town's water towers several years ago, and the town would be collecting money for his family. Money did not pour in, and now nearly seven months after the accident, another warm-weather tourist season has arrived.

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