Reminder of an engineering feat, a president

Kennedy dedicated highway that would bear his name

He was killed a week later

November 16, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the middle of a grassy median on Interstate 95, a simple stone marker on the Maryland-Delaware border stands alone, undetected by the more than 75,000 cars that pass it every day.

Unveiled to great fanfare 40 years ago this month, the 3-foot-high obelisk, faced on two sides with handsome bronze plaques, commemorates an extraordinary achievement in interstate travel.

Erected for the opening of the Northeastern Expressway and the Delaware Turnpike, a 53-mile stretch of road in Maryland and Delaware completing the New York-to-Washington interstate highway system, the stone was meant to celebrate that achievement. Instead, it will be remembered not for chronicling a remarkable engineering feat but for its poignant association with President John F. Kennedy, who dedicated the highway eight days before his assassination.

On the cold and windy afternoon of Nov. 14, 1963, an excited crowd estimated by local papers to be between 5,000 and 10,000 strong gathered for the event.

The Northeastern Expressway, built at a cost of $102 million and largely financed through revenue bonds in Maryland and Delaware, made it possible for motorists traveling the 225 miles between New York and the nation's capital to do so without encountering a single traffic light. The travel time between the cities was also expected to drop by at least 40 minutes, to less than four hours.

And traffic on U.S. 40, long a dangerous and heavily traveled road, was expected to decrease by as much as 60 percent, even with a toll cost of $1.30.

Dignitaries dressed in warm hats and overcoats mingled with excited schoolchildren and adults as they waited on the Mason-Dixon Line for the guest of honor to arrive. As dusk fell, three black helicopters landed on the Maryland side of the road.

Moments later, Kennedy, hatless and wearing no coat, walked across a field to join the officials, including Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and Delaware Gov. Elbert Carvel.

According to a Nov. 15, 1963, report in The Sun, "Tanned and almost as boyish looking as he was when campaigning for Maryland's Electoral College votes in 1960, Mr. Kennedy spoke for exactly four minutes."

Although brief, the president's speech was memorable. The December 1963 issue of Highway User magazine reported: "President Kennedy remarked that the new road `symbolizes the effort we have made to achieve the most modern Interstate System in the world, a system which, when completed, will save over 8,000 lives a year and $9 billion in costs.'"

The crowd's mood that afternoon was upbeat, even jubilant. Former Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, a close Kennedy friend and, at the time, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, remembered it as a wonderful day.

"The fact that he was coming to Maryland was a huge plus. It was thrilling to have this dashing young president who backed off the Russians and was riding high. Everybody was excited and jumping up and down."

Pearl Swann of Newark, Del., had taken her two daughters, Theo and Karen, with her to the ceremony.

"It was a moving experience, and I was impressed by what he had to say," Swann, 82, says, clearly recalling his words 40 years later. She adds that it wasn't words alone that impressed her: It was also the president's presence. "He was every bit as handsome and charismatic as you would expect in a man."

On Nov. 15, at 12:01 a.m., the toll highway officially opened. Travel was light on the first day. According to The Sun, 914 travelers paid the combined toll of $1.30 between midnight and 8 a.m.

That night, a report in The Evening Sun listed many of the road's impressive statistics: "Eighteen thousand tons of steel went into the Tydings Bridge. Ninety-two miles of fence protect its right-of-way. Thirteen million cubic yards of dirt were excavated to make its roadbed."

Pride in the road, which Kennedy had praised as symbolizing "the partnership between the federal government and the states which is essential to the progress of our people," was evident in the Maryland press. Articles were devoted to the highway's attributes and its scenic vistas, particularly in still-rural Harford and Cecil counties.

One even described the dining experience at the expressway's new Maryland House restaurant, where a cheeseburger and coffee cost 75 cents. The expressway, which opened a new era in automobile travel, seemed like a metaphor for America's swift ride into a bright future.

A week later, the president was dead.

Marylanders, for whom the memory of the president's visit was still fresh, were grief-stricken. Tawes seemed to speak for the state when he said, "This tragedy is beyond comprehension." Almost immediately, he proposed renaming the highway in the slain president's honor.

"In my opinion, we could not do too much to perpetuate the memory of President Kennedy," Tawes said at a news conference Nov. 26.

Political leaders across the spectrum agreed, and the Kennedy family soon acceded to Tawes' request. Less than four months later, on March 3, 1964, the Maryland House of Delegates approved legislation to rename the highway. Shortly thereafter, on April 4, new signs and highway markers for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway were installed.

Today, all that remains of the Northeastern Expressway is the stone marker, forever commemorating a highway that prematurely lost its name to honor a president who prematurely lost his life.

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