Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter 1 – The Drawbridge” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

You can download the full text here:   PDF   DOCX    RTF


Putt… putt.. .putt. . putt… putt… putt…. The sound that drifted around the corners of the buildings along the waterfront and over the treetops until reached my ears as I worked in the backyard of my home sawing up wooden palettes for kindling with the bucksaw that my grandfather had given me, was a familiar one. “Oh boy! that’s the unmistakable sound of a yawl boat (or jolly) boat pushing a sailing vessel,” I said to myself as I listened intently to the sound coming from down the river. “This means that the sailing vessel, loaded fertilizer, and expected by Mr. Butler, is about to arrive,” I thought, “and maybe I can help raise the drawbridge, and also maybe I can get a job helping to unload the boat.”

Sailing vessels were quite popular as a means of moving bulk freight along the tidewater tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay during the ’20s, and they of various types, including schooners, bugeyes, three masters, and others. The sails were quite efficient for moving a sailing vessel in open water when a good breeze was blowing, but as they wound their way up the narrow rivers the sails were usually lowered and a small yawl or jolly boat containing a one-cylinder gasoline engine was pressed into service to push the sailing vessel along to its destination.

I put down my bucksaw and headed for the drawbridge. By now, the vessel sight and the captain began blowing his horn, a long conical piece of sheet metal with a mouthpiece containing a vibrating reed. The horn could be heard for a half mile or more when the captain emptied his lungs into it.

The horn signaled the bridge tender, “Uncle” Sam Ewing, that the vessel wanted to go through the drawbridge. The sound was a sort of fish horn effect: phrom..m..m..m..p, phrom..m..m..m.p, but much louder, and usually the captain started blowing it in plenty of time to notify the bridge tender with blasts repeated at various intervals.

Now to stop the forward motion of a sailing vessel, especially if it is moving with the tide, is not an easy task since it has no engine that can be reversed. The bridge tender, “Uncle” Sam Ewing, did not remain on the bridge during operations of the draw. He went home — about six or seven hundred feet down the street from the bridge, where he lived from early morning until late at night, seven days a week, with his ears cocked for the sound of a boat. Even if he received notice ahead of time that a boat might arrive the next day, there was no way to know the precise hour he could expect it. Thus, if the boat captain waited too long to blow his horn the first time, he might find himself in the awkward position of having to stop the forward motion of his sailboat with no good way to do it, or.. crash into the drawbridge. I do not recall having seen one crash into the bridge, but I have seen it necessary to quickly turn the boat around in the river, or to bring it close to a wharf and try to lasso a piling with a rope to slow down the forward motion. Of course, the boat captain had no way of knowing whether or not “Uncle” Sam was on the job. So, most captains, especially those who had traveled the river before, gave ample time to get the draw open by blowing the horn as soon as the vessel got within hearing distance. “Uncle” Sam was very dependable, however, and on the job all of the time, or at least within hearing distance. After all, it might take him a few minutes to put his shoes on and walk the short distance from his home to the bridge.

These pictures were taken in 1975. The old bridge looks the same as it did in the ’20s except that the pilings and buffers appear to be new.

The picture at top was taken from the site upon which my dad’s store was located. The picture below was taken from a site in front of our home.

The small control house for raising the draw can be seen just to the right of the counterbalance. This bridge has now been replaced by a high arch bridge under which vessels can pass freely.

So I rushed to the bridge ready to put the chain across the road, thus halting all traffic whenever “Uncle” Sam indicated that he was ready to raise the draw. I was “Uncle” Sam’s helper! If I got the chain with the fertilizer sack hanging from it across in time, perhaps he would hold up long enough for me to run to the far end of the draw where the controls were located. There he might allow me to raise and lower the draw.

The control was electric — very similar to the control on a street car — a lever on a rheostat that you moved to the right of the center to raise the draw, bring it back to the center to hold the draw up at the desired position, and then move it to the left to lower it. Of course, with a rheostat controlling the amount of electric current being used, the farther you moved it to the right or to the left the faster the draw would open or close. The railroad bridge, about a quarter of a mile further up the river, was opened by hand, using a turnstile type of device with two horizontal arms connected to a vertical central post. That bridge, however, did not have a draw that opened vertically — it was a draw that rotated 90 degrees and was attached to a small support island located exactly in the center of the draw. When it was opened, the vessel could use either one of the two passageways, to the right or to the left of the center island.

To help “Uncle” Sam raise and lower the draw on the bridge was an experience “out of this world” for a lad 12 to 15 years of age, and not only that, I was the only one who had the honor of being “Uncle” Sam’s helper. Of course, “Uncle” Sam was at my elbow ready to take over should I make a mistake or act too carelessly, but I don’t recall of that ever happening. In fact, as time went by there were occasions when I manned the controls all alone.

The draw Itself was counterbalanced by a large overhead concrete block and the whole apparatus was mounted on tracks, one on each side. Each of these runners was maneuvered by a heavy chain connected to three sprocket wheels mounted in triangular fashion all of which was attached by gears to the electric motor. The draw was heavier than the counterbalance, causing the old motor to groan when the draw was being raised and to coast as it was lowered. I maintained a sort of cautious fear in my heart that I might raise the draw too far and that the whole works would topple over backward. But “Uncle” Sam had the limits clearly marked on the moving parts, eliminating the danger of that catastrophe happening if one kept his eyes open and paid close attention to the job. In later years, a new set of pushbutton automatic controls with built-in safety precautions were installed, including electric gates with flashing lights at both ends of the bridge.

Once the sprocket wheels and the chain drives broke as the draw was being lowered and it descended rapidly out of control from a position of about two-thirds open. It hit the concrete resting piers with such force that it bounced several times until it finally came to rest. Other than knocking part of the counterbalance to the floor of the bridge there was no apparent damage done, but it did make a thundering noise and it jarred much of the merchandise from the shelves in my father’s store located on the bank just at the west end of the bridge. My dad was in his store at the time and the noise surprised him, but he knew immediately what had happened. The possibility of the falling draw had been discussed many times.

I was not operating the controls that time, for which I was thankful. The boat that had gone through the draw just before the accident was forced to remain tied up at the wharf on the other side for a week or more until the bridge mechanism could be repaired, the draw opened again, and the boat sent on its way.

As I recall, this incident sort of dampened my enthusiasm for being “Uncle” Sam’s helper. By now the novelty had worn off anyway, as I was about to graduate from high school and leave home for further adventures. However, this old drawbridge, the Choptank River, and the activities surrounding them contributed much to the experiences of my early life that could not have been duplicated in any other way.

The experiences surrounding this old bridge contributed greatly toward my decision to title this book, “Bridges To My Maturity.”

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