Slipping the leash

Oldtown toll bridgeMy on-the-road navigator really is quite competent – as far as getting me to addresses I might not be able to find on my own. She is very accurate when she estimates my arrival time, even when the trip is several hundred miles.

Sometimes, though, the windshield-mounted GPS we named Sally G just doesn’t have a clue. Thus it was that she took me 30 minutes by the regular highway beyond my intended destination Sunday, landing me in Frostburg, Md., instead of tiny Oldtown.

On the other hand, I would not have driven around a particular curve on Md. 51, past the post office at Spring Gap, population 55 in the 2010 census. I don’t know where those 55 people were hiding, though some of them probably lived in the home beside the post office. The next closest sign of habitation – a Methodist church and a general store – lay some distance south.

A bit farther on, I finally arrived in the thriving metropolis of Oldtown, population 86 in 2010. The main street in Oldtown is Opessa Street, named, I was told, for an American Indian, reportedly a Shawnee, named Opessa. Little is available online about him, prompting me to contemplate another trip. There is a museum in the middle of town where George Washington reportedly stayed during one of his expeditions.

Imagine rounding another curve on a two-lane road in the middle of almost nowhere and finding a sign proclaiming  “Toll Bridge Ahead, Prepare to Stop.” The so-called “low water” bridge, its wood planked deck only slightly wider than a full-size pickup towing a bass-boat, was less than three feet above the rushing Potomac River. When spring runoff is over, the river will go down considerably, but the structure still is underwater an average eight times a year.

Grace, one of the bridge’s toll takers, explained the privately owned bridge was built in about 1938 by a man named Melvin Carpenter. Carpenter worked in the nearby rail yards, and tried for years, without success, to get the states of Maryland and West Virginia to build the bridge over their shared state line. Finally, he went to the U.S. Congress, and not only received authority to build it as a privately-owned bridge, but was legislatively guaranteed no other bridge would compete with him within five miles up- or down-river.

The toll is $1.50 each way, which Grace collected from drivers in a cup at the end of a 30-inch shaft. Drivers, it seems, are generally unwilling to pull closer to the building, so she would reach out to them with the pole-mounted cup to collect their bills and change.

Grace and four others collect the money and work the gates in eight-hour shifts, handling about 200,000 vehicle crossings a year.

“They must be doing OK,” she said of the current owners, “because their checks keep cashing.”

Near the toll bridge is Lock 70 of the 184-mile long Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, for about a century a major commercial thoroughfare moving barges laden with coal, people and other products, paralleling the path of the Potomac between Washington, D.C and Cumberland, Md.

I would like to visit the Michael Cresap Museum, “open by appointment,” in Oldtown. Cresap was the first white babe born in Allegheny County, and even had a war bear his name. I should go back and check that out.

Finally, I called home and confessed I was running late because I went exploring.

“I’ll bet you did,” replied She Who Must Be Loved, knowing I tend to wander when I’m off my leash.

“It was Sally’s fault,” I said. “She led me astray.”

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