By John L. Conley, Kent Island Heritage Society
Do we even need a new bridge? If so, where should it go? Who should pay to build and maintain it? Who really benefits? Could a resolution be reached that would eliminate future bridge disputes? These questions were at the heart of a dispute between Queen Anne’s and Talbot Counties almost 150 years ago.
In November 1902, a traction engine owned by Hammond & McClements of Kent Island, fell through the 20-year-old wooden bridge where it lay in seven feet of water for 10 weeks. The company sued both Queen Anne’s and Talbot Counties for damages. In January 1903, Queen Anne’s County Commissioner J. Louis Rhodes worked with civil engineers from Baltimore to determine how and where to build a more substantial steel structure.
In December 1903, the following notice was published by County Commissioners for Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, Joseph M. Parvis, Clerk:
SEALED BIDS WILL BE RECEIVED BY THE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF QUEEN ANNE’S COUNTY TO CONSTRUCT A STEEL DRAWBRIDGE ACROSS KENT ISLAND NARROWS. The Bridge will be 258 feet long and the draw 110 feet. It must be constructed according to plans and specifications on file in the office of the County Commissioners for Queen Anne’s County, at Centreville, Md. Cash will be paid for the Bridge upon completion and acceptance of same by the Commissioners. All bids must be filed with the Commissioners on or before TUESDAY, January 12, 1904, at 12 o’clock noon. The Commissioners reserve the right to reject any or all bids.
The main source of controversy about Kent Narrows crossings between Queen Anne’s and Talbot Counties dated well before but continued beyond the construction of the new steel bridge. Kent Narrows was not navigable and had not been since the 1820s. Talbot County wanted the Narrows opened from East Bay to the Chester River to reduce the time required to take produce and other items to and from Baltimore and other locations. Queen Anne’s County objected as it had constructed a causeway to connect Kent Island with the rest of the county.
Talbot was successful and the government provided money to dredge the Narrows and clean out obstructions and make it navigable. The causeway could no longer function as a bridge, so Queen Anne’s County decided to build a drawbridge that would allow traffic to continue across the water without impeding boat traffic.
In an 1874 Act, the Maryland General Assembly authorized the Commissioners of the two counties to “levy a tax upon the taxable property of their respective counties, for the purpose of erecting a Draw-Bridge over said Kent Narrows; Provided That one-half of the costs of erecting the said bridge shall be levied upon the taxable property of Queen Anne’s County, and one-half upon the taxable property of Talbot county, the amount levied upon each county not to exceed the sum of two thousand dollars.”
The bill stated that the draw of the bridge should not be less than 60 feet in width. In key language, the bill provided that the bridge “shall be a free bridge and shall be controlled by the County Commissioners of Queen Anne’s County, in such manner as to them may seem expedient.” Additionally, the bill granted “authority to the Government of the United States to open and clear out the said Kent Narrows, and to remove all obstructions therefrom.”
That bill raised strong objections from Talbot County citizens and, especially, newspaper editorial writers who argued that “the Kent Narrows Bridge law is a curiosity in legislative literature” and building the bridge before opening the Narrows “an unpardonable blunder.” Easton Star-Democrat editor T.K. Robson said the “people of Talbot County are interested in re-opening the Narrows. However, he asked “why Talbot County should pay for bridging it for the exclusive use and accommodation of the people of Queen Anne’s County?” He argued that commerce did not need a bridge once the Narrows was re-opened and that “Talbot does not need a bridge.”
T.K. Robson also refuted in a March 24, 1874, column the claims of the Centreville Observer that Talbot County was the primary beneficiary of re-opening the Narrows to boats, though acknowledging that it would shorten the route to Baltimore. Queen Anne’s County was rewarded because it would add additional steamboat landings and give farmers between the Wye River and Chester River extra advantages, he said. Also, he argued that it was not right for Talbot citizens to pay more taxes “to pay for doubling the value of property holders in Queen Anne’s County along the line of this important steamboat route.”
He sarcastically observed that the “people of Talbot are public spirited and liberal…and ever ready to help the poor and unfortunate and if Queen Anne’s is not able to foot this little bill, his paper would do all it could in Talbot to help raise private subscriptions” for the project. He accused the people of Queen Anne’s of fighting re-opening the Narrows and, unable to do so, trying “to throw the expense on Talbot of giving the people of Kent Island traveling accommodation. This is the whole thing in a nutshell.”
A subsequent bill requiring the citizens of Talbot County to be taxed to help pay for the upkeep of the new bridge further inflamed the consternation of the Talbot editorialists. The Star’s Robson criticized Talbot Senator Edward Lloyd (1825-1907) and the Talbot delegation for possibly being asleep and of not opposing the bill, but upon receipt of a strong reply by Senator Lloyd and learning such was not the case, apologized and said, “Our object was simply to stir to opposition to the law itself.”
Senator Lloyd, who became President of the Maryland State Senate in 1878, introduced legislation in May 1876 to repeal the 1874 Act requiring the citizens of Talbot to pay for upkeep of the bridge and a tender. In a floor speech, he went back to 1819 when the Legislature “authorized the building of a bridge over the Narrows to connect Kent Island with the mainland, but owing to difficulties in its construction, the next session of the Legislature authorized a causeway to be substituted for the bridge.”
That causeway prevented the use of the Narrows for navigation to the Chester River. While he supported 1870 legislation and Federal requirements that the Narrows be re-opened, he said the bridge was only for the benefit of Kent Islanders. He also raised the question of whether the Legislature had the authority to require the citizens of one county to help pay for a bridge in another county, arguing that it was “for the accommodation of the people of Queen Anne’s and being a public highway of that county, it was right and proper that the expenses of it should be borne by her citizens.”
T.K. Robson of the Star-Democrat again chided, “The Centreville Observer (which) is greatly elated over the Kent Narrows bridge robbery. It is enough for Talbot to pay for building bridges in Queen Anne’s County without paying to run them afterwards and keep them in repair.” He opined that the “people of Queen Anne’s County are not wanting in respect of the laws of good neighborhood, and will not ask of us more than is just.” However, if they did support that approach, “they would stultify their manhood, and place themselves on a level with Algerrine pirates… The Observer had better call home its “missionaires” and teach them that Christian civilization scorns public robberies.”
The Star-Democrat reported in June 1876 that “the cut through the causeway under the bridge has mostly been completed, letting the waters of the Chester River into the Wye.” However, “the contractor to build the bridge and fix the causeway has not completed the job, and as he reports himself financially embarrassed it is doubtful if he ever completes the work.”
Some progress had been made according to an article in the July 7, 1877, Middletown (Delaware) Transcript: “A force of some twenty men is now at work constructing, under the superintendence of Mr. William J. McCullough, a fender at Kent Island Narrows bridge, in order to facilitate the passage of vessels through the draw. A portion of the old causeway near the bridge has been dug out, diminishing the force of the current, and it is believed that with the aid of the fenders there will be no trouble in steamers and sail vessels making passage.”
The battle over payment continued as shown in a June 1878 “writ of mandamus issued by the Circuit court for Talbot County at the instance of Queen Anne’s County for completing the causeways to Kent Narrows bridge, repairing the same, paying a ferryman during the time of such repairs, and for the salary of a bridge keeper for the years 1877 and 1878, being one-half of each item.” The Talbot County commissioners directed their attorneys to contest the claim.
The war of words between the Centreville Observer and Star-Democrat continued with the Easton editors scoffing in October 1884 that “The Centreville Observer says Queen Anne’s County is able to take care of herself in the matter of bridges. We are glad to hear it. It was not so, however, when Queen Anne’s took advantage of Talbot County having a Republican delegation in the legislature and socked this county for one-half the cost of the bridge which connects Kent Island and the mainland in Queen Anne’s County.”
In July 1902, Queen Anne’s County filed another petition of mandamus against Talbot County to pay $2,606.53 to be used for repairs to the Kent Narrows Bridge. The Baltimore Sun reported that, “About 20 years ago the Commissioners of Queen Anne’s County decided to build the bridge that now stands. The Talbot Commissioners, after the bridge was built, declined to pay their portion of the expense. A new bridge is needed, and it is thought by building it on its original site, Talbot County will have to foot one-half the bill.”
In January 1906, the Queen Anne’s delegation to the Maryland Legislature introduced a bill to authorize Talbot County Commissioners to pay $10,000 for half the expenses of erecting the Kent Narrows Bridge. That bill led to acrimonious charges of shenanigans by both sides. Senator James Kirwan from Queen Anne’s County called the bill to the Senate floor in March after it passed the House. President of the Senate Joseph B. Seth took to the floor and proposed an amendment that said that the bridge is a free one under joint control of both counties and that the salary of the bridge keeper be limited to $400 a year. He said the bill as written amounted to “taxation without representation.” He accused the three Queen Anne’s Independent Democrat delegates of trading their votes on another bill “in a travesty upon the purity of elections that 47 Delegates voted for the Bridge bill in order to get three votes.”
“I have no confidence in any man, and I will not trust one who will barter his vote on any question,” said Joseph B. Seth. “This was an open outright sale of votes and of right for $10,000 to go to Queen Anne’s County.” Joseph Seth said the deal was between the Queen Anne’s Democrat delegates and Republicans to which Senator Kirwan replied that he was “as good a Democrat as any other man and a good deal better than some.”
Senator Kirwan countered that Joseph Seth had promised him that he would not fight the bill in the Senate. “The people who are opposing this bill are not honest. When a man owes a just debt and tries to evade it, he is not honest.” James Kirwan said he opposed the Joseph Seth amendment because he feared the bill would then have to go back to the House for amendment where it would not survive. “I am not a lawyer,” he said, “just a layman but I heard there were ‘snakes.’” The Joseph Seth amendment failed, and the bill passed the Senate on a 20-5 vote.
Alas, Talbot County had the last laugh. In a May 1908 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the 1906 legislation requiring Talbot County to pay an arbitrarily set amount was unconstitutional since the Legislature had assumed a judicial function and set an amount without arbitration or judicial review. “While we would be glad to terminate this prolonged controversy by a final decision in this case,” the Court found that the Legislature had fixed an amount for one county to pay for a bridge totally in another county without consideration of the actual costs of the bridge or future costs without regard to what those actual costs might be.
Perhaps all involved hope that there would be no further bridge controversies involving Kent Island.
The Kent Island Heritage Society was founded in 1975 to preserve, research and share history of the first permanent settlement in today’s Maryland in 1631. Visit kentislandheritagesociety.org.