November 18th, 2013
In the photograph, his back to the camera, President John F. Kennedy faces a sea of smiling faces and reaches for dozens of outstretched hands. It’s a big day as officials from Maryland and Delaware, along with the youthful president, straddle the Mason-Dixon Line on Nov. 14, 1963.
The occasion isn’t a campaign stop, but the ribbon-cutting for a road we take for granted today: Interstate 95. Even with traffic we can get to Baltimore or Philadelphia in about an hour. Until that day almost exactly 50 years ago, travelers had to trundle along Route 40 or even Route 1.
According to newspaper accounts, the highway was considered expensive to build, costing 41 cents per inch to construct in Delaware alone.
There would be another cost. Opening I-95 would change the fate of Cecil County’s small towns significantly, of course, because there was no longer a need for the Route 40 eateries and motels once frequented by long-distance travelers on their way to New York or Florida.
While most seemed ready to celebrate the opening, there were a few protesters. They were not disgruntled business owners along Route 40 but African-Americans waving signs that read, “Highways are interstate. Help us make public accommodations inter-racial.”
President Kennedy, along with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, cut the ribbon, officially opening the major East Coast highway. At midnight sharp, cars and trucks entered the highway, the first of millions upon millions that would use the highway in the decades to follow.
First through the turnpike toll in Delaware was a man nicknamed “Mr. First.” Omero C. Catan of Teaneck, N.J., had been “first” at 516 similar events. His celebrity was enough to warrant a sidebar in the Wilmington News Journal.
While the opening of the new highway was a big event, the crowds had really come out to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy. You can see the excitement in their faces as they swarm around Kennedy. Among those snapping photos was Jim Cheeseman of the Cecil Whig. “Cheese” as he was known locally had a long career as a newspaper photographer. Today, the photographs he donated to the Historical Society of Cecil
County create an incredible record of news events around Cecil County from the 1960s to 1980s.
One of the photographs Cheese took that day would become iconic. It captures the moment that Kennedy cuts the ribbon, flanked by the other governors. It’s one of the more famous photos taken in Cecil County, and often reprinted. I have a framed copy in my office; I just wish I’d gotten Cheese to sign it.
I remember longtime Whig editor Don Herring telling me how Cheese, upon returning to the newsroom, expressed his surprise at the lack of security surrounding Kennedy. Just about anybody could walk right up to the president. In hindsight, those words would turn out to be almost prophetic.
On Nov. 22, while Kennedy’s visit was still the talk of the town locally, came shocking and tragic news from Dallas. A rifleman had shot and killed the president, who was 46 years old.
The news left local people stunned and frightened. Stores and offices shut down. People cried as they gathered around their black and white televisions to hang on Walter Cronkite’s every word. As it turned out, two other famous men died that day of less violent causes—the writers Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). Their deaths received a passing mention, if any that day.
And what a whirlwind time it was for news. On Nov. 24, the president’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed. Closer to home, in December, lightning would strike a jet plane in the skies above Elkton, ending the lives of more than 80 people.
Cecil Countians who lived through those times aren’t likely to forget them. On Monday, Nov. 25, they are invited to visit the Chesapeake City Branch Library at 6:30 p.m. for a program called “Remembering Kennedy: Fifty Years After Camelot.” There will be a brief introduction as we share some images of Kennedy and his visit to Cecil County. But more importantly, we’ll be opening the floor for folks to share their own memories of what it was like to experience those twin days of excitement and sorrow—Kennedy’s visit here and then the assassination—that took place 50 years ago this month.
What do you or your family members remember from that time?