In Observations

The duties of a top county official in rural Dorchester county are charmingly varied. Here comes county council president Ricky Travers, towing his little wagon down Race Street, using a cup attached to a long pole to water the hanging plants beautifying Cambridge’s main drag.

Then, donning his apron, Travers heads into the Simmons Grocery, owned and operated by his family for 80 years, featuring custom steaks, fresh pork ears and sausage made in the store. Milk and yogurt come from nearby Nice Farms, a small family dairy.

Running a small grocery’s “a struggle,” Travers says; “but fortunately there’s a trend now where customers want to know where their pork’s from, how those cows are raised.”

Film makers Dave Harp and Sandy Cannon-Brown and I have come to see another struggle for Dorchester politicians—maintaining hundreds of miles of rural roadways that serve small villages and isolated homes throughout the lowlying southern part of Maryland’s largest and most floodprone county.

Scientists tracking rising sea levels, subsiding lands, and the higher tides and worsening erosion these bring estimate that in the next half century or so, keeping some of these roads open will become increasingly difficult.

Travers (age??) “hopes and prays that won’t happen on my watch. . . I don’t think it will.” Meanwhile, Dorchester has taken extraordinary steps to keep up with the tide—purchasing its own asphalt plant, for example, which it runs in partnership with a local paving contractor.

Every county paves roads of course, to keep them smooth, but here in Dorchester laying down asphalt serves another purpose—raising them as they sink.

Every inch counts down here in places like the one we’re standing on with Travers, near the intersection of Hip Roof and Smithville roads. Hibiscus is blooming along the marsh and tidal sloughs that extend from both sides of the road. “Ghost” pines, dead from salt water intrusion, line the marsh-upland edges.

Some locals have pulled over to crab, casting their baited handlines right off the narrow road shoulder. Looking down off the edge of the asphalt you can see two or three layers of older road extending down into the tidal water.

The original roads in southern Dorchester were built of logs laid across the marshes…built up later with oyster shells, also gravel, then in modern times with asphalt.

“Not a lot of bottom to them,” Travers explains. Where tidal ditches run next to some roads here, at low tide one can see the old logs extending out a couple feet or more beneath the current blacktop. One place, Travers says, the successive layers of blacktop might extend down five feet.

Normally, road pavers ‘mill’ or grind away some of the old road before layering on new blacktop, but not on many Dorchester byways, “because we’re trying to help with the high tides,” says John Russell, whose Russell Paving Company partners with Dorchester’s asphalt plant.

On a recent job, near Crapo in the lower county, his workers put down two inches of new asphalt—“build it up about an inch and a half after it’s rolled,” he said. “They (the county) would prefer to go up more, but it’s a lot of extra money.”

Even a little bit of extra height can be important, Russell says. “We may get just a quarter inch or a half an inch (of tide) over the road and that’s enough to throw a car into the ditch if he’s going 40 miles an hour.

If it’s a major storm, you can’t help much, but in minor tidal flooding, (extra asphalt) can make a tremendous difference.”

Citizens have adapted to tide cycles in their comings and goings, Travers says, and the county routinely issues tidal flooding advisories.

Adaptation may be coming also to a major triathlon Dorchester hosts each October, which brings thousands of people and millions of dollars into the county for a few days.

Last year part of the race had to be rerouted because tides covered the roads. “We’re talking about shifting it to September, when the tides don’t seem to run as high,” he says.

As Travers talks about the future of the roadways to Dorchester’s lowlying settlements, many of which go back to Colonial times, I recall a scene from a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Fishermen who have risked their lives to harvest the sea are bargaining with customers:

“It’s no fish ye’re buyin, it’s mens’ lives.”

So Travers:

“I hope and pray in my time I don’t have to tell people they have to abandon their hard-earned property values, their communities, their heritage. . . because of rising water.”

 

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