Thursday, Nov. 14, 1963, was a day like no other in the County’s history, as an important public works project that would help shape Cecil’s future became a reality.
There on the Mason Dixon Line stood President John F. Kennedy, flanked by the governors of Maryland and Delaware, Millard Tawes and Frank Carvel. The president made the visit to the historic line to dedicate the $104-million Northeastern Expressway (I-95) and the Delaware Turnpike, major additions to the Interstate Highway system.
“Tanned and almost as boyish looking as he was when (he campaigned in Cecil County for the nation’s highest office in 1960), Mr. Kennedy spoke for exactly four minutes,” the Baltimore Sun reported. This highway “symbolizes the partnership between the federal government and the states, which is essential to the progress of our people.” Once the speakers finished, he and the governors sniped a symbolic ribbon and then unveiled a replica of the Mason Dixon Marker.
Before lifting off in a helicopter, he paused at the door of the craft to wave to the friendly crowd of over 5,000 before disappearing inside. While the copter faded into the eastern horizon, the area was “bathed in a dramatic sunset as people headed back to their cars” on a chilly Thursday afternoon, the Morning News reported. The chopper’s flight took him to the Wilmington Airport, where he climbed aboard a DC 8 for a trip to New York. The 35th president’s 62 minutes visit to the region was over.
As traffic started zipping along the superhighway, without one light halting the fast trip, people realized that the dream of many years was a reality. For years plans had been underway to provide a second thoroughfare to absorb the increased volume on Pulaski Highway (Route 40). Economic development experts talked excitedly about the opportunities presented by I-95. It would yield major dividends by spurring business growth, as commercial, industrial and residential development clustered near the interchanges, they noted.
Many motorists were relieved to be “on the clear new road,” one letter to the editor noted in the Sun. The interstate was “free of the old forest of garish signs and lights, the sudden stops, the unpredictable entrances and exits, the jumble of bars and hamburger joints, and souvenir stands and motels, all competing with each other and the traffic for the drivers attention. On a rainy night or in heavy traffic Route 40 was a nightmare and it didn’t get that way by itself,” the writer observed. Urging careful, ongoing planning for the expressway, he warned, “If you don’t kill the traveler who lays the golden eggs, you can still drive him away.”
On Route 40, which ran parallel to the new interstate and had served as the main route for motorists along the northeast corridor, service stations, motels, and restaurants were “signing the blues,” reporting that business was off nearly half the weekend after the opening, the Sun reported. “Our best days are gone,” one filling station owner remarked. “William Kennedy, owner of a service station in North East, said he pumped 250 gallons of gas a day after Nov. 14,” while he had averaged about 700 gallons daily.
When trucks and cars started rolling at midnight, 10 hours later, the cost of a trip over the 42-mile Maryland section was $1 and it was 30 cents for the 11-mile Delaware trip. It was a four-lane highway, two lanes north and two lanes south, and in 1974 the roadway was widened to three lanes in each direction. In 1991, it was expanded to four lanes in each direction.
There was such optimism in the county. But eight days later, on Nov. 22, 1963, things changed when the 35th president was brought down by an assassin’s bullet. Five months later, the highway was renamed in honor of the slain president, as the ceremony was the last public works project he dedicated before his fateful trip to Dallas.
Throughout his life, Cecil County’s popular photojournalist, Jim Cheeseman, talked about the day the Whig’s editors assigned him to capture the visit on film. He and others in the press corps waited near the helicopter landing strip for about 45 minutes before the president arrived.
On that afternoon “the vibrant, young, energetic executive” stepped from the helicopter and Jim permanently recorded the visit for the county’s newspaper of record. “The most outstanding thing I remember was when the helicopter landed. It was just a feeling, seeing the president step out. I was very impressed with him … You could see he was active and young,” Jim once recalled in an interview with the Whig. As the president and the governors snipped the ribbon, the three men smiled in front of the photographer’s camera.
“I didn’t hear much of the speech, because I was frantically trying to reserve a good spot to get a snapshot of the president for the ceremony,” Cheeseman recalled.
Fifty years after this important milestone in county history, many people still remember seeing and hearing the president on this visit to the County.