By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
In July 2001, with plenty of fanfare, fireworks and fun, the Delaware River Port Authority celebrated the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
But 75 years earlier on July 5 there was another celebration at the bridge. At that time the brand new Delaware River Bridge was the subject of news for weeks.
During the July 1 opening gala in 1926 an important person was missing from the festivities and did not arrive until four days later. But, better late than never, President Calvin Coolidge showed up on July 5 to dedicate the longest suspension bridge (at that time) in the world.
Coolidge became our 30th president on Aug. 3, 1923, the day after William G. Harding suddenly died. He was sworn in by his father, John, a notary public, in a simple ceremony at 2:30 that morning in Plymouth, Vt. But the swearing in had to be repeated by a Federal judge to make it official.
His taciturn and often wry Yankee demeanor made him popular. Often known as “Silent Cal” he was the butt of jokes for his brief utterances. Coolidge was re-elected in 1924, but in 1928 he announced “I do not choose to run” and settled into quiet retirement until his death in 1933.
According to Benjamin Franklin Bridge historian Walter S. Andariese, Coolidge arrived at the foot of the Philadelphia side of the bridge about 3:30 that afternoon after addressing the Sesquicentennial Exposition in the city of Brotherly Love.
It was on a Monday and the end of the long holiday weekend. The day was a rainy one, but despite the inclement weather and estimated 30,000 people ringed the Camden bridge plaza to witness an historic event that only lasted a few minutes.
Andariese gives an on-the-scene description of the developments of that day. He writes that the bridge was closed at 3:20 p.m. and soldiers lined the roadway. Shortly after 3:30 the president's motorcade started up the Philadelphia approach under full escort. The procession halted in mid span for an exchange of state officials and escorts. The motorcade then proceeded towards Camden with New Jersey's Essex Troop B (102nd Calvary), troops of the 114th Infantry and 30 motorcycle policeman.
As the limousine left the bridge on the Camden side members of the 112th Field Artillery fired a 21-gun salute and Coolidge's auto continued across the plaza to where a tree was to be planted.
The president stepped from the automobile, but due to the heavy rain Mrs. Coolidge chose to remain in the car. Sergeant Charles Wilson of the bridge police offered his raincoat to the president and Coolidge accepted it and set to work planting the tree.
After the tree, a Vermont Maple from the president's home state, was planted, Andariese says in his history, the man of few words, was heard to utter, “This is the kind of work I like.” But others say the president said nothing and only smiled at the crowd.
As the chief executive finished shoveling, a policeman presented Mrs. Coolidge with a bouquet of flowers that was supposed to be given by a delegation of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but did not because of the bad weather. After the ceremonies Coolidge returned to his car, which sped off, back across the bridge amidst another artillery salute.
Andariese relates that Coolidge took off without returning the raincoat to the police sergeant and that two other officers were injured during the celebration when they were brushed by two cavalry horses.
By evening it was business as usual as an estimated 60,000 cars returned from the Jersey shore crowding not only the new bridge but also packing the ferries.
Thomas A. Bergbauer is a retired Courier-Post copy editor and freelance writer.