My way... or the highway

My way... or the highway

Lance Neita

Sunday, February 16, 2020

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The north-south leg of Highway 2000 from Mammee Bay to Mandela has rapidly become commonplace for those who use that route on a regular base. The corridor opened up vistas of beautiful Jamaica spread across pastures green, orange groves, and, as we near the end, a glimpse of the city some distance away with a hint of the Caribbean blue merging with the skyline beyond the Kingston Harbour.

My wife and myself were hesitant on our first drive when we got to the toll building at Golden Grove as it didn't ask for cash. We watched suspiciously as the toll card emerged from the little slot.

We then approached the Moneague bypass with caution, although the directional signs to Kingston were very clear, and, anyway, who would want to travel via Moneague with this 45-minute cross-the-island marvel in our grasp.

The highway is a breeze and a blessing as you bypass Steer Town, Claremont, Golden Grove, and Moneague, cresting the Mt Rosser and Mt Diablo high points. You can 'cut yuh eye' at any traffic congestion in Ewarton and Linstead, then coast downhill, avoiding the turn-off into Angels and Spanish Town, before landing at the Mandela toll feeling like a passenger coming in from a New York flight.

“Here comes the worse part of the drive,” I muttered to my wife who I knew was going to be annoyed at my silly repetitive joke in reference to the toll fee that must now be paid.

Sometimes, if time allows, I return via the old road to reduce expenses, as well as to renew former contacts and experiences enjoyed on the Bog Walk road. These include taking a surreptitious look at the famous Pim Rock — yes, it's still there — negotiating Flat Bridge, checking out my Bog Walk vendor friends, the Ewarton Bakery, Faith's Pen rest stop, and the Mt Rosser sugar-loaf pineapple sellers.

I took a turn the other day, a bit too late to catch the early morning fog that blankets the valley at the foot of Moneague, but the beautiful cattle ranges still present a scenic picture that stays with you for a few corners until you round into Faith's Pen and get a glimpse of that attractive resettlement subdivision for bauxite land vendors built by Alcan years ago.

Unfortunately, the Faith's Pen food stop has become a deserted village, with only a faithful few open for business. Yes, there is a God, ackee and salt fish and breadfruit for a roadside breakfast.

A couple more miles onwards and my favourite look-see is still there — the tiny Village All-Age School almost hidden in a valley by the surrounding hills, and always stirring up a memory of that 1959 hit song Little Jimmy Brown walking all over my mind.

The Bog Walk fruit stalls have also wilted; fewer stalls, less produce, but the old favourites still standing up strong, boasting water coconuts, apples, sweet sops, tangerines, bananas, and, of course, the traditional oranges.

It was a Saturday morning with the road kept busy, mainly by the taxis and buses that must serve the villages along the way — Ewarton, Kent Village, the Bog Walk Gorge, Dam Head, Angels.

The Gorge provides one of the most scenic routes in Jamaica with its towering rock face reaching hundreds of feet high. The railway tunnel famously known as the '3/4 Mile' that bores through the cliffs just outside of Bog Walk was the longest tunnel on the track. It struck terror in young hearts when, following a warning from the conductor, the train would suddenly plunge into darkness and after several eerie minutes emerging again into the sunlight.

The Rio Cobre running beside the main road, originally known as the 16-mile walk, was tepid and unattractive that Saturday morning. The ghostly legends of the 16-mile walk, the Bog Walk Power House tragedy of 1904, the mountain that was split in two by the 1692 earthquake, and the Flat Bridge built some time after 1724 all seemed to be lying low, perhaps waiting for some tourism magnate to take over this historic gorge and add a new chapter to Jamaica's tourism and historical package.

Until that happens, I guess I will stick to the highway, now named after Edward Phillip George Seaga, and wonder why the sign at the Mammee Bay roundabout is so small you can barely read the name.

I was one of a few who initially opposed the decision to name the highway thus, as I felt that the late prime minister could have been better served by attaching his name to any one of a score of fine projects conceptualised and built by him. For example, I am told that consideration is being given to naming the Tivoli Gardens High School after him — nothing more appropriate to enrich his memory than associating it with one of his proudest and most beloved legacies.

In an article entitled 'Seaga does not need this highway', published April 8, 2018, I wrote: “Indeed, there are many other institutions that could be named after this brilliant leader. Seaga is credited with the building of the financial and planning infrastructure of Jamaica following Independence. He really doesn't need this controversial highway name. There are many and much better monuments to commemorate his contribution to Jamaica.”

But hush, wiser heads reminded me that the early initiatives to design an improved highway connection system surfaced in 1969-1970, and was included in the National Physical Plan published in 1971 — first vetted by then Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, as well as the then Minister of Finance and Planning Edward Seaga.

Interestingly, and again according to the official records, the first plan suggested the north-south leg of the highway to run from Discovery Bay to May Pen, but this was later overturned by the necessity to construct a passageway to avoid the Flat Bridge accident zone.

Reach across the political divide, however, to give deserved credit to Portia Simpson Miller, P J Patterson, Omar Davies, Kingsley Thomas, and all others responsible for designing and moving this project forward to completion.

And, speaking of crossing the political divide, will the present Government retain the Portia Simpson Miller Square at the Hagley Park/Spanish Town Road intersection and attach it to the new super crossover, or is a new name planned; and after whom, may I ask.

Meanwhile, back on the highway, my little joke about “the worst part of the drive” in reference to the fee that must be paid at the toll gate has a serious historical undertone.

Toll gates and charges are not new to Jamaica. Dr Rebecca Tortello, in her masterpiece Pieces of the Past, tells us that, according to historian Frank Cundall, around 1838 a law was passed to raise funds through tolls to ensure the maintenance of Hope Road — the road leading from Montgomery Corner in Liguanea to the junction of the Hope and Hog-Hole Rivers. Montgomery Corner is now known as Cross Roads. The rates were noted as 10 pence on every wheel, horse, mule, cattle, and horned stock (the devil take the hindmost), and five pence on every ass, sheep, goat, or pig.

This was the first instance of tolls being paid in Jamaica as more and more taxes were levied on the peasant class. The funds collected were used to provide additional services for the plantation owners.

Some toll gates were placed at strategic locations on roads leading to Savanna-la-Mar. This meant, however, that many people had to pay tolls each time they went to collect water. In February 1859 the people could take no more and demonstrations led to widespread riots against the tolls.

Toll Gate on Clarendon is one of the strongest reminders of this period in Jamaican history. Pleasant memories for me, however, as I have enjoyed rollicking times at the railway halt station at Toll Gate operated by the Less family. They still run the popular bar and restaurant that in the old days of the Jamaica Railway Corporation would tempt the train drivers (remember Joe Waugh of blessed memory) into unauthorised delays in order to sip a quick one and break the monotony of the long ride from Montego Bay to Kingston.

Well, we don't have anything like the Less Halt on the Seaga highway, but there is a promise of things to come with the opening of a gas station at Unity Valley crossing. We wish them luck.

Seaga famously said, “My way, or the highway.” He certainly had his share of both.

Lance Neita is a freelance writer, author, historian, and public relations professional always on the lookout for a good refreshment stop. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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