Span forged a link between two worlds


May 02, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

SANDY POINT -- Consider the gracefully curved approach, the soaring towers, the gray steel girders and the massive, concrete piers of a Chesapeake Bay landmark that has withstood the test of time.

Naysayers claimed it would be toppled by the first winter's ice floes. They said passing freighters would bump it in the night. They said it would ruin the state's oyster industry by redirecting the bay's currents.

None of that came to pass, of course. Instead, as it approaches 40, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is the key to one of the most heavily traveled highways in Maryland, a place where weekend traffic tie-ups quickly became a summer tradition and a vacationer's nightmare.

Since it opened on July 30, 1952, nearly 300 million cars and trucks have crossed it. If you stacked them bumper-to-bumper, they would circle the globe a half-dozen times (although their hapless passengers wouldn't get to the beach any faster). More significantly, the bridge is the link that has made Maryland whole, connecting the urbanized Baltimore-Washington corridor with the rural Eastern Shore. The change it wrought was significant: a sleepy beach resort named Ocean City became a multibillion-dollar real estate bonanza.

"If there was ever a single thing to put your finger on that made Ocean City prosper and grow, it was the Bay Bridge," said Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell. "It was like night and day.

It made all the difference in the world."

Tomorrow, Marylanders will once again get their chance to celebrate the bridge as it approaches its fifth decade. The 18th annual Bay Bridge Walk, the once-a-year opportunity to stroll across the 4.3-mile-long span, starts at 9 a.m.

Formally named the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge -- after the former Maryland governor -- the original structure was -- joined by a second three-lane span 450 feet to the north in 1972.

It has never been considered an artistic wonder. And though it's one of the longest over-water steel structures in the world, it's not considered an engineering marvel either.

Instead, it's more like an engineer's demonstration project: a joining together of five different styles of bridge capped by a suspension span with a deck rising 200 feet above the shipping channel that links the Atlantic Ocean with the port of Baltimore.

"Practically every technique of bridge-building is employed in it," said John A. Moeller, director of engineering for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge. "Maybe this in the eye of the beholder, but I think it's beautiful."

Before the Bay Bridge, the Eastern Shore was easily the most isolated geographic region in the Northeast. To venture to the Delmarva peninsula from the west meant driving north to Elkton and back down the other side of the bay, or taking one of several ferries that plied the Chesapeake waters.

Either way, it was a long and often wearying journey. In the early 1950s, Saturday motorists often waited four hours or more to catch the ferry between Sandy Point on the Western Shore, and Matapeake on Kent Island on the east side of the bay. At night, there was no service at all.

"The opening of the bridge meant going to Baltimore wasn't the big deal it was before," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Shore native. "Before, the ferry stopped running at 8 o'clock at night. The bridge made a big difference."

Not everyone on the Eastern Shore wanted to be discovered. Some feared the loss of the Eastern Shore's unique regional identity and the impact of a flood of urbanites.

On Kent Island, the common lament continues to be "Glen Burnie-ization," and natives complain about the "chicken-neckers" the bridge brings.

The former refers to the new homes and strip shopping centers that have sprung up like algae blooms along U.S. 50. They remind Shore residents of the congested strip of Ritchie Highway that distinguishes Glen Burnie, in northern Anne Arundel County.

The latter is a sneering reference to Western Shore visitors, because the outsiders use lowly chicken necks to bait their crab lines.

"Without the bridge, [the Shore] would have been a better place to live," said Joshua K. Bullen, a 79-year-old former ferry captain who lives on Kent Island. "Some days I wish it never would have been built."

The Shore's ambivalence toward the bridge and newcomers often mystifies city dwellers. Gov. William Donald Schaefer made the mistake of touting the $235 million the state has paid in recent years for new bridges and highway widening projects to ease congestion along the U.S. 50 corridor.

He was stunned when Eastern Shore voters soundly rejected him at the polls two years ago.

"We still feel like the stepchild of Maryland," said Frederick C. Malkus Jr., 78, the Shore's longtime state senator. "Some people think the bridge was the worst thing that could have happened to the Eastern Shore."

The prosperity the bridge brought to Ocean City is obvious. Less apparent is what, if anything, it did for the rest of the Shore.

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