William Preston Lane: He unified the state

Bay Bridge champion: Governor ended Eastern Shore's isolation from rest of Maryland

Marylanders Of The Century

August 23, 1999

WHEN it comes to courage, William Preston Lane Jr. could teach today's Maryland politicians a lesson. He often put his career on the line to do the right thing. Achievements mattered, not longevity in office.

In the 1930s, then-Attorney General Lane sent in state troopers and the National Guard to find the perpetrators of three lynchings on the Eastern Shore. He was warned it could end his career, but he persisted because he abhorred intolerance and discrimination.

His car was stoned, he was vilified, but Lane persisted, even testifying before Congress. He became a national hero and helped turn the tide of opinion against lynchings. But it cost him any chance for re-election in 1934.

A decade later, then Governor Lane -- again warned of the political dangers -- rammed through the state's first sales tax. In the wake of skimpy wartime budgets, Maryland's infrastructure was in deplorable shape. He vowed to change that.

Lane's postwar modernization succeeded, but he was cast in the role of tax villain.

Today, Pres Lane is best remembered for another courageous act -- overcoming 45 years of opposition to a bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay. That achievement transformed life on the Eastern Shore, ended its dependence on Wilmington and Philadelphia and sparked a booming vacation and tourist trade in Ocean City.

The 4.2-mile-long, $45 million bridge ranks not only as an engineering marvel but as the most important public works project in state history. It literally opened the Eastern Shore -- a sleepy, backwater vestige of the Deep South -- to the 20th century. The man who made it happen was born into Hagerstown's most prominent family. He married Dorothy Byron, daughter of the town's second-most important family, and wound up running the town newspaper, a bank, a law firm and a shoe factory.

He returned from World War I a decorated hero and enlisted in the cadre of Gov. Albert C. Ritchie. Within a few years, Lane had firm political control as a ward heeler of Washington County.

He, along with William C. Walsh in Allegany and Garrett counties, David C. Winebrenner in Frederick County and E. Brooke Lee in Montgomery County, were dubbed Ritchie's "knights of the west." They directed their counties' political fortunes for three decades.

In his one term as governor, Lane produced prodigious changes. By forcing through a reluctant legislature not only a new sales tax but higher levies on existing taxes, Lane paved the way for major spending projects.

Lane's state budget increased 25 percent each year. A fast-expanding University of Maryland accommodated a wave of returning veterans on the G.I. bill; elementary schools were built to prepare for the postwar "baby boom."

Farmers, businessmen and new suburbanites demanded better transportation, which Lane set in motion with 1,110 miles of new roads, including the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Annapolis-Washington Parkway (U.S. 50).

When The Sun ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the mistreatment of the mentally ill, Lane responded with new hospitals not only for citizens with psychiatric problems (Spring Grove) but for those with mental retardation (Rosewood) and tuberculosis (Mount Wilson).

In the end, none of these good deeds mattered to voters. They dubbed the governor's sales tax "Pennies for Lane." He was nearly defeated in a vicious Democratic primary, then soundly trounced in the 1950 general election.

Two years later, though, Lane helped christen the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The original span still carries his name. Millions traverse it every year. It has spurred commerce and unified citizens on both shores of the Chesapeake. It remains William Preston Lane Jr.'s greatest achievement.

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