Time unkind to Ritchie Highway

Way Back When

Birthday: Sixty years ago, the strip of auto parts dealers and shopping centers was envisioned as a scenic parkway.

April 15, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When Route 2, more commonly known as Ritchie Highway, was built in the 1930s, it was envisioned as a route to convey motorists quickly across the mosquito-ridden, flat and dusty agrarian Anne Arundel County countryside, to Annapolis and the Eastern Shore resorts that lay beyond.

At the end of April, the 41.4-mile highway, which is today home to more than 50 shopping centers, 66 fast-food joints, 25 churches, 128 automobile dealerships, palm readers, funeral homes, tattoo parlors, snowball stands, repair garages, auto parts stores, homes and farms will celebrate its 60th birthday.

The much maligned highway, which for years has been cursed by drivers for its numerous traffic lights and congestion, has also become a lasting metaphor for riotous commercial development run amok.

However, that wasn't the original intent of its designers who had planned for no commercial roadside businesses and hoped that the new road would be a scenic gateway or parkway to the state capital.

The road, which was named for its creator, four-term Gov. Albert Cabell Ritchie, and U.S. Route 40 were the first two modern dual highways built in the state.

According to legend, Ritchie took a map, circled Annapolis and Baltimore, and then drew a straight line between the two cities. "Build it here," he is reported to have said.

Construction began in 1934 as the first segment started building southward from Furnace Branch. The road, dubbed initially the "New Annapolis Boulevard," consisted of two 20-foot roadways separated by a six-foot median strip and was built at a cost of $90,000 a mile.

The Roadside Beautification Council of Maryland, worried about what might become of the new road, sponsored a campaign "to show the people of Maryland what can be done to preserve scenic beauty.

"The garden clubs and and civic groups have been trying to prevent the degeneration of Ritchie Highway into another sign-plastered, shack-ridden Washington Boulevard. When they lose, the public loses," said an Evening Sun editorial.

On April 27, 1940, the $2.25 million highway was officially opened, four years after the death of the man who inspired its construction.

Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson, Mayor George W. Haley of Annapolis and Ezra B. Whitman, chairman of the State Roads Commission, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies held at the Ritchie Memorial at the Severn River Bridge across the river from the capital.

A crowd of 15,000 lined the streets to see a parade while the mayors of Baltimore and Annapolis arrived in a "pre-war automobile equipped with a bulbous rubber horn which was operated by squeezing instead of pushing," reported The Sun.

Thirteen brass bands, floats, sailors, soldiers, veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I, Boy Scouts, the Annapolis Fire Department's new fire engine with wailing siren and a squadron of airplanes roaring overhead, amused the crowds.

"The highway was a tribute to Governor Ritchie's interest in good roads and to the intelligence with which the State undertook under him to bring its road system in line with the needs of the times," said O'Conor.

Mrs. O'Conor then carefully cut the black-and-gold ribbon stretched across the road, which "several small Boy Scouts quickly divided into fragments which they kept as souvenirs," said the newspaper.

However, despite all of the noble high-mindedness of its planners combined with a lack of zoning regulations which persisted for years, unrestrained development took off.

Within six months of the road's opening, 31 business opened up, including filling stations, tourist cabins of the "It Happened One Night" variety, a dance hall, restaurants and a monkey house.

Another first along the highway happened, however, a year earlier.

In 1939, the Gov. Ritchie Open-Air Theater, located halfway between Brooklyn and Glen Burnie, opened for business. The drive-in, the state's first, was built by the E.M. Loew theater chain of Boston.

Seven hundred eighty-six autos jammed in on opening day to watch, from the comfort of the front and back seats of their Packards, Fords and Studebakers, "Gunga Din." The drive-in survived until being torn down in 1984.

"But having opened the new Annapolis Boulevard with such pomp, the State may just as well resign itself to seeing roadside beauty marred and safety lessened by the erection of hot doggeries, waxworks museums, filling stations, billboards -- in short, all the horrors which line the Washington Boulevard," said a Sun editorial.

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