Honoring a 50-year span

Bay Bridge: Officials marking the structure's anniversary couldn't stop to enjoy the view, unlike in 1952, because too many cars filled the lanes.

July 31, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago, 15,000 people turned out to see the engineering marvel that is still sometimes described as Maryland's largest and most important public structure.

Motorists obligingly lined up for miles, waiting to cross the sparkling new 4.3-mile Bay Bridge. Bands played; an outdoor buffet was served at Sandy Point. The celebration lasted nearly six hours.

Dignitaries piled into antique cars for the inaugural road test of the $45 million two-lane span. When the festive convoy reached the peak of the 186-foot-high behemoth, carloads of VIPs did the unthinkable: They stopped to take in the view.

Yesterday, the politicians took a nonstop jaunt in vintage automobiles, and there was no sightseeing. With 250 invited guests, they braved sweltering heat to mark an anniversary that many who were there in 1952 say is rarely appreciated by ever-increasing numbers of travelers, tourists and commuters with little patience for delays.

"Today, the bridge is taken for granted," said Walter E. Woodford Jr., an Eastern Shore native who sits on the six-member authority that runs the state's seven toll bridges and tunnels. "Most motorists believe they have an inalienable right to cross this bay without delay."

That was what state transportation officials were thinking when they closed yesterday's event to the public. They were loath to add to tie-ups that would remind motorists of the frequent traffic jams that have stretched from Interstate 97 to the bridge during peak hours this summer.

"The last thing we'd want is thousands of people coming down and causing traffic problems, which is what would happen if we opened this to the public," said Lori A. Vidil, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Michael Katen, 90, said he wouldn't have minded the wait. He was here 50 years ago and was the first person to pay the toll ($1.40 for his car and one passenger). He drove from his home in Florida to take part in yesterday's ceremony.

Katen, a sort of Forrest Gump of transportation projects, and his brother, Omero, made a hobby of being the first to cross bridges and other sites around the country. Their list of firsts includes the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the George Washington Bridge in New York.

Katen wore the same suit yesterday that he wore for the 1952 crossing: a lightweight gray check he bought in 1948 for $34.95.

"I've just always loved seeing progress," Katen said. "I've met mayors and presidents doing this. I met Howard Hughes when they opened the Lincoln Tunnel. I wouldn't have missed this."

During yesterday's 90-minute ceremony, perhaps 4,000 cars whizzed by on the original span and its three-lane westbound twin that opened in 1973. That was a far cry from the 6,000 cars that ferries hauled on busy weekends in the 1940s, or the 18,000 that crossed the bridge that first weekend in 1952. On busy weekends, the dual spans handle 250,000 or more vehicles.

The numbers are still difficult to grasp for Lou Kelley and others who were there on that July day so many years ago. Kelley was a 15-year-old native of Stevensville when the first car crossed the span. He grew up to work 39 years on the bridge before retiring as its superintendent in 1998. He still lives in the shadow of the huge dual spans.

"I was just a kid from town, and here came the governor and all these big shots riding by," Kelley said yesterday. "I watched this bridge being built. The old-timers said it would never last a big bay freeze or it would get hit by a ship."

Eloise King, a 33-year bridge veteran who worked her way up to toll supervisor, says few of the 100 or so on staff can appreciate the changes she has seen.

"We're handling about 24 million cars a year, 24 million," King said yesterday. "The growth has just been something no one could have imagined."

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