Emotional attachment

July 31, 2002

MARYLANDERS love to walk over it, run over it, sail under it, and swim alongside it.

Even driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge can be a sensory pleasure. On a glorious summer morning, when the hour is early and the traffic is light, drivers climbing to the top of the bridge nearly 200 feet above the bay's surface feel as if they are about to take flight.

So popular is the crescent of steel and asphalt spanning the bay that state transportation officials didn't open yesterday's celebration of its 50th anniversary to the public for fear of being inundated. Tens of thousands typically attend Bay Bridge Run/Walk festivals each spring that are held before beach season because it's easier to accommodate them.

There have been plenty of dark moments over that half-century as well, though. Hundreds of people in great despair have come to spend their final moments on the bridge before flinging themselves over the side.

And the bridge is pure torture for drivers afraid of heights. Thousands have had to be escorted or towed across over the decades.

In a way its creators never could have anticipated, the 4.3-mile double span has struck a deep emotional chord in most who live in this region. Far more than a simple transportation link, the bridge created economic and cultural bonds between communities on both sides of the bay that transformed the state.

Folks in Baltimore and elsewhere on the western shore got a speedy way to go down the ocean, hon. Their vacation money brought wealth to sleepy farm towns and fishing villages that had little.

Commuters with jobs in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area can actually live on the Eastern Shore, thanks to the shortened trip over the bay.

Sadly, much has also been lost in the process, especially the rustic quality of life that made the Eastern Shore so attractive to urban and suburban refugees. The strip malls and condo complexes just over the bridge on Kent Island are enough to make an old-timer weep.

None of that can detract, though, from the grandeur of the bridge itself, an engineering work of art that speaks to the soul. Something about its size and vistas puts life in perspective in a way that is both soothing and exhilarating.

So, happy birthday, bridge. See you at the party next spring -- when it's not so hot and buggy.

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