STEVENSVILLE - Bill Denny had a front-row seat during the three years that construction crews worked on the soaring path of steel and concrete that in 1952 changed the sleepy peninsula of farms and marsh between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.
He remembers sitting in a Kent Island duck blind, thinking with teen-age hunting buddies about how they could bring down the massive structure that would link the urban Baltimore-Washington region and the rest of the state with nine sparsely populated counties that sprawl over nearly 3,000 square miles.
"It's still changing things as more people come across the bay with their Western Shore ways," said Denny, 70, a seventh-generation islander.
"People never knew how beautiful it was. Now they don't want to go home. But, you know, the other side is that it's bumped the price of almost every piece of land here a hundredfold."
Fifty years after the coming of the Bay Bridge, the Eastern Shore is no longer "a place apart." Marylanders on both sides of the bay can scarcely imagine life without the 4.3-mile gateway that has sped 400 million cars and trucks on their Chesapeake crossing.
Old-timers might bemoan the project that H.L. Mencken sneered was cooked up by "the artful hand of realtors," but few now would dispute its incalculable economic impact on the region.
Replacing a bay ferry system that shuttled cars and passengers from Matapeake on Kent Island to Annapolis, then later to Sandy Point, the bridge handled 1.9 million vehicles during its first year of operation and took in $3.6 million in tolls.
Last year, about 24 million cars and trucks crossed the bridge and generated more than $30 million in tolls. During peak periods, 4,000 cars an hour roll through the toll plaza.
Bay ferries and earlier steamships have been the subject of numerous books by local authors, but many former riders are less than nostalgic when they recall long lines and four-hour waits on busy weekends or trips to Baltimore that could take three hours.
"I remember sleeping in the car, lined up for the 6 a.m. ferry if you missed the last one at 8 the night before," says former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Caroline County native. "I was finishing up law school when the bridge opened, about a month after I really needed it."
The William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, as the Bay Bridge is officially known, still casts a long shadow as natives and newcomers debate anew the steady advance of development, which some fear threatens the rural identity of the once-isolated peninsula.
As the Shore's doorstep, Kent Island and Queen Anne's County bear witness to the steady march that began with developers snapping up island farms a year or two before the bridge opened.
Lots in modest subdivisions that once sold for $100 with $10 down are now routinely bringing $80,000 or more. The county's population has nearly tripled in 50 years, with more than half the 42,000 population now living on land between Kent Narrows and the bay.
With 12,000 or more commuters living in Queen Anne's and working on the other side of the bay, questions about the pace of development will dominate local elections this fall.
Community activists, who in recent years have opposed everything from a 1,350-unit waterfront community to a Wal-Mart proposed at the foot of the Bay Bridge, are running for a host of local offices.
"In so many ways, the bridge changed the essence of the Shore," says Phil Hoon, a Chestertown lawyer who represents slow-growth advocates and environmental groups in three counties.
"There's no question it's created desirable development. It's vital economically, but it's also produced a lot of the problems we're facing now about controlling growth."
Mareen Waterman is an Anne Arundel County real estate broker and developer who bought a farm on the Wye River in 1969 and moved his business to Kent Island.
Over the years, he has developed 500 or more homes on the Shore, sold countless others and clashed periodically with local activists.
Since the opening of the original span's three-lane twin in 1972, Waterman says, the Shore has increasingly attracted commuters, not only in Queen Anne's, but also in neighboring Talbot and Caroline counties. He says the complaints he used to hear from older residents are now mostly shrills from new arrivals who worry that the development they left behind might be catching up to them.
"People scream about growth, but growth is what pushes the economy, growth is what makes it possible for the county to offer services," Waterman says. "When I first moved here, you had to go to Easton or Annapolis if you wanted to buy shoes other than work boots."
As Kent Island has become a haven for commuters, it is Ocean City that has generated untold billions. Tourists took advantage of the bridge - as well as other road improvements pushed through in the late-1980s by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer - to make the 10-mile-long strand along the Atlantic their destination.