Years ago this holiday weekend, the Harbor Tunnel got inter-city traffic off Baltimore's streets

SO YOU THINK IT'S BAD ON THE ROAD NOW? 50

November 21, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Fifty years ago, the infamous "Baltimore bottleneck" was unplugged.

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1957, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin opened the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. No more would motorists traveling between Washington and New York or Boston have to inch their way stoplight by stoplight - 51 by one account - through the streets of Baltimore.

At the time there were no Beltway and no Interstate 95. The main routes through the city were U.S. 1 and U.S. 40. On a good day, a lucky driver might make the slog through town in 45 minutes. On a bad day, it could take more than an hour.

With the tunnel, for the price of 40 cents, the weary traveler could drive his shiny new Edsel from U.S. 1 in Elkridge to U.S. 40 and Erdman Avenue in a mere 17 minutes. Big trucks paid a princely 85 cents. The Evening Sun tested the tunnel and found it shaved 27 minutes off the travel time and saved almost a gallon of gas compared with one of the most-used routes through the city.

"It will do much to remove the defensive, hang-dog attitude assumed by Baltimoreans who for years have submitted to the attacks of battalions of outlanders whose only acquaintance with the city has been in its capacity as a bottleneck," the newspaper intoned in an editorial marking the opening.

The four-lane tunnel and thruway, designated Interstate 895 during the 1980s, may not seem like a marvel now. Since 1985, the eight-lane Fort McHenry Tunnel has carried almost twice the volume of traffic. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, opened in 1977, offers a dramatic view. At times the thruway south of the tunnel seems almost deserted.

But at its opening, the tunnel between Canton and Fairfield was a monumental breakthrough for Maryland transportation and a symbol of the engineering derring-do of the 1950s.

"The tunnel transforms one of the most difficult cities through which to drive into one of the easiest," McKeldin was quoted as saying at the Nov. 29 dedication in an article by The Evening Sun's Donald Hirzel.

Now 82 and retired, Hirzel recalled the occasion as "a big deal." Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. spoke; a prominent rabbi gave the invocation; the Roman Catholic archbishop blessed the tunnel, and an Episcopal bishop delivered a benediction. "The day they opened the tunnel up - that day was like a Maryland holiday almost," Hirzel said.

The tunnel was a monumental challenge - the longest twin-tube trench tunnel in the world when it opened. The cost was $144 million for the 17.6-mile project, including the 1.7-mile tunnel and its approaches. To replicate it today would likely cost several billion dollars.

The need for a harbor crossing had been agreed upon since the 1920s, but officials wrangled for decades over what to build - a bridge or a tunnel - and where.

A 1954 article by Sun maritime editor Helen Delich - who would go on to add a married name and serve in Congress - chronicled opposition to the tunnel route from boosters of what is now known as the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore.

"I've never known anything that will do Baltimore so little good, but so much harm," she quoted public works official Paul L. Holland as saying.

Bentley, still active at 83 as a consultant to the maritime industry, said the governor finally broke the impasse. "McKeldin was a doer. `Let's get things done,'" she said.

She said the tunnel brought significant improvements in ground transportation - especially for long-suffering Baltimore residents who lived along the old inter-city travel routes. "In those days everyone in the summer sat out on their front steps, and they had all that traffic coming through," she said.

For the young engineers of that era, the project was an opportunity to learn from the titans of their profession.

Tom Coursey and S. Murray Miller, Johns Hopkins engineering graduates who worked on the project, recounted their roles in an interview at the Hunt Valley offices of URS Corp., where Miller has served as a consultant since retiring in 2005.

Both recalled the tunnel's construction as a highlight of their early careers. "It was by far the biggest project going on in this area," said Miller, 75, who worked as a geotechnical engineer for the J. E. Greiner Co. of Baltimore, which was eventually absorbed into URS.

Coursey, 79, left a job with the State Roads Commission in Western Maryland to work for Singstad & Baillie, the engineering firm headed by tunnel designer Ole Singstad. "I saw this as a grand opportunity to get in on something big," he said.

The harbor crossing was built using the "cut and cover" technique - already a proven method. The builders dredged a deep ditch under the Patapsco River's 50-foot-deep shipping channel.

After the trench was dug, the builders submerged 21 300-foot sections of two enormous tubes, fabricated at shipyards in the region and towed to the site by tugboat.

According to Miller, the tube sections, sealed at both ends by metal bulkheads, were carefully fitted together. Once they were joined, the bulkheads were removed by welders.

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