Vintage postcard of the Bay Bridge. Image from the Boston Public Library.

How the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Connected Maryland

05/26/2017
By Waxter Intern

On it’s way to celebrate 65 years of connecting Maryland, take a quick trip into the history of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

BEFORE THE BRIDGE

The Chesapeake Bay separates the two sides of Maryland, the main land and the Eastern Shore and they were relatively isolated from each other. The only routes to the rural Eastern Shore were through northern Maryland, up and around Elkton, or by ferry across the Bay; both long, tedious trips.

Historic map of Maryland, 1886. Map from the University of Maryland.

In fact, most folks from the Eastern Shore instead traveled to Wilmington, DE or Philadelphia, PA for work, shopping, and services. From the 1920s through the 1940s, ferries were the most efficient and practical way of crossing the bay, but as more and more people traveled to the Eastern Shore, the ferries could no longer handle the demand; backups of cars waiting for the ferries would stretch for miles.

PLANNING

Proposals for a bridge spanning the Bay appear as early as 1907. By 1927 plans had been approved to build a bridge between Baltimore and Tolchester Beach in Chestertown, Kent County, funded by the business communities on either side. However, following the stock market crash in 1929, these plans were scrapped.

Nearly ten years later, in 1938, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation authorizing construction of a bridge between Sandy Point – now Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County, and Kent Island, but building was postponed until after the War. Finally, in 1947, construction began. Designed and overseen by Herschel H. Allen of Maryland-based J.E. Greiner Company construction, the bridge took 5 years to complete.

THE STRUCTURE

At its peak, the roadway is 186 feet above the water and the top of the suspension towers are 354 feet from the depths below. Its unique curve is a result of the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers would not approve the structure unless it crossed the shipping channel at a 90 degree angle. At 4.2 miles long, it was the longest over-water structure when it was built, and the third longest bridge in the world.

Lead cars on opening day of the Bay Bridge, 1952. Photo from the Associated Press.

OPENING DAY IN 1952

Ten-thousand spectators flowed in to watch the dedication of the bridge on July 30th, 1952. A car parade, led by then Governor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, crossed the bridge, marking its official opening. It was named after Governor William Preston Lane, who, during his time in office, had spearheaded efforts to construct the bridge. The second, westbound, span was completed in 1973.

In earlier years, the ferries could only transport a few hundred thousand cars across the Bay per year. When the Bay Bridge opened, it carried 30,000 vehicles across in the first three days! Now, it transports 20-30 million cars per year.

Trade opened up between the eastern and western shores, aiding agriculture and industry on either side, creating an economic link that unified the state like never before. The Bay Bridge earned three times the business of the ferries and paved the way for other bridges spanning the Chesapeake. Today, the only ferry that remains is the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry near St. Michael’s.

LEARN MORE FROM MARYLAND PUBLIC TELEVISION

This post was written by Maggie Pelta-Pauls, a Waxter Intern with Preservation Maryland. A graduate of The College of William and Mary, Maggie is primed to research and write about Maryland history – especially culinary history. Learn more about Maggie and our The Waxter Memorial Internship program here: presmd.org/waxter.

Waxter Intern

A legacy gift from William D. Waxter, III established the Waxter Memorial Internship to help Preservation Maryland support the next generation in historic preservation.

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