Fifty years after mesmerized motorists made their first wide-eyed trip across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the seemingly endless, 17.6-mile expanse of elevated trestles, high-level bridges and deep underwater tunnels once hailed as an engineering wonder has lost some of its luster.
In Hampton Roads alone, four more immense tubes have been sunken under the region’s waterways as new crossings were built or old ones expanded, giving this part of Virginia one of the world’s largest collection of subterranean crossings and making the once spectacular idea of driving under a river or bay almost common.
But when engineers began plotting their course on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in 1958, no one had ever attempted to build such a long and challenging passage in such a daunting location.
Seven workers would die in the audacious $200 million gamble, which attracted scrutiny and visits from heavy construction specialists around the world. And when it stumbled over such obstacles as a thick prehistoric peat bog hidden 70 feet below the bay’s bottom and the punishing winds and waves of the March 1962 Ash Wednesday storm, more than one observer wondered if the epic enterprise was too big and too riddled with problems to be completed.
“It was a very high-risk job from the beginning because of the exposure to the sea conditions. Some people said it couldn’t be built,” says John W. Fowler, who was 33 when he became project engineer for Norfolk’s Tidewater Construction Corp. and two of the four internationally known contractors who collaborated on the project.
“But we started planning early. We learned as we went along — and we found a way to get it done. Nobody had ever seen some of the giant machines we devised to do this job.”
Look for more of my 50th anniversary story on the CBBT -- plus a gallery of archival images documenting the epic engineering feat -- this coming week.
-- Mark St. John Erickson