Fifty-six years ago this November the vast expanse of water that divided Hampton Roads was finally spanned in a way that made this sprawling, geographically fractured region feel noticeably smaller and more closely knit.
In just a few hours, in fact, the number of cars that passed through the newly opened Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1957 matched and then exceeded the number that could be transported by the hard-working Old Point and Newport News ferries in a single day -- and by the end of 1958 traffic had grown to more than 6,000 vehicles daily.
So exultant was the head of the Virginia highway commission at the landmark accomplishment of his contractors and engineers that he went over the top in his remarks at a ceremony marking the opening of what was then -- at $60 million -- the most expensive highway project in the state's history.
"Forecast, if you dare, the traffic, the population, the wealth, and the standard of living in the years ahead," James A. Anderson exclaimed in a dedication program that had to be beamed from WVEC-TV in Hampton after torrential rain moved it indoors from the ferry wharf at Old Point Comfort.
"With this bridge tunnel we have destroyed distance and conquered time."
More than 3 years in the making, the two-lane, 3.5-mile-long crossing was the longest trench-type tunnel in the world when it opened to traffic just before noon on Nov. 1, the Daily Press reported.
Building it required the creation of two different 20-acre islands as well as miles and miles of interstate highway, interchanges and overpasses in both directions.
Led by Gov. Thomas B. Stanley, the official party commemorated the opening at Willoughby Spit first, then boarded the 50-car ferry Ocean City for the state-run transportation service's last trip to Old Point Comfort in Hampton.
The ship's crew hauled down both the American and state flags when the short, 30-minute voyage ended, signifying the death of a system that reached back to the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 in Norfolk and which, by 1957, was carrying 4.5 million passengers a year across Hampton Roads.
Lashing rains divided the celebrants, with about 500 people watching the dedication at the WVEC-TV studios on Pembroke Avenue via a battery of TVs hurriedly installed in the halls of the Hotel Chamberlin.
But even with the bad weather and the last-minute changes, the joining of the two halves of Hampton Roads prompted some visionary speeches.
"Time will demand some form of political union between the cities bordering on this great harbor," Hampton Mayor George C. Bentley intoned, despite his city's recent vote against consolidation with Warwick County and Newport News.
"(This is) the greatest port in the world on the greatest harbor in the world," he continued, reminding his audience that joining "hands across the Roads" would knit some 600,000 people together into the second largest city in the South below Washington, D.C.
Following the dedication, the large party of dignitaries traveled by car to the Hampton toll gates, then crossed back under Hampton Roads to Norfolk via the new tunnel.
By 4 p.m., they'd been followed by nearly 2,000 other vehicles, each one paying a $1.25 toll for the modern-day privilege of making what had been a 25- to 30-minute ferry crossing in under 5 minutes.
"How long will the Hampton Roads tunnel be sufficient?" the Daily Press editorial page asked on the day before it opened, predicting not only the construction of a second tube but also traffic volume that now reaches 100,000 vehicles a day during the summer driving season.
"The tube between Norfolk and Portsmouth under the Elizabeth River already is congested and serious plans are under way to build a second," the writer continued.
"Only a few years ago even the present Hampton Roads tunnel was regarded as more visionary than practical. Today it is a reality -- and a companion passage may be only a few years off. Such is progress."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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