Bob Miller

Bob Miller is proud of the role he played in building the first bridge over the Chesapeake. When he first arrived, he said, "I had never seen the bay. It was the biggest thing I ever saw." (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

Bob Miller once dreamed of designing great things, but his engineering career went neither quite that way nor quite that far.

So it's with self-conscious country-boy shucks, and a little melancholy, that he downplays his role in the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the most famous manmade structure in Maryland and one of the longest over-water spans in the world. As a rookie construction inspector, Miller used a small hammer to test thousands of its rivets along its thousands of yards of steel, but he doesn't think that warrants a brag.

The men who designed the bridge, which turns 50 this week - they were the gods of this creation. The four workers who died building it - they deserve to be remembered. Not a rivet tapper from West Virginia.

But hold on now.

Miller takes more pride in this than he lets on. He still has the hammer he used to tap all those rivets. He slides it across the kitchen table in his Carroll County home like a veteran of Bastogne showing off a bayonet. He won't be able to tell his three grandchildren that he designed the bridge, or blue-lined it on a drafting table. But he can say with confidence that he tested damn near every rivet in its superstructure, and the whole thing stands, sturdy as ever, after 50 years, doesn't it?

Indeed, get him going and Bob Miller, 73, speaks of the First Big Thing in his life with passion and heroic pride. One rivet at a time, he helped erect the bridge that changed the Chesapeake region forever.

The bridge changed Bob Miller, too. That little hammer might well have been used for chipping coal in a deep mine as for testing iron high over the bay.

Dawn of an era

Thousands of people gathered along Route 50 at Sandy Point on a sunny Wednesday, July 30, 1952, to see former Gov. William Preston Lane, the man who pushed for construction of the bridge after World War II, celebrate his $45 million achievement. After a marathon dedication ceremony of more than five hours - it ended, apparently, only after the public-address system failed - Lane's successor, Theodore R. McKeldin, with his wife, Honolulu, led a long motorcade across the bridge to Kent Island in a Cadillac convertible. Bob Miller, then 23 years old, had a great view of the first official crossing - from a perch on an overhead beam.

He and hundreds of other men who had worked on the bridge, from the floor of the bay to the top of the twin suspension towers, took time to savor the fingerprints they'd left on the 4.3-mile span connecting Maryland's western shore to its eastern one. It had taken them less than three years to build a bridge that had been the subject of a contentious debate in Maryland for half a century.

Convinced there was no need for civilized people to visit the Eastern Shore, H.L. Mencken had dismissed the bridge proposal as "ridiculous." Ocean City investors loved the idea, but most on the Eastern Shore worried that the bridge would ruin their peaceful, rural lives. Private ferry boat companies opposed it. Shipping companies saw it as a navigational hazard.

But, at the dawn of the baby boom, with more and more Maryland motorists waiting sometimes four hours to catch the Annapolis-to-Matapeake ferry, the General Assembly approved construction of a two-lane toll bridge in 1947. Work began two years later.

For Bob Miller, the bridge was an epiphany.

He'd grown up far from big water and big ideas, in the old, creeky mountains of West Virginia. He was born during the Depression, the second of six children. His father worked for a timber company and the railroad, which was what about two-thirds of the men in Cowen, W.Va. (population 500) did. The other third worked in coal mines.

Miller's family lived in a house without plumbing, and the kids took turns drawing water from a well. "Boy," his father, Bill Miller, used to say, "if you got time to play, there must be chores you missed."

Miller attended the Cowen grade school and then its high school. As a lanky teen-ager, he found work on a farm owned by a man who ran the town's general store, Harry Howard. For a native of Cowen, Howard had a worldliness about him; he was relatively well read and kept up on current events, and he spoke of things, culled from magazine articles, that no one else in Cowen discussed. He was fascinated by trains and modern invention.

Bob Miller knew there was something special about Harry Howard, and apparently the feeling was mutual.

"For some reason, Harry Howard took a liking to me," Miller says. "He knew I was a hard worker on his farm and he always made sure I had summer jobs. He used to give me little lectures when I went into his office in the back of the store on Saturday night to get my pay. There was a picture on his desk, a side view of a staircase, and on each step was a word like, 'honesty,' or 'success,' or 'failure,' or 'hard work.' And each time he'd pick a different step on the staircase and that would be what he talked about, whatever the word on the step was.

"One day, when I went to get paid, he said to me that I should do something more with myself than be a coal miner. He was heading me in a direction, but I didn't know what yet. I don't believe I would've been anything but a coal miner if Harry Howard hadn't told me differently."