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Lifestyle

Bob Miller's bridge

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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."

Big water

Howard wanted Miller to dream bigger than Cowen; he suggested that he leave to further his education. Miller's parents didn't object, but they had no way of paying for college.

That's what sent Bob Miller into the coal mine - at $1.56 an hour.

"The opening to the mine I worked in was a 29-inch hole, and the mine was a mile and a half deep," he recalls. "To get in there, we lay on our stomachs on a conveyor belt and that's how we'd get into the mine. The fellas used to make jokes, like, 'It was so low in there you couldn't open your lunch box,' or, 'It's so low in there, if your shovel was upside down, you'd have to take it outside the mine to flip it over.'"

Miller worked in the mine every chance he got, to pay for his studies at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Howard had assumed the role of Miller's mentor and pushed him toward a degree in civil engineering, but he didn't offer to pay for it.

"Harry felt you should do what you do on your own," Miller says.

At Morgantown, Miller studied all facets of engineering: electrical, mechanical, civil, hydraulic. Then, in the fall of 1950, one of his engineering professors took a group of students to Maryland to visit the construction site of the Bay Bridge. By then, the project was a year old. Barges were set up across the bay between Sandy Point and Kent Island, as construction crews built the footings for the bridge, driving tons of pilings deep into the bay floor, building immense coffer dams - virtual "holes in the water" - and filling them with concrete for the bridge's many piers.

The students crossed the bay in a boat; their tour guide was Bruce Herman, engineer in charge of construction and an official of the J.E. Greiner Co. of Baltimore.

"I had never seen such big water before," Miller laughs. "I had never seen the bay. It was the biggest thing I ever saw. I couldn't believe it was just the bay and not the ocean."

Miller was just as awed by the effort to build a bridge across it; actually, five different styles of bridge, including a 1,600-foot suspension span 200 feet above the main shipping channel.

Seeing the bay, the flotilla of construction barges, and the plans for the bridge in Bruce Herman's office that day convinced Miller he'd made the right choice in his studies. He wanted to be an engineer. He wanted to work on these big projects. He wanted to be part of the effort to modernize the country.

So he returned to the coal mines in West Virginia to finish paying for college.

Hazardous duty

As graduation approached in 1951, Miller wrote to Herman to ask for a job. The young engineer was eager to work on the Bay Bridge before it was completed. He got his wish: $300 a month, hazardous duty pay, as an inspector for J.E. Greiner, the project's consulting engineer.

Harry Howard implored Miller to write home with details of his adventure: "Keep me posted as to what it takes to put up a good-sized bridge. You know I have cut several foot logs [over creeks] while coon hunting, but I have never put up a larger job. What you send me to read about your job will help me with the cutting of the next foot log."

Miller hitched a ride from Morgantown to Washington, then took a bus to Annapolis. A clerk in the bus station told him where he might rent a room. He took a cab to the St. Margaret's area, checked in at a boardinghouse, then went for his first meal at another home up the street. He arrived as a seafood supper was being served to a long table of ironworkers. Miller was a kid among veterans, seasoned riveters and beam-walkers, the real macho men of the bridge project.

"What're you going to be doing?" one of the iron men asked.

"I'm gonna be an inspector," replied Miller, igniting a loud collective moan in the dining room.

"Just what we need," one of the workers laughed, "another damn punk out there telling us how to build a bridge."

In his first days on the job, Miller spent more time observing than inspecting. On a floating erection dock, he watched iron workers assemble large sections of the bridge's steel superstructure. Each section was built upon supports of specified elevations so that they could be towed out on huge barges and set in place on the waiting concrete piers of the bridge. Once a new section of bridge was installed, the barge pulled away.

On the day after Christmas 1951, tugs lost control of a barge carrying a new section of bridge to the eastern side of the project, near the cantilevered section that spans an auxiliary shipping channel near Kent Island. A thrashing, 35-mile-an-hour wind sent the barge toward the cantilever, where Miller and a crew of ironworkers, seeing inevitable trouble, clung to steel trusses for dear life.

The men worked without nets beneath them in those days. And Bob Miller, for one, could not swim.

"I believe I left some fingerprints in the steel out there that day," Miller says. "The barge came toward us and the steel structure hit and the whole thing bounced and jolted us. Kegs of rivets went into the bay, lumber, forges. When it was over, the barge floated toward Matapeake and ran ashore."

Miller can't remember anyone being injured in the accident.

In fact, he can only remember one other serious mishap, a fatal one, in his time on the bridge. It was in April 1952. A 25-year-old steelworker named Frank LaGarry had taken an elevator to his post on one of the 354-foot suspension towers straddling the main shipping channel. This was during erection of the cables between the towers and before the roadway had been built.

LaGarry apparently missed a step from the elevator to a truss and fell 197 feet, landed on the counterweight of the elevator below and died instantly. Miller and all other workers went home for the day.

"It was very disturbing to all of us because we had all taken the same steps as he did, and we did it every day," Miller said. "He wasn't careless or anything. He was just doing his job and took the wrong step. We went back to work the next day."

There were three other deaths associated with the construction of the Bay Bridge: Elvin J. Rosier, a 36-year-old steelworker from Parkton, was crushed under a steel beam in April 1950; a month later, 28-year-old John Posavec, of Halifax, Pa., drowned when a floating concrete plant capsized in a storm off Sandy Point; James O'Connor, a 43-year-old construction worker from College Park, was hit by a falling pile hammer in November 1950.

A lucky man

Miller considers himself lucky. He had stepped and crawled all over the superstructure of the bridge, had tapped and tested thousands of rivets, had taken part in night work on the suspension cables, had survived the collision on the cantilever section, and lived to see the big parade on July 30, 1952.

But not without one last close call - 190 feet above the main shipping channel.

About a week before the bridge dedication, Miller had to inspect the underside of the bridge's roadway to make sure it had been fully sealed with waterproofing material. To do this, he and two coworkers, John Wallace and John Donovan, had to lie on their backs on a rolling wooden platform that moved on temporary railroad tracks under the bridge. The three men were in a relatively tight space, grabbing steel and pulling the platform up as they went, moving toward the middle of the bridge's high suspension span.

"We inspected the waterproofing and took notes as we went," Miller recalled. "We got all the way to the top and we didn't have to pull anymore. It was time to come back down, so we just let the platform go. It was a free ride. So we're coming back down - clickety-click, clickety-click - at a pretty good clip when, all of a sudden, I remembered that there was this bad joint in the rail that we had had to fight to get the rollers over on the way up."

And if the platform hit the bad joint hard, Miller and his pals likely would go sailing into the bay. "I hollered," Miller said. Then, as Donovan and Wallace reached desperately for steel with their hands, he raised his feet and jammed his work boots against a beam above him. The platform came to a sudden halt, but its momentum carried it another few feet.

"My ass was still on the platform but the rest of me was hanging off," Miller laughs. "We were hanging there, 190 feet above the water."

The opening of the bridge was just days away and here was Miller, at the edge of ignominious death. But the three managed to catch themselves, pull themselves back onto the platform and finish their run to the bottom of the rail.

So Bob Miller lived to the Bay Bridge's big day. He went on to have a long and distinguished career as an engineer, working for Greiner on many other projects, including the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, Titan missile silos in Arizona, numerous buildings in Baltimore and, in the early 1970s, some aspects of the second Bay Bridge span.

Miller carries a tinge of regret about having not become a design engineer, a whiz at the drafting table - "I can't point to anything great and say I designed it" - but he betrays great pride in having had his hand in the construction of the first span of the Bay Bridge. He loves to tell little stories - and to explain about those hum-making iron grates ("They're wind slots") in the high roadway - as he drives his family across it.

"I think it's beautiful," he said recently from the beach at Sandy Point, speaking perhaps for hundreds of others who worked on the project.

Bethlehem Steel commissioned a documentary film about the Bay Bridge. When he heard of its existence, Harry Howard asked Bob Miller if he could get a copy to him down in Cowen, W.Va.

By then, of course, Howard was hugely proud of his former protege, the young man he had coaxed out of the coal mines with his Saturday night lectures about dreaming big and working hard.

Miller, a little embarrassed about the whole thing, dutifully shipped the film off to his hometown. When it arrived, Harry Howard staged a viewing for everyone at the Cowen community hall, inviting the whole town to come and see "the bridge Bob Miller built."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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