To get a glimpse of how the Eastern Shore used to be before the Chesapeake Bay bridge, all you had to do was ask George Prettyman and Sterling Hersch. Both of these old timers grew up in the early 1900s in Rock Hall, where Sterling’s family owned the general store and George’s father was the Methodist minister. George, who wrote newspaper columns in the “I remember” style, recalled how back-to-school shopping meant a ferry trip to Baltimore — always an exciting outing for a kid from Rock Hall. Both Sterling and George are gone now, but this era before the bridge lives on in memory and legacy.
When the original two-lane Chesapeake Bay bridge opened in 1952, it meant an end to the Eastern Shore’s isolation, literally paving the way for development. But while the bridge was a boon for Ocean City, enabling tourists to “reach the beach,” it actually brought about the economic decline of places that had a business model built around the ferry.
The towns of Tolchester and Betterton, both near Rock Hall, once hosted hordes of day trippers from Baltimore, with the former offering an amusement park and the latter a selection of places to stay. Even in Cecil County, places like Hollywood Beach and Crystal Beach attracted crowds of beach-goers to the shores of the Chesapeake at a time when the Atlantic beaches were a much more difficult drive. But the bridge changed all that, and certainly there were no more shopping trips to Baltimore on the ferry.
In 1973, a parallel three-lane span was opened to relieve traffic congestion, and now, the state government of Maryland is in the early stages of planning for a third bridge crossing. Those changes that rocked the shore could happen all over again.
The cost of any new bridge would be phenomenal. According to The Baltimore Sun, state officials project the cost to be nearly $7 billion. Such a huge outlay of public money should require consensus and smart expenditure.
For example, why settle for a bridge carrying cars when we could develop a far more efficient mass transit system to carry people back and forth to the beach? Imagine boarding a high-speed train at a transportation center near Columbia and having your toes in the sand an hour later. Being whisked to the beach in comfort and style is not out of the question at all; it simply requires approaching the transportation problem in a different way.
Another practical alternative could be to do just what New York State has done in replacing the aging Tappan Zee bridge across the Hudson River, which carries 134,000 vehicles daily. (Maryland officials say our bay bridges carry 70,000 vehicles daily.) The $4 billion replacement span features four lanes of traffic in each direction and a path for pedestrians and bicyclists, which is a huge recreational attraction in itself. The new Tappan Zee parallels the old bridge, which will be demolished, and uses the same approach roads, minimizing the expense of building any highways. Using the Tappan Zee model could be a smart solution to Maryland’s bridge problem.
It is the idea of an entirely new route that raises so many concerns. A recent meeting in Chestertown rallied folks to speak out against a Kent County bridge crossing, thought to be at the top of the list of bridge routes, considering that when one stands on the shore at Tolchester, you can see downtown Baltimore through your binoculars on a clear day. A span from Baltimore would come ashore here, cut through the farmland toward Kennedyville, then link up with U.S. Route 301 and south to Route 50. Eminent domain would be used to seize private property from any holdouts.
Directly in this path of development would likely be the pristine Caulk’s Field battlefield, where American militia defeated British invaders during the War of 1812, giving the U.S. one of its few victories in that war. The battlefield is just one of the many rich cultural and agricultural gems that could be paved over.
We don’t always have much will to preserve the quiet places that give our state character and recharge its rich heritage. We must be careful to truly build for the future, rather than simply take a convenient approach that robs such places of value, leaving behind a concrete husk.
The bridge built years ago forever changed the Eastern Shore. Any new bridge will have a similar lasting impact, so we must choose our path wisely and with care.
David Healey (davidhealeyauthor.com) is the author of regional books that include, “1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War” and “Great Storms of the Chesapeake.”