Retro Baltimore

Chesapeake Bay Bridge may get a new span, but its origins date back to the railroad age

An environmental impact statement approved in late April by the Federal Highway Administration suggests a new Bay Bridge span could rise along the same U.S. 50/301 corridor where its two predecessors stand.

Talk of building a bridge across the Chesapeake Bay first surfaced after the Civil War when the railroad age arrived on the Eastern Shore, with the hopes of moving not only people but its seafood and agricultural products.


The great obstacle that lay in stitching the western and eastern portions of Maryland was the Bay. Goods and passengers traveling east or west initially were handled aboard sailing vessels that were later replaced by steamboats that connected Baltimore and Annapolis to the Eastern Shore.

Between 1880 and 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad extended its line from Wilmington, Delaware, to Cape Charles, Virginia, while flinging many tentacles into the interior of the Eastern Shore.


The great loser in this was Baltimore, because Eastern Shore commerce moved up the spine of the Eastern Shore to Wilmington, Philadelphia and New York, and to markets in the Midwest.

It happened before in 1825 when the Erie Canal opened in New York State, threatening to drain away commerce from Baltimore. To fight back, the city’s businessmen embraced an untried technology, a railroad, that would run from the port to Wheeling, West Virginia, on the Ohio River.

Only a few small railways existed, linking English coal mines with nearby canals or rivers. The concept of building a railroad across the Alleghenies was considered as bold as going to the moon in the 1960s. Out of worry emerged the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827 that began building westward.

Speaking Sept. 3, 1907, before the Travelers and Merchants Association, Peter C. Campbell advanced the idea of bridging the Bay. His proposal was for an electric interurban railroad that would transport people and goods, since the age of the motorcar hadn‘t quite arrived.

The next year, the association embraced Campbell’s plan with a fanciful bridge with two main central towers that bore more than a resemblance to the Tower Bridge in London, which spans the Thames River.

It would be a bascule bridge whose center span across the main channel would rise to allow steam ships to pass. An article promoting Campbell’s bridge in The Baltimore Sun, said it would be “opening commercial intercourse with the rich Eastern Shore Country. An illustration is afforded by the fact that Chestertown, which is now 107 miles by rail, would be 32 miles distant.”

The coming of World War I ended the proposal, and with the rise and ever-growing popularity of the automobile, the State Roads Commission established a ferry route in 1916 between Claiborne and Annapolis.

In 1926, the private Chesapeake Bridge Co. announced plans to construct a span from Miller and Hart islands to Tolchester on the upper Bay, which was then a popular summer steamboat resort and vacation destination. A year later, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to allow the Chesapeake Tunnel and Bridge Co. to construct a bridge and tunnel between Sandy Point and Kent Island.


In 1930, a new ferry terminal and route at Matapeake replaced the former ferry route. It reduced the water distance from 23 miles to 8.7 miles, with the crossing taking only an hour, which allowed more frequent service. Matapeake eventually became the site of the first Bay Bridge.

When the Chesapeake Tunnel and Bridge Co. failed to find suitable funding, Gov. Albert C. Ritchie suggested the state take over the project, and in 1930 established the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Commission.

Ever the skeptic, H.L. Mencken wrote in a 1935 article in The Evening Sun that the entire project was assembled by “the artful hand of Realtors” who realized they would profit by such an enterprise at state expense.

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In the article, Mencken howled that the proposed bridge was nothing more than “Castles in the Air,” and wrote that nothing could stop the “go-getters backing the scheme ... and it was a shameless assault upon the State treasury.”

Mencken wasn’t through with his anti-bridge harangue. “They are out to get the bridge, cost what it may, and unless the taxpayers of the State, and especially Baltimore, offer a more formidable resistance than has been shown so far it will undoubtedly be built,” he wrote.

Then as today, there was squabbling over where and how many bridges should be built.


The coming of World War II, as it had during World War I, extinguished the hopes of a Bay Bridge, but when the war ended in 1945, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, then mayor of Baltimore and later governor, revived it.

In 1946, Gov. William Preston Lane pushed the project and construction began in 1949.

The bridge, named for Lane, finally opened in 1952, when Omero C. Catan of Teaneck, New Jersey, a mustachioed, cigar smoking, catering-service worker who was known as “Mr. First,” became the first customer to pay the $1.40 toll for a two-axle vehicle to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge when it opened for motorists on July 30.

As cars from the Western and Eastern Shore now whizzed overhead, a colorful period in the Bay’s history ended on New Year’s Eve 1952, when the ferry Gov. Emerson C. Harrington II steamed in to that good night, tying up at its Matapeake terminal, joining its unemployed sisters, the Herbert R. O’Conor, John M. Dennis and Harry W. Nice.