Back Story: Bay Bridge was 45 years in the making

My colleague, Candy Thomson, recently reported that a study will soon evaluate the structural condition and projected life left in the Bay Bridge, while also considering the possible addition of a third span to accommodate traffic demands that will soar by 2025.

The first span that bound the Eastern and Western Shores opened for traffic in 1952. It had been troubled by 45 years of haggling, vanished funding and public debate that was additionally fueled by doubters, controversy, economic downturns and wars.

The first hint of a bridge being built across the bay arose after the Civil War when railroads to move people and commodities were constructed on both shores.

The great obstacle between the markets of Baltimore and the Eastern Shore was the Chesapeake Bay, which meant passengers and cargo going east or west traveled first by sailing vessels and later steamboats that stitched Tidewater Maryland to Baltimore.

With the coming of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its various tentacles on the Eastern Shore between 1880 and 1900, much Eastern Shore commerce was moving not through Baltimore but by rail through Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and New York.

The loss of this commerce was naturally worrisome to Baltimore's business community. The first serious consideration of a bridge crossing was made by Peter C. Campbell in a Sept. 3, 1907, address before the Travelers and Merchants Association.

Campbell's proposal was a bridge carrying an interurban electric railroad that could transport both goods and people.

A year later, the association endorsed Campbell's plan with the building of a bascule bridge (a type of drawbridge), which The Sun promoted in an article as establishing and "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."

Then the idea seemed to sputter during World War I and for much of the next decade. In an effort to deal with the increased motor traffic, the State Roads Commission established a ferry route between Claiborne and Annapolis in 1916.

A new ferry terminal and route was started at Matapeake in 1930, which replaced the former ferry route. It reduced the water distance from 23 miles to 8.7 miles, with travel taking only an hour, allowing more frequent service. It would eventually become the site of the Bay Bridge.

In 1926, the private Chesapeake Bridge Co. announced plans to construct a span from Miller and Hart islands to Tolchester. The next year, 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.

Gov. Albert C. Ritchie suggested the state take over the project when the private company was unable to find suitable financing, and in 1930, he appointed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Commission.

The project again stalled with the coming of the Depression, and years of more commissions and studies ensued. In 1935, the state legislature established the Chesapeake Bay Authority, which was authorized to issue revenue bonds.

Evening Sun reporter H.L. Mencken said the entire project was assembled by "the artful hand of Realtors" who saw unlimited prosperity in opening up the Eastern Shore with a bridge.

In a 1935 article in The Evening Sun, Mencken called the bridge project nothing more than "Castles In the Air," and wrote that nothing could stop the "go-getters backing the scheme … and that it was a shameless assault upon the State treasury."

"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 there was squabbling over where and how many bridges should be built.

"The lynchers and Bible students of Trans-Choptankia will be wanting a third, with one leg in Cove Point and the other in the swamps of Dorchester County, so that they may have access to the halls and Library of Congress and better booze than they have at home," observed Mencken.

The outbreak of World War II ended hopes of a bridge, but the idea was revived in 1945 by Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, then mayor of Baltimore and later governor.

The next year, the project was again pushed by Gov. William Preston Lane, and construction commenced in 1949. The Bay Bridge is named for Lane, who persevered in making it a reality.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad