SANDY POINT -- Consider the gracefully curved approach, the soaring towers, the gray steel girders and the massive, concrete piers of a Chesapeake Bay landmark that has withstood the test of time.
Naysayers claimed it would be toppled by the first winter's ice floes. They said passing freighters would bump it in the night. They said it would ruin the state's oyster industry by redirecting the bay's currents.
None of that came to pass, of course. Instead, as it approaches 40, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is the key to one of the most heavily traveled highways in Maryland, a place where weekend traffic tie-ups quickly became a summer tradition and a vacationer's nightmare.
Since it opened on July 30, 1952, nearly 300 million cars and trucks have crossed it. If you stacked them bumper-to-bumper, they would circle the globe a half-dozen times (although their hapless passengers wouldn't get to the beach any faster). More significantly, the bridge is the link that has made Maryland whole, connecting the urbanized Baltimore-Washington corridor with the rural Eastern Shore. The change it wrought was significant: a sleepy beach resort named Ocean City became a multibillion-dollar real estate bonanza.
"If there was ever a single thing to put your finger on that made Ocean City prosper and grow, it was the Bay Bridge," said Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell. "It was like night and day.
It made all the difference in the world."
Tomorrow, Marylanders will once again get their chance to celebrate the bridge as it approaches its fifth decade. The 18th annual Bay Bridge Walk, the once-a-year opportunity to stroll across the 4.3-mile-long span, starts at 9 a.m.
Formally named the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge -- after the former Maryland governor -- the original structure was -- joined by a second three-lane span 450 feet to the north in 1972.
It has never been considered an artistic wonder. And though it's one of the longest over-water steel structures in the world, it's not considered an engineering marvel either.
Instead, it's more like an engineer's demonstration project: a joining together of five different styles of bridge capped by a suspension span with a deck rising 200 feet above the shipping channel that links the Atlantic Ocean with the port of Baltimore.
"Practically every technique of bridge-building is employed in it," said John A. Moeller, director of engineering for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge. "Maybe this in the eye of the beholder, but I think it's beautiful."
Before the Bay Bridge, the Eastern Shore was easily the most isolated geographic region in the Northeast. To venture to the Delmarva peninsula from the west meant driving north to Elkton and back down the other side of the bay, or taking one of several ferries that plied the Chesapeake waters.
Either way, it was a long and often wearying journey. In the early 1950s, Saturday motorists often waited four hours or more to catch the ferry between Sandy Point on the Western Shore, and Matapeake on Kent Island on the east side of the bay. At night, there was no service at all.
"The opening of the bridge meant going to Baltimore wasn't the big deal it was before," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Shore native. "Before, the ferry stopped running at 8 o'clock at night. The bridge made a big difference."
Not everyone on the Eastern Shore wanted to be discovered. Some feared the loss of the Eastern Shore's unique regional identity and the impact of a flood of urbanites.
On Kent Island, the common lament continues to be "Glen Burnie-ization," and natives complain about the "chicken-neckers" the bridge brings.
The former refers to the new homes and strip shopping centers that have sprung up like algae blooms along U.S. 50. They remind Shore residents of the congested strip of Ritchie Highway that distinguishes Glen Burnie, in northern Anne Arundel County.
The latter is a sneering reference to Western Shore visitors, because the outsiders use lowly chicken necks to bait their crab lines.
"Without the bridge, [the Shore] would have been a better place to live," said Joshua K. Bullen, a 79-year-old former ferry captain who lives on Kent Island. "Some days I wish it never would have been built."
The Shore's ambivalence toward the bridge and newcomers often mystifies city dwellers. Gov. William Donald Schaefer made the mistake of touting the $235 million the state has paid in recent years for new bridges and highway widening projects to ease congestion along the U.S. 50 corridor.
He was stunned when Eastern Shore voters soundly rejected him at the polls two years ago.
"We still feel like the stepchild of Maryland," said Frederick C. Malkus Jr., 78, the Shore's longtime state senator. "Some people think the bridge was the worst thing that could have happened to the Eastern Shore."
The prosperity the bridge brought to Ocean City is obvious. Less apparent is what, if anything, it did for the rest of the Shore.
At the foot of the bridge, Queen Anne's County doubled in size between 1950 and 1990. Its median family income shot up from half the statewide average in 1950 to just about even by 1990.
The relative prosperity is, in part, the result of cross-bay commuting. In fact, an average of 8,000 vehicles carry Delmarva residents westward each day to jobs in Baltimore and Washington.
But in counties further from the bridge, the statistics are not nearly so dramatic. Somerset County's population grew a scant 2,695 over the 40-year period and Dorchester County's an even more modest 2,421. That amounts to five people a month. All the Lower Shore counties reported income levels significantly lower than Queen Anne's.
"It really didn't have the economic impact except at the beaches," said former Governor Hughes, who grew up in Denton. "As far as the rest of the Eastern Shore, I don't think it
had that much of an impact at all."
Nevertheless, many question what would have become of the Shore's nine counties if the bridge and tourism had not flourished. The industries that long supported the region, farming and seafood, have waned over the decades.
"Even people who complain about the bridge are living off the volumes of traffic created by the bridge," said bridge Superintendent Louis O. Kelly, who oversees a staff of 100.
Still, there was a time when a bridge across the Chesapeake Bay seemed like a pipe dream. When it was finally built, at a then-unheard-of price of $41 million, traffic volume quickly exceeded the bridge's capacity.
Why was the first bridge only two lanes?
Planners simply never expected so many cars to make the crossing.
H.L. Mencken scoffed at the idea that a marriage between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore could ever exist. "The Eastern Shore is too far away to be reached, and even a bridge would not bring it close enough," he wrote in an Evening Sun column in 1931. "I see the artful hand of Realtors in the bridge scheme."
Motorists can be grateful today that backups at the bridge have become less frequent, thanks to recent road improvements and a decision to collect tolls in only one direction. The traffic flow last summer was the best in a generation.
It's also cheaper to cross than it was in 1952, when the one-way toll was $1.35 per car and 25 cents for each additional passenger. Today the toll is a flat $2.50 per for a round trip.
The view from the bridge remains spectacular -- sailboats on the Bay, freighters passing underneath, sea gulls in the wind. Beach travelers know they're no longer in the city when they reach the bridge and smell the salt air.
"I have never ceased to be impressed by these bridges," said Mr. Kelly, a Kent Island resident who has worked on the bridge for 32 years. "To me, it's amazing. I never tire of the scenery."
Bay Bridge facts
* The length of the original span is 21,286 feet or 4.03 miles. The parallel span is 235 feet shorter.
* The original bridge cost $41 million in 1952: the second span cost $120 million two decades later.
* 1.9 million vehicles crossed the bridge in 1953; 16.8 million in 1991*.
* The curve on the western end of the bridge was necessary to make sure it crossed the main shiping channel at a right angle,
reducing the chance of a collision.
* Building the bridge required 17, 500 tons of pilings, 42,500 tons of steel, 118,000 cubic yards of concrete, 2,528,000 cubic yards of moved soil and 151,400 tons of protection stone.
* 65,000 gallons of paint are needed to cover the bridge from end to end.
* Toll facilities police responded to 90 accidents on and around the bridge in the year ending March 31.
Since March, 1968, 48 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge. There were 45 unsucessful suicide attempts and five reported jumpers whose bodies were never recovered.
* In 1989, 514 people had to be driven across the bridge by police because they were fearful of driving themselves. By 1990 the number rose to 802.
Last year, it was an all-time record 993.
Toll revenue was $3.6 million in 1953, the bridge's first complete
year. It was $20.6 million in 1991.
Eastern Shore.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .1950.. .. .. 1990.. .. .. Change
Property values (millions of $$)**.. 202.4.. .. ..6,163.. .. ..+3,045%
Population.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .210,623.. .. 343,769.. .. .. .+163%
Median family income.. .. .. .. .. .$2,081.. .. $34,795.. .. . +1,672%
* The 1991 estimate is based on doubling toll reports, since toll was applied to eastbound vehicles only on April 3, 1989.
** Based on assessed value for tax purposes.