Tunnel started string of firsts; 1957: A man of many firsts made his way through the Harbor Tunnel before anyone else, and others were soon making history there, too.


For Omero C. Catan, of Teaneck, N.J., a mustachioed, cigar-smoking, catering-service worker who was known as "Mr. First," the opening of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel on Nov. 30, 1957, was just another "first" in a lifetime of collecting firsts.

However, for motorists, the 1.7-mile twin-lane tunnel connecting Fairfield with Canton, one of Maryland's greatest engineering achievements, meant the end to the most notorious traffic bottleneck in the Middle Atlantic -- one that had given Baltimore the reputation as a place to be avoided when traveling north and south.

At the time of its dedication, the $144 million Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was the fifth longest underwater highway tube in the world, exceeded only by the Brooklyn-Battery, Holland and Lincoln tunnels in New York, and England's Mersey River Tunnel.

"The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel is more than an outstanding engineering feat ... and more than a long-needed relief for congestion of Baltimore city streets," said Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin. "The tunnel, with all its approaches, is ... the major link in the vast new system of highways that are being built throughout the United States, a system in which Maryland, by its example and through its action, has held a role of leadership."

In the decades in which motorists had fumed at having to drive along Baltimore's crowded streets while trying to connect with Routes 1 or 40, there had been talk of bridging the harbor with a suspension bridge. As far back as 1921, it was proposed that a vehicular bridge also carrying streetcar tracks link East Baltimore with Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

Various proposals for the bridging or tunneling of the harbor seesawed back and forth through the 1930s and '40s.

In 1955, construction of the tunnel began. Thirty-one months later, on Nov. 29, 1957, McKeldin and Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of officials, prelates, engineers, builders and spectators, stood at the Fairfield tunnel entrance while the governor snipped the ceremonial black and gold ribbon stretched across the tunnel's mouth.

In his address, McKeldin said that the tunnel and 15 miles of expressway would eliminate the "Baltimore bottleneck," but that "Baltimore is not primarily a city through which to pass."

"New and adequate arteries must be provided for the flow of commerce within the city itself," he said. "More convenience must be provided for those who live and work within the city and its immediate environs as well as for those who arrive from distant points."

When the tunnel was opened to traffic the next day, the honor of being the first customer to pay the 40-cent toll for a two-axle vehicle fell to Catan, who had been the first to pay the toll at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge's opening in 1952 and, at the time, had amassed a record of 495 firsts.

Catan began his unusual hobby at 14, when he became the first visitor to climb aboard the Graf Zeppelin when it was moored at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1928.

In 1931, he drove the first car across New York's George Washington Bridge; five years later, he was the first to cross the Triborough Bridge. He was also first paying customer on the New Jersey Turnpike and the New York State Thruway.

After waiting 15 hours in his flag-draped sedan with a "Mr. First" sign taped to the auto's hood, Catan, dressed in a fleece-lined coat to ward off the chill, and his brother, Michael, who was along for the ride, killed time drinking coffee from a Thermos and working crossword puzzles.

Describing the ride through the tunnel as "pure pleasure," Catan told the press that Baltimoreans are "mighty friendly" and said he was "happy to see that I'm paying the first toll," The Sun reported.

The second vehicle through the gate was another type of "first" -- a tractor-trailer bound for Jersey City with a load of Venetian blinds.

The first accident in the tunnel came just 15 minutes after it opened, when a rear-end collision occurred near the Pulaski Highway exit.

A vehicle driven by Francis S. Ruth, 19, struck the rear of an automobile, which then crashed into the rear of another stopped car.

"Ruth, unfortunate to be the first man ticketed on the network of tunnel roads, is charged with reckless driving and failing to wear his glasses while driving," The Evening Sun reported.

The first car whose engine sputtered to a stop at a toll gate came at 1: 10 a.m., and the first flat tire was at 2: 15 a.m. deep in the tube beneath the Patapsco River.

The tunnel's first tipsy driver was George L. Curry of Beltsville, a carpenter, fined on Dec. 12, 1957, "$200.75 for driving under the influence of liquor," and "$50.75 for driving without a license" after his car was observed weaving along the road, The Evening Sun reported.

An Evening Sun editorial, asking whether the new tunnel worked as hoped, observed: "One day's normal performance by Baltimore's brand-new tunnel strongly suggests that the answer is to be a resounding: Yes."

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