Lou O. Kelley had a mission that Sunday morning in July 1952: Get to
Annapolis from his Stevensville home without taking the ferry across the
The 15-year-old pedaled his bicycle to a barricade blocking the
entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, deserted on that sunny morning
a few days before the $45 million span was set to open.
Lifting his bicycle over the barricade, Mr. Kelley rode halfway across
the bridge, stopping at the top to watch a ship sail under the mammoth
"It was beautiful," he said. "(The bridge) was awesome. Those towers
looked like they reached to heaven."
As state officials prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the
original, two-lane span -- officially known as the William Preston Lane
Jr. Memorial Bridge -- on Tuesday, few can imagine life in Anne
Arundel or Queen Anne's counties without the imposing steel queen that
united the bay's eastern and western shores.
"I cannot think of anything more significant than the Bay Bridge as far
its impact on traffic and development," said Del. Michael E. Busch,
D-Annapolis. "If they'd put it someplace else, this would be just a quiet
little peninsula down here."
The bridge has single-handedly altered commerce and tourism in the
state, accelerating trade, opening new markets on the Eastern Shore and
cutting hours off the trip to Ocean City.
It also has forever changed life -- and not always for the better -- in
shore communities closest to it.
With the bridge has come a push for development on both shores, along
with increased traffic and a greater demand for services.
"The Bay Bridge has made Queen Anne's County a very different county
than it would have been," said Queen Anne's County Commissioner
George O'Donnell, D-Queenstown.
Yet few can picture modern Maryland without it.
"If you didn't have the bridge, what would you have?" Mr. Kelley
Had it not been for the late governor William Preston Lane Jr., ferries
might still be all that connects Annapolis to the Eastern Shore.
But after more than 40 years of on-again, off-again debates about the
need for a bridge across the bay, it was Mr. Lane -- who served one
term from 1947-1951 -- who finally got the project under way.
"(The Bay Bridge) ... meant a great deal to my father," said Dorothy
Lane Campbell, a Massachusetts resident. "It meant a great deal to the
Mrs. Campbell, her husband and her nephew plan on attending a small,
invitation-only ceremony that state transportation officials have planned
for Tuesday near the Bay Bridge to commemorate its golden
Supporters of a bay crossing began trying in 1907 to build a bridge
across the Chesapeake, but time after time their efforts failed, largely
because they couldn't secure financing.
The state was on the verge of building the bridge in 1929 near
Hart-Miller Island and Tolchester, north of the current location, but the
1929 stock market crash killed the project.
By the 1946 gubernatorial campaign, the need for a bay bridge had
become a controversial issue.
At that time, the only way to cross the bay was by ferries, which brought
passengers and about 50 vehicles at a time across the water from
Annapolis to Matapeake on the Eastern Shore several times a day.
The crossing took about 45 minutes, although lines to get on board often
backed up for hours and miles -- especially in the summer.
Then-candidate Mr. Lane vowed that if elected, the bay crossing would
be built during his tenure in office. It was a promise he kept.
But the bridge project was not without opposition. Many on the Eastern
Shore didn't want it, fearing it would change their quiet, rural way of life.
Others, such as Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken, derided the project as
"ridiculous" and "fantastic."
Still others doubted that a bridge across more than four miles of water
could stand up to the bay's pounding waves, wind and freezing winter
A difficult job
Work began on what is now the eastbound span in November 1949.
Pay for those who worked on the bridge ranged from $1.75 an hour for
laborers to $5 an hour for divers -- good money at the time, said
Richard S. Cassard Sr.
The Galesville man was just 21 and living with his mother in Riva when
he snagged a job as a laborer on the bridge for four months in the
summer of 1951 before being called to duty in the Air Force.
"It was exciting," said Mr. Cassard, who helped build wooden molds for
the bridge's massive supports. "Every day was different."
But the work was complicated and often dangerous. Four men died
Hunt Valley-based J.E. Greiner Co. -- now known as URS Corp. --
designed the bridge, developing a deep-water method of pier
construction. Parts of the bay near Kent Island are more than 100 feet
More than 60,000 tons of steel were used to construct the two-lane
span -- more than it took to build the Empire State Building.
The bridge was paid for with $45 million in bonds. Today, it costs more
than that just to maintain it.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees the bridge, is in
the midst of a five-year, $68 million effort to clean and re-paint the
The state also has started a four-year, $60 million effort to redeck the
second, three-lane span that opened next to the original bridge in 1973.
The two spans now handle 24 million vehicles annually.
When the bridge opened, many -- like Mr. Kelley -- were in awe of it.
"To think, the bay was going to be crossed by a bridge and not a boat,"
said Mr. Kelley, who never completed his bicycle ride across the bridge.
After pausing at the center of the bridge to enjoy the view that day, a
man in a car pulled up and ordered the teen-aged Mr. Kelley off the
"Boy, where did you come from?" the man asked.
Even now, Mr. Kelley regrets answering "Kent Island" instead of saying
"Annapolis," so he could have continued his journey across the bridge
and taken the ferry back home.
But Mr. Kelley eventually got his fill of the bridge, which he can still
every day from his living room window.
He spent his adult career working on the bridge, first as a bridge guard
and eventually as bridge administrator, before retiring after 39 years with
the state in 1999.
A day to remember
Those who were there the day the bridge opened said it was a sight to
Now 78, Mrs. Campbell said she still remembers how proud her father
was on that hot, sunny day on July 30, 1952, when he and his successor
-- Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, officially opened the bridge to
"It was the happiest day of his life," Mrs. Campbell said of her father,
who was ridiculed for his push to build the 4.35-mile span.
During the 1950 gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Lane's critics blasted the
bridge project -- at the time the state's largest-ever capital effort --
calling it "Lane's Picket Fence Across the Bay."
Mr. Lane lost the election, largely because in 1947 he had instituted a
percent sales tax -- Maryland's first such tax -- to pay for badly needed
public projects after the lean war years. The sales tax did not pay for the
But any lingering animosity from the election was put aside that day in
1952, when the current and former governor drove to the center of the
bridge for a brief ceremony.
"I looked down and all I could see were a few strands of steel and the
water beneath," Mrs. Campbell said of her first view from the center of
the bridge. "It was exciting."A mixed blessing
From that auspicious start, the bridge has become a Maryland icon.
"The Bay Bridge has long been a vital link in Maryland's transportation
system, providing Marylanders and visitors the opportunity to enjoy the
rich heritage and attractions of the Eastern Shore," Gov. Parris N.
But local residents view the bridge as a mixed blessing -- one that has
brought both opportunity and headaches to Anne Arundel and Queen
"It's a necessary thing," state Sen. John C. Astle said. "The bridge
probably means a whole lot more to the Eastern Shore.
"I'm not sure the Bay Bridge does a lot of good for my community
because of all the negative impacts of the traffic," the Annapolis
Anne Arundel residents -- like their counterparts on Kent Island -- are
finding it increasingly hard to avoid backups that result from accidents or
heavy beach traffic on the bridge.
Even back roads through Broadneck Peninsula communities have
become clogged and the backups on both Route 50 and access roads
appear to be occurring more frequently on weekdays, as well as on
"Sometimes it's backed up all the way to (Interstate) 97," said Arnold
resident Edie Segree. "It's ridiculous."
Mr. Busch, who remembers his first trip across the Bay Bridge as a
terrified 5-year-old, certain he was going to fall out of his father's
Studebaker and off the bridge, said the span made Anne Arundel the
gateway to the Eastern Shore.
And while the bridge and associated traffic has stressed the county's
road system, the bay crossing also has brought jobs and more affluent
residents to the county, he said.
"Clearly, (the bridge) made us more desirable for both people and
products and opened markets up and down the East Coast," said
William A. Badger Jr., chief executive officer of the Anne Arundel
Economic Development Corp.
On Kent Island, residents have similar complaints about the bridge. It
has led to remarkable growth in the rural county, with 25 percent of
Queen Anne's residents crossing the bridge daily to go to work in jobs
that once were impossible to reach, Mr. O'Donnell said.
"Most people have mixed feelings about the bridge," he said, adding he
still remembers the trips he took as a child with his family over the bridge
to go Christmas shopping in Glen Burnie.
But for state officials, there is no question the overall effect of the
has been positive, said Transportation Secretary John Porcari.
"It's literally a lifeline for the Eastern Shore and a large part of
Maryland," he said. "The bridge has literally connected people for 50
Published July 28, 2002, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2002 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.