By Darragh Johnson and Nelson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 30, 2002; Page B01
President Harry S. Truman sent a
telegram of congratulations, and
Francis the talking Army mule
showed up in a red trailer. Three
governors, 15,000 spectators and 5
1/2 hours of breathless oratory
hailed the fantastical Chesapeake
Bay Bridge when it finally opened
to the public 50 years ago today, at
10:40 a.m. -- 10 minutes behind
It was a $45 million miracle half a
century in the making. First bandied
about in 1908, the idea of the
bridge dismayed Maryland's
Eastern Shore and was
pooh-poohed as ridiculous by
publishing muckety-mucks in
Baltimore. In 1927, businessmen
began raising money for the giant
span, but the market crash of '29
dashed their plans. By 1947, the
project had geared up again, and
the Baltimore Sun ran a full-page
article that ended with this comment
from a "philosophic observer":
"If they wait another forty years . . . people will have flymobiles and
need bridges to cross the bay."
Nonetheless, two years later, work began. And on the morning of July 30,
1952, Walter Harris, then 33, his father and a favorite farmhand caught the
Matapeake-to-Annapolis ferry to watch the grand proceedings. Theirs was
one of the last such crossings, because by 6 that evening, those "old ladies of
the Chesapeake," as one newspaper called them, would officially die, the car
traffic would begin and the bridge collected the first of its $1.40 tolls.
And as Harris, who had lived his entire life on his family's waterfront
Kent County, watched the endless ceremonies that day, he knew he was
seeing something more than historic. This was momentous. He could hear it in
the thrumming engines of airplanes circling overhead and in the 100 boats in
the bay cheering with horns and whistles. He could see it when an enormous
freighter glided under the bridge, 186 feet above the water, with all sailors on
deck, standing stiff and straight at attention.
And he could feel it. As he stood in his short sleeves and natty white
under the broiling sun on a 90-degree day, he could feel that this bridge would
change everything the Eastern Shore thought it knew about life.
To get a sense of how right he was -- of how much the Bay Bridge has
hustled the Eastern Shore into catching up with the rest of the state and the
country -- look no further than the explosive boom in Ocean City.
Since 1950, the tax base has zoomed from $7 million to $1.5 billion. About
7,200 people live there year-round, but during the summer, this 10-mile-long
finger of high-rise condominiums, vast resort hotels and ticky-tacky T-shirt
shops becomes the second-largest city in Maryland, luring as many as a third
of a million people on peak weekends.
"Our town's not like it was when we were kids, when we played marbles in
the streets and all the roads were dirt," says Roland "Fish" Powell, 73, the
charismatic former mayor who can claim the highest honor of the Eastern
Shore: He was "born and raised" there, he says, helping this beach town reach
a population of 900 in the 1930s.
"But," he adds quickly, lest nostalgia overtake the pace of progress, "those
days have been gone a long time."
Once upon a time, in the 1800s and early 1900s, people traveled the bay
steamships. Eighty-three years ago, when Harris's mother was nine months
pregnant with him, she took a steamer from their farm to Baltimore and stayed
with a cousin in the city, two blocks from the hospital. She couldn't wait until
the labor pains started before she headed to her chosen hospital.
Steamships also brought visitors from Philadelphia and Baltimore to Betterton,
one of the few bay beaches with no stinging jellyfish, where bathers were
promised the chance to swim "nettle-free." Chic hotels and family-style resorts
lifted their grand facades near the water, and the town was a vibrant vacation
In 1930, the ferry between Annapolis and Matapeake on Kent Island started.
Travelers waited in idling cars for up to two hours -- in lines that sometimes
backed up 50 miles -- then boarded and parked on the lower levels.
Passengers spent the 45-minute ride upstairs, drinking Coca-Colas and eating
sandwiches and, if they weren't the seasick type, watching the waves splash
over the cars below.
Landlubbers hoping to avoid the water could drive north to the upper end
the Chesapeake Bay, where Maryland meets Delaware and Pennsylvania,
winding hours out of their way.
So when the gleaming steel-and-concrete span finally opened, the rush began.
Suddenly, Maryland was connected to itself, and the Eastern Shore was open
for business. In the first full year, 1.9 million vehicles crossed the bay, and
every 10 years since, the number has nearly doubled.
In 1973, a parallel bridge was completed. Last year, 24 million vehicles
crossed the 4.35-mile spans -- bringing bikini-toting tourists to the beach;
hauling chickens, tomatoes and peaches west; and helping commuters buy a
life in "the country," where night skies are dusted with a billion stars but the
trip to work in Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington is still pretty quick.
Yet development and growth come with a cost, and the locals have reacted
with their own lingo and bravado. Longtime Eastern Shore residents
pejoratively call the newcomers "chicken-neckers" -- because locals use traps
to go crabbing, but visitors use chicken necks tied to a string. Or they refer to
"come-to's," as in, "I was born and raised here, and those come-to's don't
know what they're talking about."
Betty MacGlashan's old neighbors in the vintage colonial port of St. Michaels
in Talbot County no longer sit on their porches and chat with passers-by. All
the passers-by now are tourists -- foreigners to the old way of life.
Harris looks at his neighbors to the south on Kent Island, where growth
blazed through like Sherman's army, leaving a pockmarked trail of billboards,
strip malls and enormous green highway signs. Although the area is
surrounded by water, beach and wetlands, it is no longer pristine.
"The people down there have to buy their drinking water," Harris says,
clucking his teeth with shocked disapproval. "We think that's incredible."
Adds R.J. Rockefeller, a historian with the Maryland State Archives, "I
know of plenty of people on the shore who think of the bay as a moat and the
bridge as a drawbridge."
Indeed, whether the subject is come-to's and chicken-neckers, the Bay
Bridge or "Babe Ridge," the Chesapeake Bay or the moat, the span that
connects both sides of the state also divides them.
Take Al Bobart, who grew up in Anne Arundel County and, with his mother
and father, became the first Marylanders to cross the Bay Bridge when it
opened. Twenty years later, he moved to Kent Island, and he commuted for
23 years, back over that bridge, to his job at Fort Meade.
Not long ago, at a homeowners meeting in his neighborhood, a woman more
recently arrived than he stood up and asked, "When are we getting
streetlights?" And everyone else in the room, he remembers, stood up with
her and answered, "You want the city? Go back across the bridge."
Already, the mid-Atlantic region is beginning to outgrow the Bay Bridge.
summer weekends, traffic backs up for hours and miles -- the same as it did
with the ferries, before the bridge was built.
Cries for relieving some of that traffic are growing, and people in Southern
Maryland and the southern Eastern Shore are clamoring for ferry service.
Memo Diriker, a Salisbury University professor who studies development on
the Eastern Shore, predicts that another crossing -- whether ferry, tunnel or
bridge -- will be created within 30 years.
"To have this much interdependence between the two shores based on one
connection . . . is a bottleneck and risk point of catastrophic proportions," he
says. "My biggest concern is we have only the bridge."
The bridge, even as it turns 50, is a victim of its own success, he says.
brought so much development and modernization to the bucolic side of
Maryland that now, "we have to have another connection to the Western
News researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: Life in and around the Chesapeake Bay will be explored
each Tuesday throughout the summer on the front page of the Metro
© 2002 The Washington Post Company