By JOHN BIEMER
Associated Press Writer
Originally published July 30, 2002, 3:41 AM EDT
STEVENSVILLE, Md. -- It was half a century ago that Gov. Theodore
Roosevelt McKeldin christened the bridge that pulled together
Maryland's eastern and western shores.
Sitting in a white convertible adorned with two U.S. flags, McKeldin led
a motorcade of antique cars across the William Preston Lane Jr.
Memorial Bridge and declared it "a triumph of our system of enterprise.
A symbol of America."
When it first
opened to traffic 50
years ago Tuesday,
known today as the
Bridge was the
third-longest in the
world, with a 4.3
Over 50 years, it
trade, opened new
markets to farmers
beaches in the popular summer destination of Ocean City hours closer
to tourists -- dramatically altering commerce in Maryland.
Before the bridge, a ferry brought passengers and about 50 vehicles at
time across the water from Annapolis to Matapeake. The crossing took
about 45 minutes, although lines to get on board were often backed up
for hours -- especially in summer.
"It was an all-day trip," said Sandy Jones, 75, who took the ferry
several times. "It depended on whether or not you were lucky enough to
catch one of the ferries." When the bridge went up, the ferries went out
Before the bridge, many people didn't want it. The Sage of Baltimore,
H.L. Mencken, derided the project as "ridiculous" and "fantastic."
Opposition was especially strong on the Eastern Shore, which was then
a sparsely populated area devoted to agriculture and fishing. It was
dotted with communities where everyone knew everyone else, and the
bridge was sure to invite strangers.
"Bay Bridge Is A Big Disadvantage To Shore," trumpeted a front-page
editorial in The (Easton) Star Democrat on Feb. 8, 1930, which noted
that it would "practically kill retail business."
An Eastern Shore state senator, Henry Herbert Balch, filibustered for
hours against a measure to fund the project, denouncing Western Shore
politicians and bringing up grudges that dated back to colonial times.
Despite protests, work began in November 1949.
More than 60,000 tons of steel were used to construct the original
two-lane eastbound span -- more than it took to build the Empire State
Building. Four men died during construction.
The bridge was paid for with $45 million in bonds. These days, it costs
more than that to repaint the bridge. The cost of a new Wilson Bridge
spanning the Potomac River is expected to top $2.4 billion.
In its first full year, more than 1.9 million vehicles crossed the Bay
Bridge -- well more than the anticipated 1.1 million. As more Americans
bought cars, another span was needed, and it opened in 1973.
In the years since the bridge was built, Ocean City has exploded in size,
and gas stations, fast food restaurants and fruit stands line the road to
the resort. Many people commute every day across the span.
"It drastically changed lifestyle on most of the Eastern Shore," Jones
said. "Everything sort of grew by leaps and bounds."
Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press