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FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: Chesapeake Bay Bridge is 70 years old

This past Saturday was the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; it opened on July 30, 1952. 

The bridge (also known locally as simply the Bay Bridge) is a major dual-span bridge in Maryland. Crossing Chesapeake Bay, the bridge connects the state’s more rural Eastern Shore with the urban Western Shore. The original span’s length is 4.3 miles; at the time it opened it was the world’s longest continuous over-water steel structure. It was also the third-longest bridge in the world.

Because of similar names, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is often confused with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a bridge-tunnel linking Virginia’s Eastern Shore with the area around Hampton Roads and the rest of Virginia.

(Image: Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
(Image: Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

The bay

Chesapeake Bay is an estuary, defined as a body of water where freshwater and saltwater mix. The United States has more than 100 estuaries; Chesapeake Bay is the largest in the country – and the third-largest in the world.

The Bay is about 200 miles long; it stretches from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Virginia Beach, Virginia. Its width ranges from four miles near Aberdeen, Maryland, to 30 miles near Cape Charles, Virginia. The mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is about 12 miles wide, and runs between its northern point near Cape Charles and its southern point close to Cape Henry, Virginia. 

The surface area of Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries is roughly 4,480 square miles. In addition, the bay and its tidal tributaries have 11,684 miles of shoreline, which is longer than the West Coast of the U.S. The bay was formed following the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) when increased temperatures melted glaciers that then flooded what was the Susquehanna River Valley.

For its size, the bay is surprisingly shallow. Including all of its tidal tributaries, the average depth of the bay is only about 21 feet. The bay’s deepest area is located southeast of Annapolis near Bloody Point; it is 174 feet deep.

A number of major rivers empty into the Bay. They include the James, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York from the west and the Chester, Choptank, Nanticoke, Pocomoke and Wicomico from the east.

A 1987 satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay. (Image: Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
A 1987 satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay. (Image: Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

History 

Studies as far back as the 1880s considered the possibility of a bridge across Chesapeake Bay. The first known proposal was developed in 1907 and promoted a crossing between Baltimore and Tolchester Beach. It took 20 years, but in 1927, local businesspeople were authorized to finance the construction of the crossing. Plans for a bridge were developed, but construction was canceled following the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing collapse of the American economy.

The Sandy Point Ferry terminal, which opened in 1937. 
(Photo: B. Frank Sherman Collection/Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum)
The Sandy Point Ferry terminal, which opened in 1937.
(Photo: B. Frank Sherman Collection/Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum)

From the colonial era until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed, ferries were used as the primary mode of transportation across the bay. The first ferry service ran from Annapolis to Broad Creek on Kent Island, which is roughly where the bridge is today. Beginning in 1919, the Claiborne-Annapolis Ferry Company began ferry service between Annapolis and Claiborne, a community near St. Michaels.

In July 1930, the ferry company added a new route, which ran from Annapolis to Matapeake, a significantly shorter distance. In 1941, the auto and passenger ferries were taken over by the Maryland State Roads Commission (which was reorganized into the State Highway Administration of the Maryland Department of Transportation in 1973). In 1943, the commission moved the western terminus of the Annapolis-Matapeake ferry to Sandy Point (later adjacent to Sandy Point State Park), which further shortened the cross-bay trip.

Maryland Governor William Preston Lane Jr. with the original Chesapeake Bay Bridge behind him. (Photo: chesapeakequarterly.net)
Maryland Governor William Preston Lane Jr. with the original Chesapeake Bay Bridge behind him. (Photo: chesapeakequarterly.net)

The Maryland General Assembly proposed a bridge at the Sandy Point-Kent Island location in 1938. Legislation authorizing the bridge was passed by the legislature, but World War II delayed the bridge’s construction. In 1947, under the leadership of Maryland Governor William Preston Lane Jr. (1892-1967), the legislature directed the State Roads Commission to build the bridge. 

Construction and opening the bridge

A groundbreaking was held in January 1949; construction of the Bay Bridge took 3.5 years.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge nears completion in March,1952. (Photo: industrialscenery.blogspot.com)
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge nears completion in March,1952.
(Photo: industrialscenery.blogspot.com)

Before the bridge opened to the public, a parade of vehicles made the first official crossing. The procession was led by a white Cadillac convertible flying American and Maryland flags. The car contained Governor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, other state officials and former Governor Lane. (On November 9, 1967, the bridge was dedicated to Governor Lane, who had died earlier that year, and it was officially renamed the “William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge.” After decades of political indecision and public controversy, Lane was credited with its construction.)

First traffic jam on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – opening day – July 30, 1952. (Photo: Dale Dardin/Mr. B's Seafood)
First traffic jam on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – opening day – July 30, 1952.
(Photo: Dale Dardin/Mr. B’s Seafood)

Thousands of people were there for the bridge’s grand opening. Festivities included airplanes flying overhead as a salute; the unveiling of a plaque in honor of those involved in the construction project; various marching bands; and speeches by several dignitaries. The Annapolis Capital newspaper reported, “The new bridge and the men who had a part in its construction were swamped with oratorical laurels in ceremonies at each approach to the span.”

Building the westbound span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in May 1972. (Photo: MDTA)
Building the westbound span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in May 1972. (Photo: MDTA)

Another span is added

Due to increasing traffic volume on the bridge, the Maryland General Assembly authorized three possible new crossings in1967. The option chosen was another span to be added to the existing bridge span from Kent Island to Sandy Point. Construction of the parallel span just north of the original began in 1969; it was completed on June 28, 1973.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is part of U.S. Route 50 (US 50) and US 301. It is a vital part of both routes. As part of US 50, which crosses the nation, it connects the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area with Ocean City, Maryland, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and other coastal tourist resort destinations. As part of US 301, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is part of an alternative route for travelers on Interstate 95 between northern Delaware and the Washington, D.C., area. 

This 2001 photo shows the two spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge taken from the eastbound span during the annual "Bridge Walk." (Photo: Nick Klissas/dcroads.net.)
This 2001 photo shows the two spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge taken from the eastbound span during the annual “Bridge Walk.” (Photo: Nick Klissas/dcroads.net.)

Structural details

The bridges’ shore-to-shore lengths are 4.33 and 4.35 miles. They form the longest fixed water crossing in Maryland. The two spans are relatively similar in height; the older span is 354 feet above the water, while the newer span is 379 feet above the water.

The original bridge has two lanes for traffic, while the newer span has three. There are some differences between the bridges due to the design standards at the time the bridges were built. Otherwise, the spans are structurally similar. Both were designed by J. E. Greiner Company (which later became a part of AECOM). Each span features:

  • Two main spans over the bay’s two shipping channels
  • A 3,200-foot long suspension section over the western channel with a maximum clearance of 186 feet at the 1,600-foot main span (which is high enough to accommodate ocean-going vessels and tall ships)
  • A through-truss 690-foot cantilever span over the eastern channel
  • Deck truss and steel girder spans flanking the main spans
  • Concrete beam spans on the portions closest to the shores
  • A curve near the western terminus, which is required so that the main spans cross the bay’s shipping channels at 90 degrees (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements)
The two existing spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. (Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)
The two existing spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. (Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The dangers inherent in the bridge

Because of the bridge’s height, the spans’ narrowness (there are no hard shoulders), the low guardrails, and the frequency of high winds, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is often cited as among the scariest bridges in the nation. The fact that several weather-related incidents have caused complete closures of the bridge has added to that reputation.

Four times since the bridge opened it has been closed due to extreme weather. The first closing occurred on September 18, 2003, due to high winds from Hurricane Isabel. On August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene was the cause of the bridge’s closing. On October 29, 2012, the bridge was closed due to Hurricane Sandy. Just a few months later (March 6, 2013), the bridge was closed again because of high winds generated by a nor’easter.

On August 10, 2008, a tractor-trailer was involved in a head-on collision near the west end of the bridge. The truck fell from the bridge, and the driver died in the crash. While the incident highlighted concern by some that the bridge was not structurally safe, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) denied that there were any structural or engineering problems with the bridge. Inspections of the wall following the accident revealed corrosion of the steel reinforcements inside barriers. Repairs to the wall were begun immediately.

Impacts of the bridge

In the 70 and nearly 50 years since the two bridge spans first opened, the economic impact on the areas they connect has been significant. Both Queen Anne’s County and Ocean City have grown significantly since the bridge opened. 

The bridge spans are operated by the MDTA. Tolls were collected in both directions until April 1989, when the tolls were doubled and then only collected in the eastbound direction. All-electronic tolling began on May 12, 2020, with tolls payable through E-ZPass or Video Tolling, which uses automatic license plate recognition.

Since their construction, the bridges have had significant impacts on both sides of the bay. Communities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were relatively isolated prior to 1952; they have grown significantly since. The bridges have also provided Eastern Shore residents with much easier access to Baltimore and Washington. Over the decades, areas in southern Queen Anne’s County have developed into bedroom communities for the two cities. Queen Anne’s County is now listed as part of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge has also given much easier access to Ocean City from the Western Shore. This has led Ocean City to grow from a small town to the second-largest city in Maryland during the summer.

Because of the impending completion of the Bay Bridge, an extension of US 50 to Ocean City. was constructed in 1948. During the 1950s, US 50 on the Western Shore was rerouted onto the Annapolis-Washington Expressway (now the John Hanson Highway), which was built at the time in order to provide better access to the bridge. US 50 has been upgraded and realigned over the years; its original two-lane configuration is now a four-lane divided highway.

Possible locations for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span. (Image: marylandmatters.org)
Possible locations for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span. (Image: marylandmatters.org)

Another span coming?

Discussions and studies to further expand the bridge have been taking place since 2004. In December of that year, a study concluded that traffic across the bridge was expected to increase by 40% by 2025. In 2005, then-Governor Bob Ehrlich formed a task force to explore the possibility of establishing a new Chesapeake Bay crossing. The task force determined that a bridge would be the best option for an additional crossing; four geographic locations for such a bridge were explored. The task force released a report on the study in late 2006, but did not make a final recommendation.

In 2020, an announcement was made that 11 of 14 potential sites for a third span had been rejected by MDTA. This followed a $5 million study regarding the impacts of an additional span. Significant environmental and economic impacts were identified;  a report stated that any additional crossing was “expected to be multiple billions of dollars.” However, MDTA selected “Corridor 7,” the area adjacent to the two spans, for a new bridge.

Just recently (April 21, 2022), federal highway officials gave the go-ahead for Maryland to move forward with plans to build a new bridge in Corridor 7. A new bridge will cost between $5.4 billion and $8.9 billion, while a bridge-tunnel will cost between $8 billion and $13.1 billion.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.