Summer of '52
The Link to Wealth, and to Loss
Opening of Bay Bridge Reshaped Quiet County's Character, Natives Recall
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page B01
The shiny black Buick Roadster skirted the blockades and began to accelerate, climbing higher and higher on the newly laid concrete roadway of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
It was July 1952. Opening day was just a few weeks away, and workers were scrambling to put the finishing touches on the mammoth steel span, which cost $45 million and had taken four years to complete. The side safety railings weren't even up yet.
And there was Bill Denny, a young service station worker in dungarees, making his first trip across with bridge officials, who'd offered his dad a tour and let him come along.
"I was scared to death," recalled Denny, now 71 and a retired bank director. "It was just like looking out the window of an airplane and looking straight down. The boats looked like little Matchbox cars."
For Denny and other residents of tiny Stevensville on Kent Island, the summer that the first span of the Bay Bridge opened forever divided life into BBB (Before Bay Bridge) and after. It opened up the rural Eastern Shore to waves of tourists, newcomers looking for their own slice of country life and the developers who created subdivisions for them.
"It was like the whole world changed in 1952," said Louis Kelley, 67, a Stevensville native who was the Bay Bridge administrator from 1980 to 1999. "People said, 'Hey, I can move to the Eastern Shore. I can live in the land of pleasant living and fish and crab.' It changed their world, and it changed our world. We weren't a quiet little town anymore."
More than 50 years later, old-timers still rhapsodize about Queen Anne's County in the days before the bridge.
"It was like heaven," said historian and author Nick Hoxter, 73, of Grasonville. Neighbor watched out for neighbor. Kids could ride bikes anywhere, navigating the wide, dirt streets without fear. During the summer, people went swimming and boating and pulled plump soft-shell crabs from the briny water by the bushel-full.
The idea of a bridge linking eastern and western Maryland was discussed as early as 1908, but war and finances delayed construction until after World War II. Historian Janet Freedman remembers sitting on her grandmother's wide front porch listening to relatives talk about the day that the ferries would be docked forever.
"For people who spent their lives on the water and knew the bay and its currents, it seemed impossible," said Freedman, author of "Kent Island: The Land that Once Was Eden" (The Press at the Maryland Historical Society, 2002).
But it wasn't. Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. (D), best remembered for his unpopular decision to establish Maryland's sales tax, pushed the bridge plan through, and construction began in 1949. Locals, who then had to take a ferry from Matapeake to Sandy Point to cross the bay, watched the rise of the 21,286-foot steel suspension structure as they crossed.
Melvin Clark, 82, a Stevensville resident, worked on the bridge's decking crew. One of his jobs required him to clamber across a steel beam just a few feet wide and high above the water -- with no safety equipment in place to catch him if he fell. He recalls being afraid only once. "You get used to it," he said. "You got so you could walk 'em good."
The May day when they lowered the last 400-ton piece of steel into place, he said, it was like a puzzle that fit together.
On July 30, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin (R) and predecessor Lane snipped the red ribbons to officially open the bridge. The ceremonies -- speeches, a performance by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Glee Club -- seemed endless in the sweltering heat. Then the dignitaries rode across the bridge with a parade of antique automobiles behind them. Down below, the ferry captains tooted forlornly at each other as they made their last passes across the water.
"It was so hot that day, those old cars -- Model A's, Model T's -- were steaming," said Hoxter. "Friends would come up to you and say, 'Did you ever think you'd see this day?' I said, 'No, I never thought I'd see it.'
"This was something big for us down here. Us country kids didn't see so much."
The bridge's effect on Queen Anne's County -- which in 1952 had a population of 14,579 compared with 46,563 today -- was immediate. Restaurants reported their business doubling or tripling. More than 16,000 cars drove into Queen Anne's the first Sunday. In a nearby town, Mrs. Fred Sparks sat in a rocker on her front porch and watched the cars whiz by, counting cars from 20 states before a single Maryland one came along, The Washington Post reported. Denny recalled lying in bed late at night and listening to the roar of the traffic.
Hoxter said his father stayed on as an oiler with the ferry company that summer as they waited for the now-obsolete boats to sell. He'd go down at nights to stand in the wheel house, meditating on the people who used to fill up the salons, drinking coffee and perusing newspapers during the ride. "It was just so lonely," he said.
The traffic tie-ups that were supposed to be alleviated by the bridge only increased and necessitated a second span, which opened in 1973.
"It built and built and built so that we used to sit on my grandmother's screened porch and watch the cars pile up on Route 50, waiting in line to get on the bridge," recalled Freedman. "Traffic would come to a standstill, and people would hike across the field and ask for a glass of water."
More than 23 million cars a year cross the bridge today, compared with 1 million the first year. Some Kent Island natives will proudly say now that they wish it had never been built, that something precious was lost that summer of '52.
"I could say I'm sorry the bridge was built," said Denny. "It's not Eastern Shore anymore. It has lost its country atmosphere. It's like Glen Burnie or the suburbs of Baltimore or Annapolis."
But with the bridge also came a new prosperity. Land values boomed. In tiny Rehoboth Beach, now part of Delaware's fastest-growing area, for example, residents gossiped about oceanfront lots selling for a whopping $5,000 in 1952. The same properties are worth between $2 million and $3 million today.
"The bridge helped businesses, helped people have better jobs, better medical facilities, doctors, shopping malls that we didn't have before," Kelley said. "At the same time, you have to put up with traffic and development. There's good and bad with everything. Most of the people who grumble about it have lived very well because of it, you know what I mean?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company