"It's called the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge in honor of Maryland's first elected governor, but also because there haven't been any recent governors they've wanted to name anything after," said one salty Solomons Islander who lives in the shadow of Maryland's newest bridge.
To be officially opened Dec. 17, weather permitting the construction of final approach roads, the towering two-land span arches more than 140 feet over the lower Patuxent River, a steel-gray rainbow linking two rural, dead-end peninsulas that lie between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
"We all have mixed feelings about this bridge. Everyone on Solomons Island has 17 different opinions," says Edgar Woodburn, owner of the island's only grocery. "But we've got 22,000 people in Calvert County here and there are 47,000 in St. Mary's County, so I guess the odds are in our favor." The island is at the tip of the Calvert County Peninsula.
Woodburn, whose grandfather ran away to Solomons Island from his home in St. Mary's "long before there were any bridges or cars and it took a couple of days to get here," predicts the previously remote island will receive a lot more visitors both winter and summer.
"There's about 1,000 year-round residents round here, and I used to be able to call all my customers by name. But that's been changing. The bridge will just bring in quite a few more" strangers, says Woodburn.
The bridge was first funded in 1961 "when they took the slot machines away from us and promised us all sorts of things like parks and recreation and a scenic highway and bridge," says Maryland Sen. Edward T. Hall, who introduced the original bridge bill. "But the State Highway Department wouldn't build it because it didn't think the bridge went anywhere and wouldn't do anyone any good."
The $26 million bridge (the 1961 bond issues was for $10.5 million) was reapproved a decade later, and "will be a boon to the counties," says Hall. "It's nice, good-looking bridge."
Hall proposed a Maryland Senate resolution naming the bridge after Gov. Johnson "but it didn't pass the House because some wanted to name it after Leonard Calverts, and we don't have anything named after Johnson."
Bridge and highway names are chosen by the head of the state Transportation Departmet with advice from the Maryland Transportation Commission. The citizen commission invites suggestions from the public and Johnson, a Calvert native and early member of the U.S. Supreme Court, was one of those most frequently named, said a highway department spokesman.
"Solomons is basically just a quiet fishing village and resort community and for one thing the new bridge will mean shopping centers in St. Mary's will be only 5 miles away now," says Michael J. Reber, staff member with Solomons biggest employer, the Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies. The Centers' staff of 100 scientists and University of Maryland graduate students monitors pollution and aquatic life on the bay and its rivers.
"We're now turning our attention to another controversial thing, the widening of combined state routes 4 and 2," the main artery in the Calvert County peninsula, says County commissioner H. Gordon Truman, a member of the original Patuxent River Bridge Commission that recommended the bridge in 1961. The road is still only a two-land highway between Solomons and Price Frederick, although a short two mile section is now being "dualized."
"When that road is dualized it will mean Solomons will be within commuting distance of Washington," says Max Chance, exhibits director at the Calvert Marine Museum.
The museum, which moved into the old Solomons Island elementary school two years ago, is ready for large crowds, with a growing display of the boat and water history of Maryland, including some turn-of-the-century oystering boats, hand carved from logs, preserved in its sheds and the former Drum Point lighthouse now perched on the lawn outside.
Inside, the museum boasts prehistoric whale and oyster skeletons, fossils from the nearby Calvert Cliffs - "we also have a beautiful 22-foot bird, a pscudontoris. I think it was feathered," says Chance - and an expanding U.S. Navy diving display, since the Navy trained frogmen and divers around Solomons during World War II. The Navy, which requested the new bridge be 140 feet high to allow destroyers and large ships underneath, still has bases nearby - the Patxent Naval Air Test Center, a Naval Ordnance testing base and a rest and recreation facility.
Jim Schultz, owner of one of the many marinas on and near the island - the island proper is separated from mainland Calvert County by a 15-foot inlet - also sas "this is a terrible dead end now. But even though I'm in favor of the bridge I'm afraid it may bring honky tonk things like beer halls."
Alton and Joan Kersey, owners of J.C. Lore & Sons, one of the island's first oyster-packing plants when it was founded in 1888 and now the last, hope the bridge will help keep alive "the dying oyster business" by bringing in shuckers from St. Mary's County.
"It's a hand operation and no young people are doing it any more," says Kersey. Isaac Solomon, who settled the island in 1859, built the first oyster-packing house when both oysters and shuckers were more plentiful.
While Mrs. Kersey says she liked having Solomons "a quiet dead end," both she and her husband said they were glad to see the bridge for another reason. "With that atomic plant here (at nearby Calvert Cliffs) you always want some means of, you know, escape." The nuclear power plant, the county's largest tax provider, sprang a leak in January, 1975, which residents remember even though they were assured the radioactivity posed no threat outside the plant.
There's been no rush about building the bridge, either for the residents or the state. "There's been a wait and see attitude, mostly waiting. We've been waiting for the bridge since the early 1960s and waiting for the road to be widened since the 1950s," said one islander.