Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Risky Business of Building Bridges, Part I: Spanning the Chesapeake

The two spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  Note the curved structure.
The bridge that spans the Chesapeake Bay  (known simply as the "Bay Bridge") is a Maryland icon, and fairly famous as bridges go around the world.  Marylanders living in 2017 take its existence for granted.  We drive over it routinely whenever we make our way from one shore of the Bay to the other, often when we are headed to and from to the Atlantic Beaches of Maryland (e.g., Ocean City) and/or Delaware.   Sometimes when I have occasion to drive across the 4.3 mile-long stretch of suspended steel spanning the Chesapeake, I think about the fact that at some point there was no road where we were now driving without giving a second thought.  I always find the stories of how bridges came to be fascinating, and such was the case with the story of the Bay Bridge...

Several sites were considered for
a Chesapeake Bay crossing.
The  first discussion of a building a bridge across the Bay began in the 1880s, gaining momentum by throughout the early 20th century. The original plan called for a bridge from Miller Island (east of Edgemere, MD (in Baltimore County) to Tolchester Beach (in Kent County), and was approved in 1927—but the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression quashed that idea.[1]  In 1938, the General Assembly approved construction of the bridge (at its current location) from Sandy Point (in Anne Arundel County) and Stevensville on Kent Island—although World War II delayed construction for over a decade.  In 1949, workers finally broke ground on the first (eastbound) span, and it opened in 1952; traffic quickly clogged the single span; the General Assembly approved construction of the second (westbound) span in 1968, and it opened in 1973. 


  This photo was taken in 1950 as the pylons
for the eastbound span were being built.
Bridge-building requires vision—and then it takes hard work (intention) to make the vision a reality. In the specific case of the  Bay Bridge.  To say it another way, it's one thing to have an idea to build a bridge, it’s quite another to actually construct one where none exists.  The water isn’t as smooth as it looks; laying pylons in the water is hard to do [see photo, left].  Construction is where vision impacts with reality—where the rubber literally hits the road, and the plans sometimes have to be altered.  For example, the now famous curved design of the Bay Bridge [see photo, top of article] came about as a compromise that would allow existing access roads to the bridge to be used while still leaving the prime shipping channels in the Bay open to ship traffic (the curve allows the main spans of the bridge to cross the channel at ~90º angles). 

Bridge-building is also dangerous work.  In the documentary I referenced earlier, one of the men who worked on building the Bay Bridge told stories of maneuvering on steel girders hundreds of feet above the ground.  (Similar perilous tales can be told about the construction of other famous bridges—e.g., San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.) I cringed just watching some of the footage shown in the documentary, and thought, “Man I could never do that”.  The man interviewed said that soon enough, he and his fellow workers got used to the job, and did it almost without thinking.  (My guess is they learned not to look down.)  They were young men at the time who needed work, and they surely felt it was an adventure.  Nevertheless, there is no denying that the bridge-building work they did was quite risky—so far as I know, there was no safety net for the Bay Bridge (like there was for the Golden Gate Bridge).  Four men lost their lives during construction of the Bay Bridge, and there were many more “close calls”.
A bridge also has a huge impact on the area where it is built and the nearby communities.[2] The Bay Bridge, for example, certainly changed Maryland.  Before the bridge, the only way across the Chesapeake was by ferry; there were several ferry routes that crisscrossed the Bay prior to the construction of the Bay Bridge.   Even so, in many ways, Maryland’s eastern and western shores were isolated from each other and existed as “two different worlds”.  Resorts on the western shore of the Bay, such as the town of Chesapeake Beach (close to where I grew up) thrived prior to World War II—see When Visiting "the Beach" Meant the Bay.  The construction of the Bay Bridge (combined with the end of railroad service about a decade earlier and the continuing rise of the automobile) began to change all that.  Especially once the Bay Bridge opened, the ocean became more easily accessible and the resorts on the resorts on the western shore of the Bay declined in quality.

The construction of the Bay Bridge connected the two shores of Maryland, so that people could now live on the eastern shore and commute to work on the western shore—and vice versa.  Goods and services could also flow freely over the bridge.  Fresh produce grown the eastern shore could now more easily reach stores on the western shore.  Conversely, products manufactured in Baltimore and Western Maryland could reach the eastern shore.  The bridge itself was built out of steel manufactured at Bethlehem Steel (in Pennsylvania).  Roads and infrastructure had to be upgraded on both sides of the Bay to accommodate the dramatic increase in traffic crossing the Bay.  Many towns on the eastern shore were changed as the “new highway” (a.k.a., Route 50) bypassed the downtown area.

The story of the building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge provides an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey.  We "cross that bridge" in Part II of this post.


[1] Interestingly, in addition to these plans for a “Northern Bridge”, there were proposals to build a “Southern Bridge” from Lusby, MD (in Calvert County), to Taylors Island (in Dorchester County). Click here to learn more.  The "Southern Bridge" option actually resurfaced again in the last decade or so, but so far has not been pursued.
[2]While researching this article, I came across a Maryland Public Television documentary produced in 2014, called Spanning the Bay, that documents the history of the Bay Bridge and the impact it has had on the state of Maryland. This was a source for the information on the Bay Bridge in this article, which can be viewed here. 

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