A dream in 1908, a financial impossibility in 1929 and a war-postponed plan in 1940, what now is known as the Bay Bridge became a reality in 1949, when construction began and the first dredge started pumping the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay to make way for the bridge.
The world’s largest continuous over-water steel structure when it opened in 1952, the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge provides a structural link that did not exist in the days when colonial Marylanders traveled by boat, with the Chesapeake Bay as their highway.
Along with the many private boats sailing the Bay prior to the Industrial Revolution, records show a regular ferry running between Kent Island and the Annapolis shore. However, as the population grew and spread inland, the wagon road, the railroad and, later, the automobile and the motor-truck, gradually relegated the Bay by boat to obscurity, and the Chesapeake Bay became a barrier rather than a bond between Eastern Maryland and the rest of the State.
There are recurring stories that, in the 1880s, preliminary studies explored building a bridge across the Bay. In 1907, Peter C. Campbell, Baltimore businessman and State Senator, told his associates that more of the Eastern Shore trade, which had been coming by boat to Baltimore, was going north by highway and railroad to Wilmington and Philadelphia.
The following year, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association developed a report on the feasibility of a privately financed bridge, stretching between Bay Shore and Tolchester, to carry inter-urban trolley lines across the Bay and down the shore.
Talk of a double-deck structure to carry both railroad and trolley lines was circulating in 1919. These ideas were carried a step further in 1927, when a group of Baltimore businessmen was authorized to raise funds to build a Bay Bridge. Detailed plans were developed, but the 1929 stock-market crash put an end to this venture. In the early 1930s, several commissions were appointed to plan for the bridge. However, all of these efforts required federal aid, which, unfortunately, was not forthcoming. As the automotive age dawned, the changes first noted in 1907 had multiplied a thousand fold.
By 1919, the demand and pressure for some sort of Bay crossing led to the inauguration of regular ferry service between Annapolis and Claiborne, a 23-mile trip requiring two hours. Aside from the colonial ferry, this was the first regularly scheduled Bay ferry service in the State’s history. Mounting pressure for a bridge culminated in 1938, with legislation authorizing the crossing, but World War II postponed the efforts. Under the leadership of Governor William Preston Lane Jr., during the regular and extraordinary sessions of the 1947 General Assembly, the State Roads Commission was directed to proceed with building a Bay Bridge.
All earlier proposals for a bridge had planned for a crossing in the Bay Shore-Tolchester area. However, by 1938, the growing network of highways on the East Coast, the need to avoid hazardous navigation and the need to provide access to the lower Eastern Shore made a bridge location in the Sandy Point-Matapeake area most desirable.
After four decades of planning and waiting, the first shovelful of earth was turned in January 1949, in the area now occupied by the western approach roadway — and the largest public project in the history of the State had begun. Underwater work began, and the first permanent piles were driven into the Bay’s bottom in March 1950. By the end of the year, the bridge was more than one-third complete. The underwater work had been finished, including construction of the massive concrete piers to support the main towers and the anchor piers to hold the suspension-span cables.
The change in State administration that occurred in January 1951 enabled Governor Theodore McKeldin to move forward with completion of the bridge. In honor of the man whose leadership led to the long-awaited crossing, the bridge was rededicated on November 9, 1967, as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge.