The idea was beyond bold, beyond audacious even. Build a Bridge from the Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach ? Across and under the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean for 17 miles ? Ridiculous, can’t be done. So said the skeptics – and virtually everyone started out as a skeptic. But thankfully. the skeptics were wrong and on April 15th, the 50th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was celebrated with a ceremony held on the Thimble Shoal Tunnel’s Seagull Island, one of the four man-made islands built as part of the tunnel complex, complete with speeches by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Lucius Kellam III, son of Eastern Shore businessman Lucius Kellam, Jr., who was a driving force behind turning the idea into a reality and who served as the Bridge Commission’s Chairman until 1993. Once opened in 1964, it promptly won an international competition which earned the Bridge the title ” One of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World.”
Before the Bridge were the ferries, operating originally out of the deep water harbor in Cape Charles, later out of what is now Kiptopeake State Park, and connecting to the mainland at Norfolk. A one-way trip took about an hour and a half on a good weather day and whatever if it was not. In fact, the trip to get from the Shore to the mainland has been fixed into an Eastern Shore colloquialism still used today– “going across the Bay.” Folks don’t say ” I’m going to Virginia Beach”, we still say “I’m going across the Bay”, harkening back to the trials and tribulations of getting from here to there and back on a ferry, with the possibility of a sudden storm blowing up out of nowhere, maybe a mechanical problem, who knew what might happen. It took time and effort and it was an adventure. ( No Doppler radar for those ferry captains ! ) With a fleet of 5, ranging in size from 68 feet to the 367 foot flagship, SS Pocahontas, the biggest ferries could carry up to 120 vehicles and 1200 passengers per trip. At its zenith, an estimated 50,000 vehicles per month were using the ferry service. And although service was hourly, passenger buses had priority so cars often had quite lengthy waits, with vehicles lined up for long distances along the highway awaiting their turn to board. Demand was rising and in by 1956 the Virginia General Assembly authorized the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission to explore the feasibility of a building a fixed crossing. The rest, as they say, is history !
The Bridge Commission reports that since opening over 115 million vehicles have crossed the Bridge, a pretty hefty number. In 1999 a parallel crossing was completed, expanding the Bridge from a 2 lane facility into a 4 lane facility, including renovated restaurant, gift shop and amazing fishing pier. And in 2016, work is expected to begin on an additional tunnel . But the Bridge is so much more than a stupendous engineering feat, a collection of 2000 concrete pilings 110 feet long driven into the floor of the Chesapeake Bay supporting 17 miles of roadbed or 4 man-made islands, each the size of five football fields built with 300,000 tons of massive boulders and 1,500,000 tons of sand rising 30 feet above the Bay, enabling vehicle entrance into tunnels . The word “bridge” is defined as a structure built to span physical obstacles for the purpose of providing passage over the obstacle. But for the Eastern Shore, “The Bridge“, as it’s called, is so very much more than that, it’s essentially a passageway between two very different ways of life.
The contrast between life on the Eastern Shore on the north side and life in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Chesapeake metro area on the south side of the Bridge could hardly be greater. On the Eastern Shore, a slender peninsula barely 3 miles across where the Bridge begins, Chesapeake Bay to the west, Atlantic Ocean to the east, it’s like stepping back 50 years into a land where farming and long-time watermen traditions are still the main economic engines. A land dotted with small historic towns and tiny villages, many dating back to the 1700′s, some even earlier, towns which are reminiscent of Mayberry. But new little waterfront neighborhoods nestled between big family farms are slowly emerging, bringing the energies and talents of folks from all over who have moved here after falling in love with our relaxed, coastal way of life. But when you travel south over the Bridge, savoring the lovely waterviews, seabirds overhead, maybe even sighting a pod of dolphins or a submarine slipping swiftly through the waters as it returns to the Naval Base at Little Creek, your 15 minute journey thrusts you smack dab into the sights and sounds of a modern metropolis, which indeed it is. The three city complex ( formerly called Tidewater, currently called Hampton Roads and soon to possibly be renamed Coastal Virginia ) sustains a population of about one million and offers virtually every amenity one could ask for. Obviously it’s not the Big Apple, but large shopping malls, great restaurants ( including several fabulous Italian bakery/deli shops that I love ), an international airport, excellent medical facilities including a world-class hospital and an associated medical school, a wide variety of cultural facilities including a symphony hall, an opera house and numerous museums. Sports lovers will appreciate the sports arena, a baseball park with a Baltimore Orioles farm team and a hockey team, even a new 10,000 seat soccer stadium . And for me, my unofficial “home away from home”, 4 jam-packed- with- the- latest- goodies Barnes and Noble bookstore choices calling out to me like the Sirens on my every trip across the Bay.
And therein lies part of the wonder of living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the ability, in a 15 minute time span, to move virtually effortlessly between two very different worlds. I’ve had a major operation at that world-class Norfolk hospital, we’ve enjoyed many performances at Harrison Opera House, the Wells Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” is great, my grandkids loved “The Lion King”
production at Chrysler Hall. Every year my eldest grandson waits in great anticipation for the Norfolk Tides baseball season to start at Harbor Park and the battleship USS Wisconsin moored alongside the Nauticus waterfront museum awaits the fulfillment of my promise to the grandkids to take them all for a deck tour this summer… and the beat goes on and on and on. BUT… after the fun, after the chicken tikka marsala with garlic naan at Saffron Indian Bistro, after a Macy sale at MacArthur Center Mall, after the “Jersey Boys” musical at Chrysler Hall, after the Cherry Blossom Festival at Redwing Park, etc., etc., etc., it’s always so great get back home to our serene, relaxed feel, our slower pace, to the Eastern Shore’s pristine, natural beauty, its friendly atmosphere, the peace and quiet. And that is the magic of “ The Bridge ” – making possible the amazing “have your cake and eat it too” eclectic lifestyle that those of us living on the Eastern Shore are so lucky to have. So, thanks Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel– and Happy 50th Anniversary !