Burton on the Bay:
Our Bay's Biggest Deal
Even the brightest idea turns out to have a black side to balance its silver lining

Every cloud endangers not a storm.

- Shakespeare's King Henry VI

Come on Bill, of literary lore. As Gertrude Stein, of lesser historical significance would say, if the subject was ever broached (which it wasn't), "a cloud is a cloud is a cloud."

I'd say a cloud is a blemish on a clear blue sky, even though it might have a silver lining. Or turning things around, one ponders whether all silver has a cloud around it.

Which brings up the subject of the progression of humankind at the turn of the century - or even the millennium. The cloud in this particular instance was and remains the darkest of both the century and the millennium for Maryland.

This silver cloud was hailed by some as the Eighth Wonder of the World nearly 50 years ago. It still is by beach buffs, many fishermen interested in only what they catch today and motorists in too much of a hurry to waste a few minutes, maybe even a few hours, waiting for a ferry.

If you haven't guessed it by now, the silver cloud with the black lining is the William Preston Lane Bridge, more commonly referred to as the Bay Bridge, the gateway to the Eastern Shore, the Ocean City Express.

What single event has changed the face of Maryland more in a hundred years, no a thousand years, than the erection of the fascinating metal complex that connects this side of the Chesapeake with the flatlands to the east of the brine?

My friend and charterboat skipper Capt. Ed Darwin of the Becky-D refers to the span, all 4.3 miles of it, as the greatest artificial reef in the world. It's his fishing grounds, the area where he has gained the reputation of being one of the best Izaak Waltons ever of Chesapeake Bay.

I guess it's how you look at this long, thin strand of cement, steel girders and cables that opened with much fanfare in July of 1952 to link Anne Arundel County with Queen Anne's County. That was the beginning. Soon the Eastern Shore would never be the same again.

Nor would Chesapeake Bay.


First Crossing

As we head into 2000, I think of my first trip across that Wonder of Engineering and Construction on a 1956 September evening at sunset, a bright red glowing in the sky to the right and a little back of my battered old Nash Rambler that still bore Alaska license plates.

Only a month before, I had come to Maryland to take over as outdoor editor of the Baltimore Sunpapers. As I headed to Ocean City (where else?) to challenge white marlin of the Atlantic, I had my first panoramic view of the waters I would fish thousands of times. There was but one span then, a two-lane affair. The toll, as I recall, was $1.15, add a quarter each for passengers, and it was worth it alone for its view of the Chesapeake.

I had crossed many renowned bridges before, those spanning the Mississippi, Missouri and Hudson to name a few. But only one - the higher, shorter and older (completed in 1937) Golden Gate Bridge that carries motorists over the entrance to San Francisco Harbor seemed more awesome at the time. Admittedly that was for a different reason and from a different view.

For a young Navy Seabee like me, and for countless other sailors, soldiers and marines, the Golden Gate Bridge was better known - among those who served in the Pacific - as the "Bridge to Paradise." It was the last visible landmark as they headed west to finish the war with Japan - and what they lay awake nights hoping to see again once the job was done.

I passed under it aboard the troop transport William F. Braxton headed for the Pacific on my 18th birthday and flew over it in a C-47 hospital plane coming back from Hawaii, Jan. 14, 1945. I confess it lived up to its aura as the Bridge to Paradise. Like most returning servicemen, I never did cross the bridge itself. I was either under it or over it, usually the former.

But I have crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge perhaps 5,000 times since that first impressionable trip, and I have passed under it in fishing boats probably another thousand or two times in the past 43 years, the first several of which found me in awe of the engineering ingenuity involved.


Second Thoughts

Quickly awe turned to reality. It became obvious what the heralded long gateway to the Eastern Shore meant to a rural and quaint way of life on the Eastern Shore, including Ocean City as well as other large communities such as Easton and Cambridge, or hamlets like Stevensville, Linkwood and Vienna along Route 50.

And what it meant to the finfish and shellfish of the Bay that big bridge crosses, its waters and its waterfowl as growth and development fed on itself - and continue to do so. Helplessly, we are witnessing it.

In the beginning, few envisioned the Baltimore-Ocean City Connection as a means to spread to the quiet and rural Shore a different, faster and more complicated way of life that many on this side of the Chesapeake wanted to leave behind when they crossed over the new bridge.

They ended up taking with them what they wanted to escape. In the middle, and not only geographically, was Chesapeake Bay.

When the first motorists passed over the bridge, four large ferry boats immediately became obsolete, and Maryland's share of the Delmarva Peninsula was destined for a dramatic change that would have serious and everlasting implications. From an ecological standpoint, the Bay has borne the brunt of fallout associated with traffic, development and people.

Consequences of construction of the bridge have made millionaires of many who invested in businesses, tourism and development, others who sold their farms and homesteads to entrepreneurs and developers. The black cloud had a silver lining. But are we the people of Maryland as a whole - forget the cash flow - richer for it?

One can't deny progress, the evolution of civilization, the desire to make a buck as the avenue to a higher quality of life. But perhaps as we enter the 2000s, it's time we do more thinking about what quality of life is all about.

No turning the clock back. What's done is done, and no way can it be undone. The damage to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed cannot be reversed.

There are many who don't want it reversed. Among those are the avid anglers who enjoy jigging for big catches of rock, sea trout and bluefish from those artificial reefs, the stone piles and pilings of the Bay Bridge. Also among them are those who have made their fortunes and others who want to broil their hides on the sands of Ocean City and still others who enjoy the quaint shops at St. Michaels or like to dine overlooking the fishing fleet docks at Kent Narrows.

Somewhere there must be a balance, and we'd better determine where it is before the next century, never mind the next millennium, or the Chesapeake Watershed - if not the Bay itself - will be one great paved parking lot. Enough said.

| Issue 49 |

Volume VII Number 49
December 9-15, 1999
New Bay Times

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