The highest bridge in Maryland is actually a set of two bridges. One runs eastbound and the other runs westbound. They come together to form the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The bridge is 354 feet high going east and 379 feet high going west. It is also the longest bridge in Maryland at 4.35 miles long. It is called the Bay Bridge by area residents since the Chesapeake Bay is the dominant water feature in Maryland and most people know what bridge the speaker is referring to without the lengthy name. The official name of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is the Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge. Governor Lane was the governor of Maryland when the bridge project was approved and constructed. He was instrumental in getting the bridge built.
Don’t confuse the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in the neighboring state of Virginia. One is an above-water bridge and the other has both bridges and tunnels that are connected. Both go over (or under) the Chesapeake Bay, connecting their states with the eastern shore. There is a $4 toll for using the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is reduced to just $2.50 for those with a Maryland E-Z Pass. It is collected electronically or mailed to the registered owner of each vehicle.
The Bay Bridge is an important feature in the state and the immediate towns and cities surrounding it. It is the primary way to get to Maryland’s eastern shore from other parts of the state. When it was built, it greatly increased access to this remote part of Maryland. Today, it provides beachgoers with a fast way to get to the beach.
History of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
The bridge was completed in 1952. Before its construction, ferries were the primary way to get across the bay from one part of Maryland to the other. But residents really wanted a faster and easier mode of transportation. Other possible bridge sites included closer to Baltimore, but nothing was ever constructed due to many factors.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built following a similar path to one of the most popular and busiest ferry routes from the capital city, Annapolis, to Kent Island on the eastern shore. Construction took around three and a half years. The first traffic to cross the bridge did so on July 30, 1952. At this point, the bridge was only one span, although it was the largest continuous steel bridge to go over water in the world and the third longest bridge overall.
A parallel span, the second portion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, was added in 1973. Again, construction took around three years but helped with traffic flow significantly.
The bridge remains a busy conduit for Marylanders (and motorists from neighboring states) getting to the eastern shore. In the summer months, Fridays can get particularly backed up as people head up to Ocean City and nearby beaches for the weekend. Even in the less busy months, the bridge is a major roadway that allows people to get from one part of Maryland to the other quickly.
Accidents on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
Unfortunately, there have been numerous accidents on the bridge over the years. There isn’t any shoulder on the bridge and the guard rails are unusually low. The eastbound section does have a more extensive upper frame structure close to the roadway, which can help, but the bridge is still considered quite scary to drive on by many. This is especially true if you aren’t used to driving over water.
Closures are also fairly common. These are mostly due to weather conditions and high winds. Winds from Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Hurricane Irene in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 all caused the bridge to close. An unnamed nor’easter also closed the bridge in 2013.
Boat Travel in the Chesapeake Bay
We mentioned that ferries were the primary mode of transportation across the bay until the bridge was built. While the ferry system is no longer active, boating is still a popular leisure activity in the bay and commercial shipping is also present. Annapolis is the sailing capital of the United States, so sailboats go in and out of this area often. The clearance under the bridge is 186 feet. Any large boats or ships that are taller than 186 feet will not be able to go under the bridge. This rules out very large commercial shipping, which has to use alternate ports to unload goods.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
If you want to learn more about the bridge’s construction and the towns and cities around the Chesapeake Bay, check out the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, Maryland. It has historic boats used in the fishing and crabbing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, model ships, and a historic lighthouse open for tours. It includes over 30 buildings, although not all are open to the public as part of the museum.
Where is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge begins at Sandy Point State Park, a bayfront park just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. It crosses the Chesapeake Bay and reaches Stevensville on Kent Island. The bridge is part of Highways 50 and 301.
There are five lanes in total, two on one span of the bridge and three on the other. Normally, two lanes go east and three lanes go west. But they can be adjusted using a lane control system and overhead digital displays. A green symbol is shown for motorists traveling in the approved direction. A red symbol is shown for the other lanes. This is most often adjusted to add an eastbound lane during peak travel times for people going to the eastern shore.
Once each year, the bridge closes for an annual walk/run. The first race was held in 1975 and has changed multiple times since then, including a brief period when the race was discontinued due to the high costs associated with putting it on. The distance is a 10K and there are options to run or walk.
Animals in the Chesapeake Bay
Maryland is famous for its blue crabs, which are prominent in the Chesapeake Bay. While you can’t fish or crab from the bridge, you can stop at one of the restaurants on either side and enjoy a tasty meal with stunning views of the bridge. Mussels, clams, striped bass, and horseshoe crabs are also plentiful in the bay.
The bay is also home to many species of sharks. There are beaches both on Kent Island and at Sandy Point State Park, right on the Chesapeake Bay. While sharks don’t typically attack people and the swimming area at both sites is limited, it’s still a good idea to watch for marine life and make sure that you leave it undisturbed. Jellyfish are more common, especially in the summer months.
Above the water, expect to see osprey, eagles, and herons. Any bird that eats and enjoys fish and crustaceans will feel quite happy (and full) near the Chesapeake Bay. As you drive across the bridge, gulls are a frequent travel companion. They often glide on air currents and seem to move effortlessly next to the vehicles on the bridge.
The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary, the third largest in the U.S. It is an important hub of marine life as well as vital to the surrounding ecosystem.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock.com
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