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60 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel connected Hampton Roads

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened to travel 60 years ago, connecting mainland Hampton Roads to the Eastern Shore. (Photo by Connor Worley)
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened to travel 60 years ago, connecting mainland Hampton Roads to the Eastern Shore. (Photo by Connor Worley)

Day after day of the same back-breaking, laborious routine: Load. Lift. Secure. Seal.

Monotonous, but little-by-little the progress on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was visible. 

It’s formally known as the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge Tunnel; named after the man who spearheaded the project. It opened 60 years ago on April 15, 1964.

Prior to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, travelers had two options to navigate between Tidewater Virginia and the Eastern Shore: take a ferry across the Chesapeake Bay or take a circuitous seven-hour drive up, over and down.

“The traffic volumes had built up to the point where a fixed crossing appeared to be necessary,” said Tom Anderson, the deputy executive director with the CBBT.. “When the construction first began, the volumes on the ferry system were up to about 750,000 vehicles per year.”

The General Assembly authorized the commission to conduct surveys for a fixed crossing in 1956.

The studies concluded that a crossing was feasible, and engineers recommended a series of bridges and tunnels similar to the recently completed Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

A 1956 Virginian-Pilot article said that Eastern Shore residents universally approved legislation that would kickstart the bridge.

“It would be a major inconvenience if the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel didn't exist,” Anderson said. “The trips on the various systems took 85 minutes on a good day.”

The commission secured funding without using any tax revenue. Construction began in October 1960.

78-year-old Betsy Agelasto remembers the buzzing excitement around Hampton Roads as the bridge was built.

“Everybody was really excited because it connected,” Agelasto said. “A lot of people had friends and relatives over there. but once the bridge opened up, it meant you had a north south thing [for] what they were growing on the Eastern Shore.”

Construction was multi-faceted. 

The pile-driver started things off by pile-driving concrete pillars into the ocean’s floor to set the trestles in place across 17.6 miles of open water. 

The trestles were capped, then a slab-setter traversed the trestles, laying prefabricated sections of roadway to connect the disparate parts into one continuous road.

Large ditches were dug for the tunnels. Then large, pre-constructed sections of the tunnel were lowered from barges. 

Once the sections were aligned, divers would bolt them together. Water was then completely pumped out. 

Finally, the tunnels were covered with earth and artificial islands.

“Just lining up the facility was a challenge that necessitated having survey towers built so there were nine towers that were about 100 feet high, that were spaced across the mouth of the bed, just so they could see over the curvature of the earth in order to properly align the facility,” Anderson said.

Sometime in April 1961, operation engineers stepped off the site and formed a workers strike. Equipment sat idle in the tubes. 

A Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch article from the time said the reasons were, quote, “travel pay to the bay site of work, and the size of the works crews.”

Increases in both were agreed upon and the strike ended after nearly one month.

Any given day, crews had to deal with rough currents, eddies and high winds. Storms and extreme weather events routinely halted assembly.

“Those kinds of things are just going to happen in this type of harsh marine environment,” Anderson said.

Suddenly, construction needed to cease again in March 1962.

A powerful Nor’Easter barreled toward the uncapped trestles and exposed construction in the Chesapeake Bay.

It slammed into the open-water site on March 7 — what’s now known as the Ash Wednesday Storm.

The Virginian-Pilot reported in April 1962 that it stripped away huge quantities of man-made fill and protective sand. It upended one tunnel section. And destroyed the main pile-driver named “Big D.”

“They had to salvage the main components of that to construct a new pile driver,” said Tom Anderson, the deputy executive director with the CBBT.

Anderson said certain obstacles like extreme weather just can’t be avoided.

“It was certainly a major setback in the construction process,” he added.

The ensuing three-and-a-half month delay was yet another in a long line of weather events and construction hold ups that pushed the bridge tunnel’s opening half a year later than originally planned.

Before the CBBT opened, Agelasto, and her grandfather, a long-serving member of the Virginia Highway Commission, toured the tunnel.

“We rode the elevators down to where the blowers were down in the tunnel,” Agelasto said. “And we went at that point, there was a Chesapeake Bay Bridge building over there with the most incredible paintings of the Eastern Shore you've ever seen.”

Her thoughts were echoed throughout eastern Virginia when the bridge tunnel finally opened — three and a half years after construction started.

900 vehicles used the bridge tunnel on its first night of operation.  It now serves over 4.3 million vehicles each year.

The mid-1990s brought another significant development to the bridge tunnel. A new, two-lane bridge system was built parallel to the existing structure. It increased traffic flow and divided northbound and southbound traffic.

The bridge will continue to morph in the future. A new dualization project is expected to open in 2027. 

A parallel Chesapeake Channel Tunnel is expected to open around 2040.

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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