EASTON — The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 was the most significant event impacting the character, landscape and modern history of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
For locals and visitors alike, the Bay Bridge has become part of life on the Shore, and its presence is most felt with increased traffic volume during the summer months. As local and state officials consider a third Bay crossing in Maryland, Londonderry resident Margaret Sherman Bryan recalls what life was like on the Eastern Shore before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Bryan was born in 1923 and grew up in the village of Claiborne, near St. Michaels. Her father, B. Frank Sherman, was the general manager of the Annapolis-Claiborne Ferry, which operated from 1919 to 1952 and carried as many as 1 million vehicles and 2 million passengers annually during its peak operation. Up until the opening of the Bay Bridge, car ferries were the only way to cross the Bay in Maryland.
Claiborne was a ferry town, and the majority of the residents worked for the ferry company. It also was home to one of the stops on the now defunct Baltimore Chesapeake and Atlantic Railroad that would take passengers from Baltimore to Ocean City.
Claiborne was a hub of activity during Bryan’s youth. Visitors came from the western shore to vacation, and Eastern Shore residents took the ferry to travel to Annapolis and Baltimore for shopping in the big department stores and other outings. It was a one-and-a-half-hour ride to Annapolis and then another hour trip to Baltimore by car, trolley or bus.
Bryan loved to ride the ferry with her father and keenly remembers being served the world’s best hot dogs and the world’s worst coffee on her trips across the Bay.
While not on today’s scale, Bay Hundred residents had to contend with “ferry traffic,” and there was a time when two traffic lights were needed in St. Michaels to accommodate the influx of 75 to 80 cars each time the ferry docked.
As it is today, the Eastern Shore was a tourist destination and visitors would come for the summer season and stay in hotels and boarding houses like the Wade’s Point Inn in McDaniel, which is still in operation. Some would stay in Talbot County, and others would go on to the Maryland and Delaware beaches.
While growing up in Claiborne, Bryan and her younger sister attended a one-room school house and later were bussed to St. Michaels for high school, where there were just 45 students in her graduating class.
The village of Claiborne was a close-knit community, and the children “made their own fun” riding their bikes, swimming in the river, boating, sailing and going to the movies in St. Michaels to enjoy the air conditioning during the summer heat. The Miles River Yacht Club was the primary social center for Bay Hundred families.
Bryan attended the University of Maryland College Park and then married a local boy, Phillip Beverly “Bev” Bryan, who also graduated from St. Michaels High School. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Beach Patrol during World War II. After the war, they lived in Baltimore for two years before moving back home to the Eastern Shore to raise their family.
On July 30, 1952, the ferry made its last crossing with Bryan’s father at the helm, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened, bringing more visitors and development to the Eastern Shore.
Bryan had a front-row seat to evolution of the modern Eastern Shore while raising her sons and working at local banks in the St. Michaels area during the next 35 years.
Bryan said she’s been struck by the growth of Easton and how much easier it is to travel around the Eastern Shore. When she was growing up in the Bay Hundred area, it was easier to take the ferry to Annapolis or Baltimore to shop rather than travel to Easton.
Bryan also points to the continued role agriculture, tourism and the seafood industry play in the Eastern Shore’s economy, although she said there are fewer farms than in decades past. She said she also is pleased Eastern Shore communities have stayed true to their small-town roots and neighbors continue to look after each other.
The Bryans lived in McDaniel along Harris Creek for many years, and Margaret Bryan remained in their home for 12 years following her husband’s death. In 2004, she moved to Londonderry, where she is working on her memoir to share with her family.