The 23-mile span offers more than a connection between Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.
This article will explore the bridge-tunnel’s history, and provide facts and lore about this structure that’s an attraction all in its own right.
Consisting of stretches of causeway, two tunnels, two high bridges and four artificial islands, the bridge-tunnel complex was a fantastic achievement for its time. Completed in 1964, the bridge-tunnel replaces a vehicle ferry service that existed in 1930.
Now, while designs for bridges have continued to push the bar of what is a “marvel,” the bridge-tunnel remains an impressive engineering feat. Take, for example, the number of piles used in its construction — it’s said if all the piles used to build the bridge-tunnel were placed end to end, their length would stretch from New York City to Philadelphia.
Driving the Bridge-Tunnel Saves Time and Distance
Driving the bridge-tunnel saves motorists a whopping 95 miles, or about one and a half hours of road time when going between Virginia Beach, Va. and Wilmington, Del.
The bridge-tunnel’s construction was funded by toll revenue bonds and there is a $12 toll for using it today. In the 1990s, the above-water sections were expanded to four lanes at a toll-funded cost of about $200 million.
Expansion of the underwater portions is being discussed, but dates for construction haven’t been set.
Twenty miles is a long way to drive across the bay — drivers say they feel like they are traversing the open sea, because of the wide-water vistas.
Keen-eyed passengers spot large and small ships on the waters, as well as local birdlife. Sea Gull Island and the overlook on the north end of the bridge-tunnel are good places for birdwatchers. It’s possible to stop during the journey across, with a rest area built into the artificial islands.
The island rest area even has a fishing pier, making it popular with fishermen as well as photographers trying to capture snapshots of passing boats.
Although most call it the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the official name is the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge-Tunnel, named after one of the local leaders who had pushed for its construction.
Kellam helped the project win the Navy’s approval, easing fears the bridge-tunnel would obstruct water traffic going to and from naval bases. A tireless advocate of the bridge-tunnel, Kellam held the post of Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Commission chairman for 39 years.
Severe Weather Set Back the Building Process
Building the bridge took three and a half years plus the lives of seven workers. The Chesapeake Bay’s unpredictable weather made working conditions tough.
The project was set back by vicious nor’easters and hurricanes. The worst weather event to strike the project was the Great March Storm of 1962. The storm assailed the mid-Atlantic region for three days, causing extremely high tides and tidal surges, gusts of wind and copious rain.
During the onslaught, incomplete sections of the bridge-tunnel were torn away by the storm’s force and a part of a custom-built pile driver was destroyed.
At the time of its construction, the bridge-tunnel was declared one of the “Seven Engineering Marvels of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It was also given the award for “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the same society in 1965.
Nowadays, there are other engineering marvels that have replaced the bridge-tunnel in spotlight; however, the bridge-tunnel has become a tourist destination for people intrigued by design and architecture.
Tourists who stay at cheap hotels in Virginia Beach can take in the bridge-tunnel as well as related area attractions such as the Virginia Beach Maritime Historical Museum, and the Virginia Aquarium and Maritime Science Center.