The history of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, before its collapse

The history of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, before its collapse - ClickAmericana com

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The Francis Scott Key Bridge, named for the author of the US national anthem, was a standout piece of American engineering, and an emblem of historical importance.

This significant structure spanned the main channel of the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland, serving as a crucial passageway for both transportation and commerce from March 23, 1977 until its collapse on March 26, 2024.

The bridge’s design went beyond mere functionality — its architectural form and engineering integrity displayed the technological strides of its era.

Unfortunately, the bridge’s story took a dramatic turn with the recent event, adding a sad chapter to its history.

Maryland Traffic Authority news bulletin about bridge collapse on March 26 2024
Maryland Traffic Authority news bulletin about bridge collapse on March 26 2024

As we look back at vintage newspaper articles announcing the bridge’s completion, we can see the community’s anticipation and excitement surrounding its grand opening. These records reflect the essence of the times — showcasing the bridge as a beacon of progress, connecting not only land but also the lives of those it served.

Even as we face this bridge’s untimely end, we remember the ingenuity and resilience it symbolized for the people of Baltimore and the nation.

The Key Bridge with Marine Traffic
The Key Bridge with Marine Traffic, Baltimore, Maryland c2022 (Picture by waltbilous/Deposit Photos)

Outer harbor bridge opens (1977)

Excerpted from the Baltimore Sun (Maryland) March 30, 1977

The Francis Scott Key Bridge over Baltimore’s outer harbor and its 8.7 miles of approach roads and structures opened to traffic Wednesday, March 23, at 10 a.m. Harry R. Hughes, state secretary of transportation, announced the opening of the controlled-access toll facility which is the final link in the Route 695 Beltway around the city of Baltimore.

Named for the author of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Francis Scott Key Bridge is a 1.6-mile-long span connecting Hawkins Point in Baltimore City with Sollers Point in Baltimore County.

Francis Scott Key - Star Spangled Banner song in 1812 - Art from 1958
Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner after watching the British bombardment of Fort Henry during the War of 1812 (Art from 1958)

The structure is the longest three-span, continuous steel, through-truss bridge in the United States. It provides motorists with an unsurpassed view of Baltimore and its port. The final painting of the span will be completed during the spring and summer.

“The opening of this project will mean a great deal to the citizens of Maryland,” said Secretary Hughes, who serves as chairman of the Maryland Transportation Authority. The authority is appointed by the governor and is responsible for the construction and operation of all toll facilities in Maryland. The Toll Facilities Administration will operate, maintain, and police the bridge and its thruway.

Financed with revenue bonds, the S141-million project provides a third alternative for direct travel through the Baltimore area. The thruway connects with Rt. 695 on the eastern side of the city at North Point Blvd. The southern end of the project connects with Rt 695 at the Arundel Expressway in Anne Arundel County.

Previously, motorists seeking a direct route through the Baltimore area had to choose between the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Rt 695 Beltway around the city’s northern and western edges.

Baltimore Sun photo of the Francis Scott Key Bridge view during construction – Jan 2, 1977

Baltimore Sun - Francis Scott Key Bridge view during construction - Jan 2, 1977

Francis Scott Key Bridge: New bridge delights commuting workers (1977)

Excerpted from the Baltimore Sun (Maryland) August 2, 1977

Each workday, Raymond Yrttimaa’s 45-minute commute to the General Electric plant in Dundalk used to be a headache. The 52-year-old mechanical engineer would leave his home in Arnold, Anne Arundel county, about 6:45 A.M., hit the snags on the congested Ritchie highway and then join the backup at the Harbor Tunnel. On the way back it would be a nerve-testing repeat performance.

Since April, however, Mr Yrttimaa has been leaving his home 15 minutes later and sneaking through some little-used back roads to the new Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“I love it,” he said last week. “Better than 50 percent of the time, it’s real clear, and you can see the city. It’s very impressive looking down the river to the city and Sparrows Point on the other side.

“The tunnel was always backed up, but I have never experienced any backup on the bridge except for three or four cars at the toll booth.”

Francis Scott Key Bridge New bridge delights commuting workers (1977)

Mr. Yrttimaa is one of the thousands of commuters whose driving habits have been changed by the opening in April of the $141 million bridge, whose 2,640-foot steel span crosses Baltimore’s Outer Harbor.

While the use of the new bridge has been steadily increasing — from 359,255 vehicles in April to 400,012 in June, the last month for which figures are available — the tunnel has experienced a 17.5 percent decrease in commuter traffic, a spokesman for the state Toll Facilities Administration said.

Francis Scott Key Bridge c2014 picture by appalachianview/Deposit Photos
Francis Scott Key Bridge c2014 picture by appalachianview/Deposit Photos

Capt. Walter Wallace, of the tunnel police, said it has been estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 commuters who formerly used the tunnel to get to and from their jobs have switched to the new bridge. Even though those numbers are not enough to erase the rush-hour backups at the tunnel, clearing the jams has become easier.

“Sometimes on Fridays we used to have backups until 8 o’clock at night, but nowadays we usually can clear them by 5:30 or 6:30,” Captain Wallace said. With the opening of the 75-cent toll bridge, the Baltimore Beltway—on which construction began 23 years ago — has come full circle.

The 1.6-mile bridge soars 185 feet above mean high water from Hawkins Point, in Baltimore City, to Sollers Point, in Baltimore County, arching over the Patapsco River just north of the tiny island bastion of Fort Carroll.

On a clear day, a motorist is treated to a dramatic panorama. Not only is the city’s new skyline visible, but also Fort McHenry, Canton, the hills of Catonsville, Towson’s high-rises, the candelabra tower at Television Hill and ocean-going vessels in the harbor.

A look at history: Francis Scott Key near the bridge site

Key is shown standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland (painting by Percy Moran, c1913/Courtesy US LOC)

Painting of Francis Scott Key near over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland

ALSO SEE: How was the Golden Gate Bridge built? Find out here, plus see photos of the construction

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Thank you so much for this historic look on this bridge. Very fascinating! I am embarrassed to say that I never knew about the back story on who it was named after. Very nice, thank you again! That song will have more and more feeling when I hear it being sung.

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