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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Looking Back at the Birth of the Downtown Tunnel in 1952

Blog # 29.  February 1, 2014  By Marcus W. Robbins

News flash: today 2/1/14; tolling has returned on both the Elizabeth River Downtown and Midtown tunnels.  There is a good chance if you are an middle-age adult reading these words you will be deceased before the current tolling plan is lifted in 2070.

There have been massive gallons of ink spilled and many a ream of paper used debating the merits and current state of this new round of construction and transportation improvements yet I wish to only offer you a quick historic glimpse of what began in May of 1952, some 62 years ago this spring as our first area tunnel was born to great celebration.

Tolls have always been a necessary evil to construct certain capital projects.  Such toll based funding was necessary with the Norfolk-Portsmouth Bridge Tunnel, operated by the Elizabeth River Tunnel Commission.  The entire complex was completed and opened to traffic in May 1952 at a cost of twenty-three million dollars.
Norfolk - Portsmouth Bridge Tunnel Postcard (circa 1952)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Crossing under the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River with the tunnel portion (93 feet under the surface) and over the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River with the newly constructed Berkley Bridge portion this modern feat of engineering connected the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth and sealed the fate of the automotive ferry system which ceased to exist after 1955.
Portsmouth Entrance Bridge Tunnel Postcard (circa 1952)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

As an aside note, there were even two different passenger ferry services arriving directly to the docks of the Navy Yard during World War II.  One ferry came from York Street at Norfolk and one came from the Saint Helena Annex.  Both of these ferry services supported the movement of large amounts of people quickly to and from the Navy Yard without the congestion of additional automobiles.
Speaking of quickly moving across the watery divide, it is interesting to note the attached scan of a Norfolk-Portsmouth Tunnel pamphlet from 1967 which touts the claim “cross the Elizabeth River in 3 minutes”.  Also in regard to the image on the pamphlet I call your attention to the artwork seal that celebrates the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at 200 years of service, 1767-1967.  It also celebrates the first battle of ironclads in Hampton Roads, 1862.  While it is well known that the Virginia sailed down the Southern Branch several times but most folks never have been aware that the USS Monitor also sailed this same branch as she reviewed the smoldering ruins of the Navy Yard on May 11, 1862 while escorting the USS Baltimore that was carrying President Lincoln before returning to Washington.  We live and work along such a historic waterway.
Norfolk - Portsmouth Bridge Tunnel Pamphlet (circa 1967)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
A second tunnel crossing was opened to traffic in 1962 to support additional capacity between the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, this became known as the Midtown Tunnel.  It is a fact of life in Tidewater Virginia, if you travel any distance you will encounter a bridge, a tunnel or sometimes both.  We live and work in such a diverse geographical area.
Downtown Toll Plaza on Norfolk Side Postcard (circa 1960)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
While tolls escalated over time most of us remember the final cost of crossing either one of these tunnels.  It was a simple 25 cent prepaid ticket you could purchase in booklet form or better yet you could also enjoy the personal interaction of passing your money to a real human at a toll booth (see scans above and below).  I’m not saying it was fast but at least you had a sense of personal accomplishment after you passed the toll booth and most times they said "thank-you".
Distance View of Navy Yard Crane & Building Ways Postcard (circa 1960) & Toll Ticket (circa 1978)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
By the late 1980’s the Downtown Tunnel became part of Interstate 264 along with construction of a 2nd Berkley Bridge and the tolls became a memory.  By 1991 Interstate 464 was connected on the Norfolk side and traffic capacity increased, passing easily and quickly between Norfolk and Chesapeake Virginia.
Why are the area tunnels and river crossings important to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard of today? 
Both our core civilian and contractor workforce population, our military guests that are having their ships repaired and modernized at our world class facilities and untold commercial vendors sending us supplies and the tools of our trade must most times encounter the fact they must cross the river.  Our transportation network is much like the human circulatory system, it pumps blood and life into the local economy.  We do not live where we work, we must travel.
With the establishment of a ferry system that began between Norfolk and Portsmouth in 1636 as a simple skiff to the large automotive ferry that lasted till 1955 there has been the challenge to move both goods and people across the Elizabeth River.
With the modern bridges and tunnels we utilize today there shall always remain that need (no matter what the cost) to get to the other side because –“history matters”.

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