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The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, with a watershed that spans 64,000 square miles, touching on six states. It’s an economic engine to two of those states, a source of food for many and close to the hearts of millions. Five public radio organizations—WYPR in Baltimore, Virginia Public Radio, Delmarva Public Radio at Salisbury University, Delaware Public Media and WESM at The University of Maryland Eastern Shore are collaborating to produce reports examining a broad spectrum of issues affecting the Bay and its watershed. Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Landmark Virginia restaurant leaves memories at the mouth of the Bay

For as long as there’s been a Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel at the mouth of the bay, there’s been a gift shop and restaurant perched on an island in the middle of it all. But now that Virginia has broken ground to add a parallel tunnel, the restaurant is about to become history.

And when it goes, it will take some memories with it; memories, for example, of sailor’s wives, who gathered to wave good-bye to their husbands as their ships sailed from Navy bases at Norfolk and Portsmouth out to sea.

It will take windows with a spectacular view of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the freighters, tankers, war ships and submarines that sail in and out.

The view is one of the finer attributes of the place that sits on a 25-foot high pile of rocks, says Chris Savvides, who took over and renovated the original restaurant and gift shop seven years ago with his wife, Kelson.

"You look out here, and we're three-and-a-half miles out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, on a man-made island," he says laughing. "There's no other place like it."

And it’s not just sea going vessels, seals, migrating birds and whales. Savvides recalls having a staff meeting near one of those windows when they saw "a white line way out in the distance."

"It almost looked like there was clouds and the sunlight shining behind it," he says. "But that kept on getting closer and closer and the next thing you know waves are crashing these rocks, water's hitting this thing."

His staff and customers were glued to the windows when they heard a whistling sound and suddenly realized the wind was coming through the windows.

"It's like, everybody get back," he said.

They did. And then they saw signs being ripped off the nearby Sea Gull Fishing Pier, which juts 625 feet out into the water.

"And one ripped and tore off and broke some lady's windshield. And then, five minutes later, boom, gone." Calm returned.

But soon the restaurant, the gift shop and the pier will be gone. The contractors for the parallel tunnel, Dragados USA and Schiavone Construction, have decided to eliminate the restaurant and gift shop to keep costs down on the nearly $800 million project. The doors close at the end of September.

That was news to New Yorkers, Sean Akbar and his parents, who were return visitors recently.

"Aw, well, it's sad," said Sean. The place is "exciting and fun."

That same day there was Heiko, a German tourist, his wife and mother-in-law who had stopped to take in the view.

"We have been at this restaurant a few years ago," said Heiko, who didn’t give his last name. "The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is very interesting for us, so we decided to come back and spend a few minutes here."

The 20-mile long engineering wonder, which opened in 1964, "has an attachment to folks," Savvides says.

"I brought my kids across here when it opened. I want to bring my grandkids across here now."

There are people who come back, whose families were involved in its construction, he says.

"So every time people stop here, it's got an attachment to it. It's not just a stop on a roadside rest area."

Virginia officials figure it will take five years to build the two-lane additional tunnel, plunging more than 100 feet below the surface. And although the restaurant will be gone, they say they’ll re-open the fishing pier.

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