Highway Hi-Jinks

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A loyal reader asked me to talk about how officials determined the path for the Merritt Parkway and Interstae 95.  This sounded interesting, so I did some research.

The Merritt Parkway was built in the 1930s as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project.  The WPA was designed to get Americans back to work during the Great Depression.  Many projects were public works-related, such as improving highways and rebuilding cities.  In Connecticut, officials wanted to build a modern highway from New York to Fairfield to the Housatonic.  It would provide a scenic highway with grassy dividers, which would relieve the traffic along the coast (Route 1) and serve as a main artery near areas of population.  No trucks would be allowed to use it.  A center median would be used to prevent head-on collissions.  It would be named after a long-time Congressman - U.S. Representative Schuyler Merritt. 

                                                

                                              Coutesy National Byways Program   

The project was divided between two men.  Landscape architect W. Taylor Chase designed the actual road and park part.  Officials wanted to maintain the predominantly splendid vistas with various vegetation and rolling hills.  Chase was to protect the flaura and fauna (plants and animals) as best as possible.  Of course, he had to build the road taking drainage, geology and obstacles (natural and man-made) into consideration.  There was also some resistance from estate owners, who had invested large amounts of money in their property.  The road was built to curve through farmlands and forests.  A 300-foot right-of-way was purchased in anticipation of future expansion.  This, however, has never materialized.  For one thing, residents in Norwalk set a precedent by winning a lawsuit which prevented changing some ramps.  Preservation groups oppose rebuilding because it would mean the demolition of the beautiful bridges. 

   
George Dunkelberger, a bridge architect, was chosen to create Art Deco classical and stone bridges using French, Italian and English styles.  He built 35 unique bridges which contributed to its being  nominated for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Greenwich resident Renee Anselmo sponsored a grant which resulted in the Parkway being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.  In 1995 the Connecticut Trust and the Connecticut Department of Transportation received a National Preservation Honor Award for its efforts to preserve the highway.  Anyone who travels the Merritt has to marvel at the beautiful sculpture of each bridge. 

                                              

Unfortunately, the opening of the highway was overshadowed by scandal.  The project was riddled with illict land deals, scandalous engineering reports and overspending.  The State ended up spending $6-million for $3.2-million worth of land.  A grand jury investigation found that the state spent $1,255,541 for land assessed at $228,196.  Land prices had soared when the project was announced.  Not only that, but there were charges of irregular bidding, collusion, padding, engineering mistakes, and poor management.  In one instance, the road was moved to save a tree at the request of a former landowner!

Despite all the shenanigans, the Merritt Parkway was opened on June 29, 1938.  It remains a beautiful testament to the foresight of our predecessors. For you real sticklers, tolls were paid on the Merritt from 1939 to 1988.

While the Merritt was designed to calm traffic along the southern coast, Interstate 95 was designed to upgrade the highway system for quicker travel. It would be an upgrade from Route 1 (The Boston Post Road). The Interstate Higway System was actually the brainchild of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower had been the Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.  He knew how important it was to the defense of the country to be able to move military forces quickly to any location. It was opened on August 8, 1958.  Part of the 1,925 mile road - which stretches form Maine to Florida - was composed of various constructed or planned toll roads, which were taken over by the Federal Government as part of the Interstate system.  Surprisingly, a section between Pennsylvania and New Jersey has never been finished due to taxpayer revolts!  The Connecticut Turnpike - as it was called - was renamed The Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike in 1986.

The highway has had a very storied past. To prevent relocation of the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, the road was "bent" to the east over Cos Cob Harbor and the Mianus River.  The Weigh Station was a sore point for many years due to noise and pollution.  Anyone who is driving in town knows that traffic backs up from Stamford at about 2 o'clock every afternoon due to congestion.  Before Stamford could open it's mall, lanes and exits had to be added to the highway.  In 1983, the Mianus River Bridge collapsed.  This was attributed to obsolete design and lack of proper inspection. After a terrible accident at the toll booth in Madison, the tolls were taken out in 1986.  The Town of Greenwich had to repay a seafood company after town firefighters were caught stealing lobsters from a burning truck near the Mianus River bridge!

To the best of my knowledge, there have been no scandals associated with the construction of I-95. It's hard to imagine that there were no unscrupulous contractors or property owners involved.    There were a lot of complaints, however.  Turnpike trucks were accused of ruining local roads.  Officials were worried about the effect on Horseneck Brook.  Belle Haven residents protested against an exit ramp in their neighborhood.  The Kent House was demolished.  One woman complained about sinking in a big mudhole. Powerlines were pulled down by highway construction equipment.  Many residents along the road complained about the blasting of rock, which launched rocks and cracked windows.  The town had to determine the value of park land taken for the road. 

Today, the biggest problem seems to be keeping the infrastructure serviceable.  Bridges are being rebuilt and roads are being repaved.  Route I-95 is one of the busiest highways in the United States. And one of the most dangerous!  When it opened in 1958, it was designed to handle a certain volume of traffic.  Sixty years later, it appears to be reaching its limit.

 

4 Comments

Carl:

Thanks again.

Much as I dislike the traffic (congestion, noise, pollution) on these two roadways, I do appreciate the fact that almost everything - from the materials used to construct our homes, to the foods we eat and the clothes we wear - has spent some time on either I 95 or the Merritt (even if we bring things in via the Post Road, there's a good chance they've been on I 95 some time in their existence).

Remember the shortages we experienced and feared when, no too long ago, I 95 was shut down for a brief time due, I think, to a storm?

Kathy - Yes, we depend on these highways (especially I-95) for trucking all along the Eastern Seaboard, as well as across the country. I remember when I was in grade school when we talked about the great empires like the Roman and the Greek. They were known for their great road systems. They also built aqueducts.
These cultures understood the importance of tying everyone together through various means.

Roads are important to us, also. i do remember the blizzard in the late 70s early 80s that closed down the roads for two days. I also remeber the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which caused traffic congestion in Cos Cob.

Once you have a workable system in place, it doesn't take much to disrupt it!

Carl

Carl

Carl:

Well, your articles inspired me to read The King's Best Highway by Jaffe (found on the library's new nonfiction shelf), very good indeed. But it got me thinking about the mile markers I've seen in Greenwich- one near the library, the other escapes me at the moment - are they "original"?

Also - there "seems" to be a stone mile marker along the outer trail at Greenwich Point, in the sandy area some call "the cove" - why? who would have put it there? Actually since the storm last spring, I think it may have been buried in the shifting sands.

Kathy

Hi, Kathy!

I know about the markers you mentioned. I don't believe these are the originals, but rather reproductions which were placed to commemorate the old route to Fairfield. I'm going to research this and see what I can find out.

In terms of Greenwich Point, I don't believe any marker down there would be part of the "Road to Fairfield" system. Different groups have placed markers over time. Recently, the Boy Scouts placed distance markers around the point for walkers. I've spent some time recording memorial plaques, benches, etc. at the beach, and even put together a list of them. I need to update it since I know more things have been added.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on October 29, 2010 10:01 AM.

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