Immediately following World War One, it became apparent that the existing road system in Connecticut was woefully inadequate and deteriorating at a rapid rate. The main problem was basically the strangling congestion that resulted from too many vehicles being on roads that were too small and antiquated to handle them. This was at its worst on the Post Road, which recently had become a part of U.S. Route 1, running from Calais, Maine to Key West, Florida. This was Connecticut's only direct route along the densely populated and industrialized coastal corridor. It was the crucial link between the port of New York from which raw materials came to furnish the many factories, and finished products would pour out, all requiring innumerable trucks to accomplish the job. This constituted the first major inter - city truck route in the country.
It may not have been so bad if it were only for the trucks, but the advent of the mass produced, low priced automobile made it possible for nearly everyone to either own an automobile or have access to one, With this new found freedom young people would pile into their cars to joyride, visit friends or head off towards the amusement parks such as Savin Rock or to Rye Beach in New York. From the other direction, summer vacationers would wind their way out of New York City onto the Post Road, and slowly, painfully inch their way to the Beaches lying east of New Haven in Branford and Madison, or pass through on their way to the cool mountains of New Hampshire. This four hour plus trip each way on a summer weekend to and from the beach almost made it not worth the while. Bottlenecks developed, choking clouds of toxic exhaust spewed in to the air from the ever growing onslaught of vehicular traffic. This surging mass of undulating ribbons of interstate buses packed with weary travelers, trucks making their endless deliveries to and from industry; wayside businesses, gas stations and diners made the promise of the open road for the work weary masses just that; a promise. Confronted with innumerable traffic lights, stop signs, intersecting cross streets, ever changing speed limits and short tempers it all added up to a traveler's nightmare. Bumper to bumper, traffic light to traffic light, motorists eager for the abandon of exhilarating speed found themselves instead confined inside an overheating metal monster, surrounded by others in the same predicament. Yes, the automobile had arrived, but the road system and added amenities had not caught up with their advances or sheer numbers.
The Post Road had begun life nearly three hundred years earlier as an Indian foot path along the shore. It had been improved over the years to carry horses and stagecoaches, and finally widened and paved over in a haphazard manner relying on the whims and budgets of local towns and politicians. When the Post Road was designated part of U.S. Route 1, the Connecticut Department of Engineers and Contractors planned and executed a "modernization" of the alignment and surface between 1923 and 1931, but it had never quite been able to keep up with the ever increasing density of traffic. Between 1915 when the state of Connecticut registered 43,985 motor vehicles and 1935, when 258,985 were registered, short of small improvements and maintenance of the existing state road system, no substantial modernization of contemporary design took place to keep up with not only the increasing numbers of motor vehicles, but the changes in design, speed and the public attitudes towards them. There had also been more than 21,000 accidents and over 300 deaths in Connecticut in 1925, many of these head-on collisions. It became more evident that the state could no longer sit back and casually watch this breakdown in systems. All these factors prompted the state legislature into action.
An alternate route became imperative. Various proposals were put forth, such as widening the present Post Road, or building another road parallel to this to serve as a truck route, both of which proved to be too expensive due to the right of way property purchases involved and thus, too complicated from an engineering standpoint. It was also felt by the members of the State Highway Commission that it would only add to the present architectural folly of the road and be a constant unaesthetic reminder of their blunder, This new road would have to be different and entirely new in design, keeping pace not only in the aesthetic and technological advances of the automobile, but with the spirit of the machine age atmosphere of the future which was popular at the time. It would be designed for motor traffic specifically to make travel safe, speedy, economical and pleasurable.
From about 1926, the State Highway Commission began acquiring land north of the Post Road in Fairfield County. One of the most farsighted aspects was the conclusion reached by Highway Commissioner John A. MacDonald at the urging of Chief Engineer of Projects Warren Creamer, that a right of way of at least 300 feet wide be secured, and money was partially provided in 1931 for this purpose. Never before had this wide a right of way been sought. The Post Road at the time was 18 feet wide with no center separation. What Warren Creamer envisioned was a roadway that respected the contours of the land, one that existed in harmony with the landscape and its inhabitants. It would prove to be a quantum departure from the carnival atmosphere of the Post Road.
It was to be the first divided lane, limited access highway in Connecticut, the initial link in a comprehensive system for the state, Construction was officially authorized by legislation passed through the General Assembly in June of 1935. The same act also prohibited commercial traffic from using the road, keeping that confined to the multiuse Post Road, and named the road after Schuyler Merritt, a Stamford lawyer, businessman and U.S. Representative from the Fourth Congressional District from 1917 to 1937 and a main proponent and champion of the Parkway, whose district it passed through. The roadway that eventually developed out of this legislation traverses the rolling Connecticut countryside for 38 miles and was subsequently and aptly nicknamed the "Gateway To New England," Fairfield County Bond Issue for $15,000,000 and another $6,000,000 from the Public Works Administration financed the entire Project. Some have argued that it was the wisest $21,000,000 ever spent in the state and that the result was also one of its best bargains.
Governor Wilbur Cross, who signed the bills, was careful to make a distinction between what could have been another Post Road farther north and the proposed "parkway” that was planned. It must have been quite a comfort to those whose land and backyards the road was to go through, quelling their fears and original objections to the project. It was not to be a straight line hacked out of the countryside like the railroads were, with patches of barren, sweltering desert on either side of it. Fortunately, it was the genius of Warren Creamer and his team of engineers and designers that the exceptional beauty of the Merritt Parkway can be credited at that time, there were very few precedents to draw upon. There was the Fenway in Boston, a late nineteenth century park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City. The Fenway had a roadway running through it, with bridges designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. Olmstead’s vision was in "'attempting to correct the tendency of American cities to ruin in their rapid growth all the assets of natural beauty in their vicinity.’ The Fenway is now hopelessly inefficient as an artery between the city and the suburbs for the streams of motor traffic, But in the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was a remarkable example of a new and more intelligent attitude towards the problems of large scale urban planning and landscape design. “1 (H.H. Richardson and His Times, p.)
In nearby New York, there was the Bronx River Parkway and the beginnings of the great Long Island Parkway System being devised and built by Robert Moses. Other than this limited application of an essentially new idea, there was little else, It is therefore a great credit to Creamer and his team that the Merritt Parkway was so beautifully designed and well constructed, and that it is enjoyed by the countless millions who travel it each year and is jealously protected by those who see it as an architectural masterpiece in America. These people foresaw the importance of incorporating the existing landscape in to the overall architecture of the parkway. There would be no haphazard development along the Merritt, no crazy quilt barrage of billboards enticing the motorists to slow down or look forwards to promises of food or lodging ' just ahead.' Only planned oases stocked with fuel and refreshment for the traveler and his machine, and of course, later on in its history, tolls to help pay for new roads and maintain the old.
"When the Merritt Parkway is constructed, it will be possible for you to drive with pleasure, comfort, and safety through very beautiful Connecticut countryside, over a Parkway which bypasses centers of business activity, a way unmarred by stop lights, dangerous intersections and architectural atrocities.”2 (csce p. 100-101 wc). This was a great achievement for its time and continues to this day in the same manner. The Merritt Parkway commences at the New York-Connecticut State Line in the town of Greenwich, at the intersection of what was then King and Ridge Streets. The Hutchinson River Parkway that was being built at the time in New York would be extended from its terminus in Portchester to this point to form a continuous ribbon of travel from New York City to Greenwich, where the Merritt begins, continuing in a northeasterly direction through Stamford, into the town of New Canaan. From there it enters Norwalk just north of the Darien-Norwalk Town Line, and continues northeast, crossing Route 7, which carries traffic to and from Danbury, into Westport where it crosses the Wilton Road, It continues on through Fairfield in the Greenfield Hills district and into Trumbull immediately north of the Bridgeport Town Line, at the intersection of Nichols and Trumbull Avenues. From here it originally ran south easterly through Stratford to the Washington Bridge which leads into Devon and Milford. Traffic surveys at the time revealed that enormous traffic jams would occur at this eastern terminus. Both the Merritt Parkway and the Post Road, along with numerous local streets would be pouring f a r too many lanes of diversified traffic onto the two lanes of the Washington Bridge, Further design changes moved the Merritt Parkway to a point a few miles north of its original terminus, carrying traffic directly east through Stratford. A new bridge was authorized to carry parkway traffic over the Housatanic River to points east and north. The 1937 legislature authorized at the same time another parkway. This would eventually become the Wilbur Cross Parkway, making lateral connections to the Post Road, carrying traffic easterly to central Connecticut and shore points, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The area that the Merritt Parkway was to go through, though not as densely populated or industrialized as the area surrounding the Post Road, was nonetheless extensively taken up and improved. People had become attached to the land, striking roots deep in to the soil and building upon the land, seeking to escape the noise and confusion of the cities, desiring only seclusion and peace in this charming and compelling landscape. In the towns at its western end, Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, and Westport, large estates had been carved out of the land by the wealthy and the bedroom communities known as the suburbs had begun to slowly take hold.
Further east, farmland stood in the path of the new parkway, There were already several well-maintained roads running north and south, perpendicular to the proposed parkway, such as Route 7 in Norwalk running north to Danbury and beyond, all the way into Massachusetts and Vermont, and Routes 25 and 8, going north from Bridgeport to Waterbury and beyond, but the Merritt would connect all these diversified communities together east and west with greater dispatch than the Post Road. The area had "Excellent facilities for residential purposes; its diversified physical features with lakes, salt water, picturesque wooded areas, rolling fields, its many spots unchanged since Colonial days have given it a charm which is almost unrivaled." (csce p. 102, 1936 wc). Had there been less development in the area and the considerations of terrain had been the sole obstacle facing the engineers, the location and construction of the Merritt Parkway would have been a much easier job. Although as an aid in planning, a map of the area made from the air helped in the general laying out of the parkway. "In the early 1930's there was almost no literature to draw upon; it would not be for more than a decade, in fact , that terms to explain what they were thinking would come into common coinage -- like 'ecology' and 'environment' and 'human scale.' Moreover, the defining might well not bring them much popularity." (The Power Broker, Robert Caro, p. 543)
Luckily, unlike Robert Moses who was an early proponent of an efficient highway system, but seldom gave a second thought to how many or whose lives he would disrupt, or how much natural beauty might be sacrificed for progress, Warren Creamer and his colleagues may have found it "impossible for one to conceive the vast influence this new artery of travel will have upon the lives of so many people, and with the passing of the years it is our belief that this Parkway will be a great boon to Fairfield County, the State of Connecticut and all the New England states, " (csce p. 101 1936) But they certainly saw how, if not properly planned or at least taken into serious consideration, they could destroy people's lives, livelihoods, neighborhoods and the beauty they would all sorely miss.
Through meticulous planning and countless design changes, (eight route changes through Greenwich alone), the painstaking work of land title searchers, surveyors and engineers cutting through tangled briars and underbrush, dense woods, slogging through mosquito infested bogs, a feasible route was worked out. This problem was compounded by the width of the right of way, which at times made it necessary to purchase not only the required three hundred feet, but also much rear land to avoid the problems arising through the severance of certain property units. Consequently, the right of way in places surpasses the mandated 300 feet. The state at this time purchased many houses and other buildings, which were either razed or moved to other sites when deemed necessary. (One case in point is a church that was bought and moved to another site.)
The design of the Parkway called for construction of it to be on the north side of the base or center line. Two reinforced concrete pavement lanes each providing two corridors of traffic, were planned for traffic traveling in opposite directions, separated by a center median divider of a park like character, The total width of the pavement lanes between the curbs is twenty-six (26) feet, on a foundation in rock cuts of 24" of gravel fill sub-base or 18" stone fill sub-base with 6" gravel fill on top, extending 6" to 12" beyond the back face of the curb. In the earth cuts, material was taken out to a depth of 12" below sub-grade and backfilled with 12" of gravel fill sub-base under the paved lanes, extending 6" beyond the back faces of the curbs. These are separated by a twenty-two (22) foot wide landscaped median strip with 10" of loam. Flat grass shoulders varying in width from 5'2" in cuts to 9'0" in fills were added and guardrails of either single or double thick oak planks stained to preserve the wood and enhance their appearance were provided where needed. The total roadway varies in width from 84'8 " in cuts to 92'4" in fills. On the south side of the right of way, 150 feet remained, It had been considered at the time that, should the need arise with additional traffic, another unit of similar design would be constructed, parallel to this parkway, thus avoiding the problems encountered on the Post Road, which had been built up over the years right to the curbside. By leaving from approximately 57 feet to 65 feet of right of way on the north side of the Parkway, it ensured a wooded buffer zone for present and future residents.
The careful landscaping of the parkway would confirm the good design aspects that were considered and practiced. Whenever possible, nature was assisted in hiding the scars caused by construction, Trained foresters worked right alongside the designers and road building contractors, clearing stumps, dead trees and decayed limbs, both for aesthetic considerations and safety of the men during construction. Special precautions were taken to preserve and protect trees not actually in the direct path of construction, In some instances; trees were transplanted to safety during construction, then moved back, close to their original locations after the concrete had been laid. In this way, when the parkway opened to the public, the median strip and embankments would be lush with the foliage of native vegetation such as oak, hemlock, maple, birch, dogwood, azalea, elm, bayberry, bittersweet, fir and the State Flower, mountain laurel , The State motto, "Qui Translulit Sustinet" ( He who transplants, sustains) was never more appropriate, and these words are etched into the sides of the Wire Mill Road bridge in Stamford. It was also in keeping with the thrifty ways created by the Depression, that such prudent and economical ways were adhered to.
Vistas were also cut through the dense undergrowth and forestation to afford the motorist fleeting glimpses of the countryside they were passing through. This also relieved the claustrophobic feeling that could occur when the foliage was left uncontrolled.
The landscape designers removed all topsoil prior to construction. It was stacked up on the roadside or stored in piles and replaced when and where it was called for. Waste rock was placed at the toe of the slopes to help prevent erosion and sloughing from heavy rains or Spring thaw, while special turf was grown for the sodding of the embankments adjacent to the bridge structures. On especially steep slopes, rambling vines were planted to establish a firm hold on the earth.
An artificial lake was created in Stamford when a contractor was permitted to dig in to a gravel bank. Later, the Byram River was diverted to supply the lake. This resultant lake was an added bonus and asset to the surrounding area. Sufficient sightlines were also maintained originally by casual development of the center median divider, all keeping in tune with the adjacent roadside embankments.
"In brief, the scope of activities of the Bureau of Roadside Development was to conserve, enhance, and effectively display the landscape through which the Merritt Parkway passes, so as to provide the maximum safety, utility, economy, recreation and enjoyment to the public." (csce 1936 p. 111)
Others, too, sang the praises of the new Parkway after it officially opened on September 1, 1940, six years after construction had begun at the dedication of the Housatonic River Bridge, Highway Commissioner William J. Cox said, "We open today a new link in a system destined to have a profound influence in the development of our state." That very same Labor Day Weekend, 142,897 cars traveled the Merritt Parkway. Motorists cheered because the driving time between New York and New Haven was cut from four hours to two hours, The lessening of congestion along the Post Road helped restore and then increase the value of shore properties that had become less and accessible over the years. The Merritt also helped in the expansion of the cities and towns through which it passed, providing quick and easy connections with other state highways and local thoroughfares.
A brochure issued by the Merritt Parkway Commission in the late 1940's espoused at he pleasingly smooth road surface, with good traction, speaks for sound basic construction and vigilant maintenance. Scenic interest is heightened and the effects of driving monotony are forestalled by the wide-sweeping curves and varied gradients, developed for safety at the designated speeds. The Parkway Commission studies have been particularly effective in developing adequate line-of-sight distances as an aid to the safe, swift traffic flow, by guarding against hazards of sudden slowdown.
"Comfort and safety, at night especially, are enhanced by the wide dividing area, attractively landscaped. The curb design permits leaving the pavement safely, so that the grass areas may serve when required, as in the case of disabled cars, Likewise promoting continuously smooth, safe flow of traffic is the planning of access roads and exits. So far as practicable, cars enter virtually parallel to the traffic stream, and the exits permit easy, natural progress. In all cases, driving directions and route information are provided by uniformly legible signs, intelligently placed," Norman Be1 Geddes, a proponent of streamlined designing, and creator of General Motors' Futurama exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, in his book Magic Motorways, published in 1940, speculating on the quality of l if e in 1960 said, here are many highways today that strike us as excellent -- among others, the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut."
The Parkway has also had its share of critics, including Gilmore Clark, the designer of the Hutchinson River Parkway in New York, who said the Merritt was "extravagant in construction and antique in design." Some motorists could only agree with that sentiment, claiming the Merritt to have been obsolete on the day it opened. It’s now somewhat narrow traffic lanes, resulting in part from larger cars of post World War II design, makes driving somewhat nervewracking for the novice or speedster. The absence of streetlights for better-vision night driving and the lack of the more recently devised "flying entrances and exits" ramps on our interstate highway system, makes access to the parkway and egress somewhat treacherous to the unwary driver.
These critics do have their good points, but with the energy conscious eighties upon us, the retooling of cars to more modest design and size , and the imposition of the 55 MPH speed limit , the integrity of the parkway may be enhanced once again and preserved. Even with the burgeoning population resulting from the big move of corporate headquarters to the area, imminent expansion of the parkway, as was planned in the early 1970’s, seems unlikely for now, although there has recently been some damage done to bridge structures in the Trumbull area for the long planned Route 8 and 25 connector road; a road of purely utilitarian means with no redeeming aesthetic value. Other than these recent atrocities upon the Merritt, very little has changed in the past forty years. A number of large trees that were allowed to grow on the center median divider were cut down in 1957, as a result of numerous accidents and subsequent deaths, and an embankment of earth and wood chips was installed on the median strip on one particularly sweeping curve that became very slippery in wet or icy weather. This strip in Westport Norwalk area has been allowed to grow wild with native vegetation and scrub pines, providing a barrier also for the onslaught of headlights at night. Some resurfacing and straightening was done in the late 1960's and early 1970's along a stretch of road in the Stamford-Greenwich area, while newer metal guardrails are replacing the older though more handsome oak guardrails of earlier years.
Perhaps the beauty of this Parkway will edge itself in to the vision of the many harried motorists and commuters who use this road today, or the vacationers cruising its length on a bright cloudless spring day or during its glorious Autumnal display. It should convince even the staunchest skeptic that it is still one of the most beautiful roads in America.Click here to go back to the home page