Calling it “a uniquely Connecticut gem,” Governor M. Jodi Rell today led the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the opening of the scenic Merritt Parkway in southwestern Connecticut.
“The original proponents, designers and architects of this beautiful ribbon of roadway were true visionaries,” Governor Rell said during a ceremony in Stratford. “This uniquely Connecticut gem is not only a designated state scenic road but has deservedly earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The ceremony was held just south of the recently renovated Sikorsky Bridge that spans the Housatonic River, linking Stratford and Milford.
The first 17-mile section of the Merritt, named for then-Congressman Schuyler Merritt, who championed its construction, opened on June 29, 1938, linking Norwalk to the New York state line. At that time, the $21 million roadway was the largest public works project in Connecticut and first multi-lane median-divided highway in the state. Its park-like features once attracted many motorists to pull over for picnics along the route.
Also known as Route 15, the Merritt Parkway, with two lanes in each direction and dozens of beautifully designed period bridges, winds through what was then regarded as “back country Fairfield County,” starting in Greenwich and continuing through Stamford, New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport, Fairfield, Trumbull, Bridgeport and Stratford. In Milford, it becomes the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named in honor of the former Connecticut Governor, and extends to Meriden.
State Transportation Commissioner Joseph F. Marie said that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has long partnered with organizations like the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and the Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee to ensure that the historic and aesthetic characteristics of the 38-mile parkway are protected and preserved.
“We are strengthening these partnerships every year and they are critical to our commitment to keeping the Merritt safe and, at the same time, beautiful,” Commissioner Marie said.
The Commissioner noted the extensive precautions the state takes to maintain the woodsy nature of the Merritt corridor. Because of the many historic overpasses and underpasses along the “Queen of Parkways as the Merritt was once known, it is not practical to try to widen it, although over the years the DOT has done extensive work to add entrance and exit ramps.
The Merritt is a very heavily traveled commuter route between Norwalk and Stamford, with more than 70,000 vehicles on the roadway at peak travel times. Commercials vehicles of any type are prohibited from both the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways and the maximum speed limit is 55 mph.
News editors: Here are some additional links that may be useful:
Connecticut State Library:
Merritt Parkway Museum:
Historic Merritt Parkway images and sign:
Additional historic background on the Merritt Parkway
· As early as 1919, the Department of Transportation recognized that it could not keep up with the dramatic increases in traffic along the state's main trunk line, the Boston Post Road, also known as U.S. Route 1. As the primary link between the Port of New York and Connecticut's major industrial centers, the road was clogged with both slow-moving local motorists and long distance truck traffic, making for a dangerous mix. After several widening efforts proved to no avail, the Department began to seek alternatives to relieve congestion. In 1923, DOT Commissioner J.A. MacDonald proposed three alternatives: further widening; a truck road running along the coast adjacent to the rail lines; or a new road located 20 miles inland.
· There were major forces behind improving traffic in Fairfield County – wealthy estate owners, businessmen and local politicians. They found their voice in the Fairfield County Planning Association and began to lobby for a "Parallel Post Road" that would remove high speed passenger traffic from Route 1. They advocated a slightly inland route that would pass through mostly undeveloped property and strongly advocated a parkway type of roadway. Further impetus for creating such a road also came from New York State's announcement of plans to build several parkways in adjacent Westchester County. By 1925, the proposal won the endorsement of Governor Wilbur Cross, and in 1927, legislation was passed providing for a road from Bridgeport to Greenwich. In 1931, an appropriation of $1 million for its construction was approved.
· In mapping out the road, Commissioner Macdonald and his planners adopted a 300-foot wide right-of- way in order to provide for possible expansion as well as proper separation from the nearby houses. The 150-foot wide roadway was built on the north side of the total right-of-way. This was to be a multi-lane road. Since the road was meant to be a high-speed express connection through Fairfield county, there were to be no at-grade crossings or traffic signals, necessitating the use of 69 bridges for underpasses or overpasses at roadway crossings, railroad crossings and stream fordings. Highway access was to be limited to a specified number of entrances and exits, a relatively novel concept for 1930. The road was to cross hilly terrain, and many cuts and fills were envisioned to even out the dramatic landscape of "back country" Fairfield County.
· The Fairfield County Planning Association and Congressman Schuyler Merritt, after whom the road would be named, pushed for a road that would enhance the beauty of the county, ensuring the creation of a well-landscaped parkway that would follow the topography of the land. Landscape, bridges and highway were designed in concert to create a delightful driving experience. The Department's landscape architects, led by Thayer Chase, created a park-like setting 38 miles long. They emphasized the use of hardy native plants that required little maintenance and would provide fall color and spring flowers. Bridge designs were under the supervision of architect George Dunkelberger. He created 69 Art Deco style masterpieces that served as highly ornate theatrical arches framing and heightening the experience of driving through nature.
· In 1931, the Merritt Highway Commission was formed to oversee the project and in April of that year the first parcel of land for the highway was purchased. In 1934, construction on the highway had begun and Westchester County announced plans to build a connector linking the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Merritt. The project was short of funds, so in 1935 the legislature granted Fairfield County authority to issue $15 million in bonds to complete the Merritt. The first section of the parkway opened on June 29, 1938, providing a link from the New York State Line to Norwalk. In 1939, the Highway Department was authorized to collect tolls on the Merritt in order to finance construction of the Wilbur Cross Parkway, then being planned to extend from the Merritt Parkway to Hartford. The first toll was collected on June 21, 1939. By 1940, the Parkway reached its terminus at the Housatonic River bridge and formally opened as Connecticut's first parkway on Labor Day, 1940. On completion, it was considered one of the most beautiful highways in America and stood as a model for future roadway construction. Today, the Merritt Parkway is a state scenic road and has gained a place on the National Register of Historic Places.