In praise of the Merritt: the “Queen of Parkways”

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A century ago, the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, the Post Road. If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey. So in 1936, 2,000 men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million, four-lane parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford. The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.

The Merritt, named for U.S. Rep. Schuyler Merritt of Stamford, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it was planted: 22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.

And then there are the bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places. Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic. No two bridges are exactly alike. In short order, the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways.”

The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Cross who was governor in the 1930s. Tolls were dropped in 1988.

The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the parkway. They were constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles. One of the original booths is now preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.

At a celebration of the parkway’s 75th birthday, one old timer told of a friend from Yale University who resented paying the dime toll in the 1940s. So he went to the medical school and procured a cadaver arm, glued a dime on its finger and hid the arm up his sleeve. When the prankster slowed to pay his toll, the collector got the dime and the arm as the student sped off.

The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, and the vistas are more obvious now due to massive tree clearing following the two storms in 2011 and 2012, when downed trees pretty much closed the highway.

Since its design and opening in 1938, the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks. But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road. Either move would probably mean demolition of the parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.

The best watchdog of the parkway is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, which has fought to preserve the road’s unique character. Its latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. The conservancy worries that the trail, costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, would mean trees and foliage would be clear-cut and the eco-system would be despoiled.

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group and is a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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