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Completed in 1940, the Merritt Parkway stands as Connecticut's greatest Depression-era public works project. The Parkway cost $21 million, employed over 2,000 workers, and took six years to complete. It was originally intended as a way of reducing traffic congestion on the shoreline Post Road (now U.S. Route 1), and in fact State Highway Department planners initially called it the "Parallel Post Road." By the time construction started in 1934, however, the road had become more than just a highway. It was to be a planned landscape, 38 miles long, allowing motorists to drive from the Housatonic River in Stratford to the New York state line in Greenwich unencumbered by commercial traffic or unsightly roadside development. To make driving the route pleasurable, the Department's staff lined the roadway with plantings of native trees and shrubs, leaving vistas of rolling farmland open to view. The Parkway was named for Congressman Schuyler Merritt, one of the road's earliest and most persistent advocates.
In order to fulfill its purpose, the Parkway had to be a limited-access highway without intersections at grade. As a consequence, more than 70 bridges were built to carry the Parkway over and under local roads. In addition to being functional, the bridges were intended to become part of the scenic experience enjoyed by Parkway motorists. Staff architect George Dunkelburger produced a variety of picturesque, Neo-Classical, and Modernistic designs for the bridges. Although no two bridges are exactly alike, many motifs are repeated in several bridges, heightening the visual cohesiveness of the Parkway. Among the elements which appear in more than one bridge are the state seal and its grape vines, concentric receding surfaces, and geometric forms. Many bridges include historical depictions of Connecticut's Native American inhabitants, early Puritan settlers, and even the design and construction of the Parkway itself. Abstract designs, such as stylized winged forms, reflect the Art Deco movement then at its peak, while other decorative treatments, such as a web full of spiders, are startlingly naturalistic.
Technologically, the bridges of the Merritt Parkway are mostly of rigid-frame reinforced-concrete construction. This technique, which makes the horizontal load-bearing members (usually shallow arched beams) continuous with the vertical supports at the ends, had been used earlier in New York State parkways and also in a few Connecticut State Highway Department bridges of the 1920s. The rigid frame was particularly well-suited to a scenic highway like the Merritt; its arched form and relatively light appearance were compatible with the Parkway's aesthetic goals. The use of concrete also enhanced the decorative potential of the structures, since ornamental effects could be carried out relatively inexpensively with molds and the use of special aggregates to add color. The architectural embellishment of the Merritt's bridges added less than one percent to their cost.
Department engineer Leslie G. Sumner supervised the structural design of the bridges. Recognizing that the Merritt Parkway might not always be devoted to medium-speed passenger vehicles (the Parkway was designed for 45 miles per hour), Sumner made the bridges strong enough to carry heavily loaded trucks. Sumner's foresight paid off almost immediately. During World War II, New England's truck traffic was diverted to the Merritt because of the blackout requirement along the shore line.
After the completion of the Parkway, work began on extensions to New Haven and Hartford, and the first bridges on what became the Wilbur Cross Parkway were heavily influenced by those of the Merritt. However, completion of the system was delayed until after World War II. By that time, the need for a wider, higher-speed road assumed greater importance than aesthetics, and landscaping and ornate bridges gave way to practicality.
Since the 70-plus bridges of the Merritt Parkway were built as one project, they are not discussed individually. Use the links in the sidebar to the left to take a west-to-east photo tour of some of the Merritt Parkway's bridges.