Traveling from NEW* Haven by
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First, a litle geography for those who, unlike me, did not grow up in the “Land of Steady Habits” — i.e., Connecticut.  Specifically, I grew up just outside New Haven, which sits about midway through the state (east/west) on the water on the northern side of the Long Island Sound.  This map may help:

Besides New Haven, there are adjacent towns of North Haven, East Haven and West Haven in pretty obvious spots.  As kids, when we went to an amusement park in West Haven that overlooked Long Island Sound, we used to think it was ridiculously clever to ask where South Haven was and then point out to the waters of the Sound and shout, “There it is!”  (We were easily amused at the time.)

In the 1950’s, pre-interstates, the main artery of NEW passage from New Haven was what we simply called “The Parkway, ” which is/was actually both the Merritt Parkway, west of New Haven towards New York, and the Wilbur Cross Parkway, north towards Hartford.  The Parkway is really one continuous four-lane divided highway, and it was never entirely clear exactly where or why the name changed, though we always assumed it was when The Parkway went through the West Rock Tunnel in New Haven (which, of course, we always had to hold our breath going through):

The Parkway was a Depression Era WPA project and was intended to be both efficient and scenic, surrounded by trees and with many hills and slow, winding curves built into it:

The Parkway was also noted for its many beautiful underpass bridges, each of which was designed differently.  Happily, the bridges have been carefully maintained/restored over the years and are still a delight to view:

 

Notwithstanding The Parkway, as noted in this week’s prompt, the Interstate Highway System (“IHS”) was established in 1956.  And it has had significant impact, for better and worse, on travel in and through Connecticut.  I will share two brief stories about it, one about I-95 and the other about 1-91.

I-95, as most everyone knows, was/is the interstate highway built between Florida and Maine to more quickly move traffic along the entire Eastern coastline corridor (and off of US 1).  In Connecticut, it was/is called the Connecticut Turnpike, with a few honorific names over the years that nobody ever uses.  I-95 provides an alternative to The Parkway between New York (to the west) and New Haven, continues east along the Connecticut shoreline to Rhode Island and then turns north through Providence and up the Massachusetts coastline.  The Parkway, by contrast, turns north in New Haven, heading towards Hartford, Connecticut’s capital city (but more about that shortly).

I remember my father explaining to my brother and me in 1959 how they were working like crazy — literally night and day — to finish construction of I-95 in Connecticut before January 1, 1960, as that was the deadline established by the IHS for any state to have state revenue-generating tolls on the interstates.  If completed after that date, the interstate had to be toll-free.  They finished just in time and, as a result, the Connecticut Turnpike was jammed with toll booths — particularly on either side of New Haven, to catch all the daily commuters —  for decades, until they were blessedly removed in 1983.  The toll booths led to massive traffic back-ups and more than a few horrific accidents as unwary/sleeping/drunk drivers — particularly of tractor trailers —  smashed into the booths.  Indeed, every time I got caught in one of these messes, I was reminded of (and rued) the state just beating the deadline.

The dreaded toll booths:

For the record, The Parkway also had toll booths, but they were much less frequent and beautifully rustic log and shingle structures:

Several years later, I-91 was built.  As mentioned, The Parkway turns north in New Haven and heads towards Hartford.  But, for whatever reason, it ends about fifteen miles south of Hartford.  As a result, to get to Hartford from New Haven pre-I-91, you had to take a road known as the Berlin Turnpike (Berlin referring to the town in Connecticut it goes through, not Germany’s Berlin).  Despite being called a “turnpike,” the Berlin Turnpike was back then a Route 1-like commercial highway, jammed with traffic lights and neon-festooned pre-chain restaurants and motels. It took forever to drive those final miles to Hartford on it.  My parents, understandably, hated it, but my brother and I loved it, as there was much to see out the car windows  — and a particularly tasty steak and roast beef restaurant called the Hawthorne Inn along it that we would always beg our parents to stop at.  I was even able to locate an old postcard of the Hawthorne (albeit at night) on eBay:

All this ended with I-91, which goes north from New Haven directly into and through Hartford, then through Springfield, MA and all the way up to White River Junction, Vermont.  As I-91 was completed in 1965, it was always toll free.  And, driving back and forth to college in Cambridge for four years starting in 1967, I learned to really appreciate it.  But, not surprisingly, traffic on the Berlin Turnpike dropped immediately and precipitously right after I-91 was completed, and almost all of the restaurants and hotels (including my beloved Hawthorne) went out of business. However, the New England Historical Society has written a fun story about its “Glory Days.”  Sic transit gloria Berlin Turnpike, no?

*         *         *

Thus ends my brief Connecticut Interstate Geography And Roadway (“CIGAR”) lesson.  Which reminds me, did you know that Connecticut was also famous for its cigar tobacco?  That’s next week’s Land of Steady Habits lesson, class.

_____

*   NEW = North, East and West.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Excellent lesson about how the highways around and through New Haven and Hartford came into being, John. During my years in sales in the late ’70s and early ’80s I drove many of them and am very grateful that they came into being. Also, wonderful photos to illustrate each of your points. I particularly liked the detail of the bridge, which was remarkable.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks much, Betsy. I figured you would have known those roads well, too. (And Connecticut thanks you for all those toll dollars.) As you can imagine, the preservation of those beautiful bridges on The Parkway was not without a lot of short-sighted, budget-obsessed fighting.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    We have been on I-95 many times, traveling between New Haven and Boston. Thanks for sharing the history of alternate and more scenic routes. Perhaps next time, we will try the slower but more beautiful older roads. Would love to see those bridges.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Do take The Parkway! And, in fact, it is often faster and more convenient to some areas (like where I grew up about ten miles north of New Haven). Plus, the Parkway prohibits trucks, which is itself a blessing.

  3. Dave Ventre says:

    In 1978-79 I was dating a woman who was a student at University of Hartford. It was a long drive from Bayonne, but a guy will jump through all sorts of hoops for a little lovin’. There always seemed to be roadwork happening. I was usually stuck in traffic at some point in the maze of roads in and around Hartford area!

    • John Shutkin says:

      The roadwork is over, byt the roadways around Hartford (not just I-91, but I-84) are still a messy maze to get through. Best advice is that, if you had to keep left recently to stay on the same road, then get ready to keep right. And good luck.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    The Parkway does look like the scenic way to go—and no trucks makes it even better. Seems the latest trend in tolls is to eliminate the booths but take your money virtually, or take a picture and send you a bill.

  5. Marian says:

    Pre-interstate, I remember the Parkway very well, as we drove from New Jersey, through Connecticut, to visit my aunt in Natick, MA. The bridges were scenic and very beautiful. Per folks’ comments on toll booths, the California Fastrak system, plus COVID, has eliminated all the toll takers on bridges, and it is a relief to drive through with no stopping.

    • John Shutkin says:

      In fact, I read even before COVID that being a toll taker was not a good job option. And I used to wonder even years ago how they stood the tedium of the job, let alone the jerks who gave them heated coins or blasted past their booths without paying.

      I also remember being thrilled, when I first moved to Wisconsin, to find that my New York EZPass was compatible with Midwest automatic toll systems.

  6. Thanx John, as a part-time Nutmegger I was interested in your story, especially in the moniker Land of Steady Habits that I’d never heard before, so of course looked up.

    And in fact since we’ve been here the governor and both senators have been of the same party – happily my party!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. Apparently, that moniker was intended somewhat ironically, but the state chose to embrace it.

      And yes, most recent officeholders in CT have been Democrats. But don’t get me started about Joe Lieberman!

  7. Suzy says:

    I’m late to the party, but I too loved your story. And like Marian, I remember the scenic drive from NJ to Mass, which we did countless times. Driving on the Merritt and the Wilbur Cross, I never knew they were actually the same highway, or that people referred to them both as The Parkway (because to us Jerseyans, the Parkway could only mean the Garden State Parkway). I still remember a Wilbur Cross road sign in two installments (like the Burma Shave signs) that said “One for the road” / “Brings trooper for chaser.” That was how, at a young age, I learned the term “chaser” as applied to drinking. Road trips are educational!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. And, as I think of it, they were probably two separate highways once and they were joined. But people who lived nearer New York referred to it as the “Merritt” and those who lived nearer to Hartford referred to it as the “Wilbur Cross.” Only we New Haveners in the middle knew the whole truth.

      And I do remember that sign — or, actually, signs. But there were no actual Burma Shave signs, as commercial billboards were (and still are) banned on the Parkway. That’s part of its charm.

  8. You captured the spirit of the East Coast turnpikes for me beautifully, John, with their tight turnoffs and toll booths. I remember driving north and south between Cambridge and New York on my frequent jazz and folk music pilgrimages, dreading the toll booths. I was always broke, heading north after a weekend in NYC!

    And I’m sure people have written volumes about the monumental changes that the turnpikes (first wave via the WPA) and Interstates brought with them, with the corporatization of chain restaurants and all.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Charles. I also now remember how terrific (relatively speaking, of course) it was when the CT. Turnpike and the Parkway installed exact toll lanes with baskets and gates. I always made sure I had plenty of quarters in my car.

  9. I stand in awe (or sit in the driver’s seat in awe) of someone who can teach a Master Class in the layout, names, and characteristics of multiple highways, as I am a person who has enough trouble just getting on and off the right ones and am too involved in surviving the trees to ever step back and take an overview of the entire forest. When not feeling intimidated, I really enjoyed this nicely conjured trip across these multiple roads.
    BTW I knew a guy who left early childhood to work a toll booth on the Mass Pike. I think he missed the adventure and creativity of working with kids, but he was willing to put up with tedium in order to have better wages, a secure health plan, and a pension. (Not sure what he’s doing now, as he wouldn’t yet have made it to retirement age.)

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