SAAC Presents:
Merritt Parkway - History In Our Midst
(This page created as of 1/20/2007; updates to the
Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum section added as of 1/23/2007; new section featuring a Hemmings Motor News essay about the Merritt added as of 4/1/2007; an excellent new Merritt historical information link added as of 8/18/2008; this page reactivated as of February 2010-- reworking/updating of links & other stuff is currently in progress; please bear with us...; another new Merritt historical information link added as of 2/17/2010)

Navigational Links for this page:
Overview
The James Farm Road Overpass Wings
The Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum (updated 1/23/2007)
The Preserved Merritt Parkway toll booth plaza at Boothe Memorial Park
Wilbur Cross Parkway "plate topper"
Interesting Merritt Parkway Links to visit for more information (updated 8/18/2008, 2/17/2010)
Hemmings Motor News features the Merritt Parkway in the May 2007 issue (new as of 4/1/2007)

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James Farm Road "wings", Stratford, CT, photographed August 30, 2006Overview

What a wonderful piece of American Automotive History we are fortunate to be able to visit and enjoy here in Southern Connecticut, with the Merritt Parkway! My own recollections of this road start in my childhood, when my parents would take drives down from our home in Middletown, to visit shopping plazas (in the "pre-mall era") like the Trumbull Shopping Park (featuring "EJ Korvettes" and other stores; try "googling" that name--I did--and the only thing that turned up was this brief mention), and the "Connecticut Post" shopping center (reached via short additional trips on the Milford Connector and I-95; featuring stores like "Alexanders," "Lafayette Electronics" and others--I tried a google of "Alexanders" and found zip, zero, nada...). I also have vivid memories of trying to catch a glimpse of any helicopters taking off from the back airfield of Sikorsky there on the edge of the Houstatonic River , where the Wilbur Cross Parkway turned into the Merritt Parkway. Boy, neither of those shopping plazas is even remotely familiar any more, and I do try my best to avoid them...the helicopter company, however, well, that's another story...

Through the years as I've gotten older, I've also started to take more notice of the beauty of the road, which is quite pleasant to drive on, with the beautiful trees and "parklike" edges, and many artfully designed bridges where secondary roads overpass--not to mention the lack of trucks (no commercial vehicles are permitted). There have been updates in a few areas, where the Parkway has taken on a more "generic highway" look, I suppose in the interests of safety and improved traffic flow; one spot in particular is the Route 8 interchange. But, on the whole, there are still very many features of the road that can still be enjoyed & appreciated, "as they were, back in the day."

IMAGE AT RIGHT: This is a photo I took of my '68 VW Bug parked on the James Farm Road overpass above the Merritt Parkway, next to the amazing "wings" that are part of the James Farm Road bridge. I used a "chalk and charcoal" effect in my photoeditor program to give this particular picture a bit of a unqique "feel." There are matching pairs of wings on both the east and west side of the bridge (so cars on the Merritt approaching from either direction can get good views of them. The wings shown here are on the west side of the bridge. The following section on this page contains a few other pictures of the wings.

The genesis of this page came about through various forces, including the influences of good friends who have a strong appreciation of automotive and roadside history, and also some recent developments that I've noticed in the specific realm of Merritt Parkway history and preservation. So, I must first tip my hat to both Greg Mattesen, and Roland Metz, with whom I'm privileged to keep in contact often these days--both men share an appreciation for old cars (VWs and other marques as well), and old roads and roadside establishments (such as old diners, old bridges, and so forth). Their influence has opened my eyes to be more aware of "the history around us," and many of the things you see featured and discussed at the SAAC site are directly from them, or influenced by them.

Secondly, there is a group of Merritt Parkway historians and preservationists who have recently opened a "lobby museum," dedicated to the road, which happens to be located right in the same general vicinity of the beautiful James Farm Road overpass "wings," and also a wonderfully preserved original Merritt Parkway toll booth plaza. The wings, the lobby museum, and the preserved toll booth plaza are all featured in separate sections on this page, and I've gone and marked up a mapquest map with the locations of all three features, which I've posted online at: http://home.comcast.net/~shorelinesteve/MERRITT/StratfordMerritAreaMap.jpg .

I hope you enjoy the materials that we've pulled together here. Now, let's dive right in!

The James Farm Road Overpass Wings

I was fortunate to stop by a favorite local roadside “icon” with the car on a trip to work one day a few months back--the James Farm Road “wings” on the overpass above the historic Merritt Parkway, in Stratford, CT--and thankfully I had remembered to bring my camera with me to record the occasion.

As it so happens, I work right nearby the location of James Farm Road, and so it was easy to stop by during a lunch period from work and snap a few pictures--and of course I had to have an old car to use as a "model," and so my '68 Bug, which I've been trying to get out on the road for more "general type" driving use lately (like commuting to work), was pressed into modeling duty. The image BELOW shows my '68 Bug parked facing south on James Farm Road, next to one of the pairs of wings (these are the wings on the west side of the James Farm Road overpass).

James Farm Road "wings", Stratford, CT, photographed August 30, 2006

The construction of the wings appears to be a "casting" of small rock particles (as opposed to having been chiseled out of a monolithic rock). I recall the wings had been the subject of some spray paint vandalism a few years ago, and whoever managed to clean them really did a nice job--they are looking positively magnificent once again!

The date of the James Farm Road wings photos show on the page was August 30th, 2006.

Here is a marked-up map that I created, to help illustrate the location of the James Farm Road overpass above the Merritt Parkway, where these beautiful wings are located (click on the hyperlink to view the map): http://home.comcast.net/~shorelinesteve/MERRITT/StratfordMerritAreaMap.jpg - and the map also points out the location of some other interesting Merritt Parkway historial and informational sites right in the same general area.

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy’s excellent web site - http://www.merrittparkway.org/ - features the James Farm Road wings as part of their header, and I’m sure they’ve been pictured countless other times elsewhere as well. And for a very nice view of the James Farm Road bridge from the Merritt Parkway level, plus some other interesting info, this page is also extremely valuable: http://www.past-inc.org/historic-bridges/image-merritt-jamesfarmrd.html .

Here are a couple more photos of the wings, one with my car as a size reference, and one more a detail view of just the wings themselves.

James Farm Road "wings", Stratford, CT, photographed August 30, 2006

James Farm Road "wings", Stratford, CT, photographed August 30, 2006

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The Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum

Merritt Parkway enthusiasts might also be interested to know that there is a new, recently-opened “lobby museum,” with several maps, pictures, and other educational and informational displays about the historic road, located in the rear, ground-level entrance to a newer office building within the Ryder’s Landing Shopping Plaza, 6580 Main Street, in Stratford (at the corner of Ryder’s Lane, also, just off of the Merritt Parkway exit number 53, which is the CT Route 110, “River Road” exit). This lobby museum is also sponsored by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, and is open to the public, 9am to 5pm on weekdays. What had initially alerted me to this new museum was a recent article from the Connecticut Post newspaper, and my plan is also to add the transcribed text of that article to this page. For now, you can refer back to the MAP that I marked up, to show the location of the museum, which is also right in the vicinity of the James Farm Road wings, and also the preserved Merritt Parkway tool booth plaza at Boothe Memorial Park. The image BELOW is a photo of the rear entrance to the office building where the Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum is located--perhaps you might be able to make out my '68 Bug parked there (the date of the photo was January 9, 2007).

Building that houses the Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum, Stratford, CT, January 9, 2007 photo

*Update as of 1/23/2007 - Happy to report that I've finally gotten through retyping a complete transcription of the Connecticut Post newspaper article about the Merritt Parkway Museum. Also, please note that the IMAGE SHOWN BELOW within he transcription is a recent picture I took of the FRONT of the 6580 Main Street professional building at Ryder's Landing, so you'll hopefully be able to better recognize it as you drive by on Main Street--don't forget that you have to drive down Ryder's Lane into the actual shopping plaza to get to the lobby museum. Click HERE for a view of the building from a further-back perspective; I took these photos on Monday, January 22, 2007 (a rather cold and overcast day, if I do say so!); and the same day I also had to snap THIS PICTURE of the Main Street/Route 110 underpass, to show the beautifully detailed bridge structure over which the Merritt passes...check out those metal "vines" details...

"Crossroads of History - New museum showcases Merritt Parkway's rich past"
By Richard Weizel
(from the Connecticut Post newspaper, Friday, October 27, 2006, page A12, "Regional News")

STRATFORD - When the Merritt Parkway was being built over dirt roads and through forests and gigantic rock formations during the 1930s, it was hailed as a bold new highway that would link the state's cities with its suburbs.

Advocates also promised the parkway would become a national model by providing a quick mode of travel, trimming the time to drive from Greenwich to New Haven from four hours to two. Still, the road was designed to maintain the natural beauty and waterways along its winding route.

6580 Main Street, Stratford, CT, at "Ryder's Landing" shopping plaza, that houses the Merritt Parkway Lobby MuseumBut natural obstacles were not the only hurdles the project faced.

The eccentric and irascible Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum insisted that the parkway bridge built on a piece of his Stamford property be stone-faced instead of concrete.

Borglum, who had become a national hero, pressured the state and federal governments to agree to his demand. So the Rippowam River Bridge in Stamford became one of three of 72 original parkway overpasses, underpasses and viaducts built using stone face.

Borglum had refused to sell the land the state needed for the road until state Highway Commissioner John A. MacDonald promised the bridge on the property would be built with stone.

The state paid Borglum $11,000 for 34 acres, hiking by 15 percent the $22.7 million construction costs.

That is one of the multitude of little-known facts about the history of the 37.5-mile Merritt Parkway-spanning southern Fairfield County from Greenwich to Milford in New Haven County-showcased at a new museum in the lobby of an office building off Parkway exit 53 north.

The Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum in the Ryder's Landing Shopping Center at 6580 Main St. is sponsored by the nonprofit Merritt Parkway Conservancy. It opened Saturday.

The modest museum, open to the public 9am to 5pm weekdays, "could be just the beginning of what we envision eventually as a full visitor's center and rest stop," said Dr. Robert Shriglio, owner of Ryder's Landing and a board member of t he conservancy.

With his wife, Catherine, also a conservancy board member, Shriglio pointed out the museum's colorful and informative photos, maps, artifacts, educational materials and slide presentation during a tour this week.

The 30-minute, continuous slide show on a 32-inch flat-screen monitor shows that when the parkway was completed and open to traffic on Labor Day 1940, the bulky cars of the day were lined up for miles at the Milford toll booths that helped finance the nearly 30-mile Wilbur Cross Parkway from the Housatonic River to Meriden.

Also depicted is the sadder side of the road's construction, with people forced to leave their homes and businesses to clear the route.

The museum also has an imposing 10-foot map of the Merritt Parkway that highlights nearby attractions and points of interest.

"It's exciting to see this project come to life because the history of the Merritt Parkway is really the history of Fairfield County during the past 70 years," Robert Shriglio said.

"We wanted to create something not done before to provide information that would make people really think and even do more research on their own about this marvelous and unique parkway," he said.

Catherine Shriglio pointed out the museum is at a three-way crossroads.

"This site is the entrance to Stratford, to the Parkway and to Fairfield County," she said.

Informative panels, photos, and enlarged historic postcards are also on display.

"We have lots of history literally coming out of the walls at the lobby museum," said Laurie Heiss, of Greenwich, the conservancy's executive director.

"People can walk in and learn about the vital role the Parkway has played in Fairfield County history."

(the published article in the 10/27/06 Connecticut Post newspaper also contained two photos, credited to Brian A. Pounds of the Connecticut Post. The first photo showed Catherine Shriglio standing next to the 10-foot map of the Merritt Parkway that is inside the lobby museum. The second photo showed the outside of the museum, at the rear ground-level entrance to the 6580 Main Street, Ryder's Landing Shopping Center professional building)

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The Preserved Merritt Parkway toll booth plaza at Boothe Memorial Park

The Webmaster's '68 VW visits the preserved Merritt Parkway Toll Booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, CT, January 9, 2007There is a city park in Stratford known as Boothe Memorial Park that features expansive rolling lawns, plus several interesting buildings. One of the interesting old buildings located there that is relevant to this dicussion is an original Merritt Parkway toll booth plaza, "rescued" from the Milford side of the Housatonic River, where it was originally installed. It is now located directly adjacent to the main parking area of Boothe Memorial Park, and so it's easy to drive your car up to the side of it for a "photo op"--though you can't drive "through" it, as cars would have back when it was in use for collecting tolls.

Boothe Memorial Park also happens to be conveniently located nearby the James Farm Road wings and the Merritt Parkway Lobby Museum, refer back to the online annotated MAP that I posted, to show the location. There is no admission to enter Boothe Park, and it is usually open (though I don't know specifically the hours that it is officially open).

I had the opportunity to drive my '68 VW Bug over there a in early January of 2007 for some photos, a few selected of which are presented on this page.

IMAGE AT THE UPPER RIGHT: The main descriptive sign for the preserved toll booth plaza at Boothe Memorial Park draws upon the "natural, rough-hewn" character of the original Parkway, and also some of the current, recent signage along the road, with the "jagged edge" look (like this Exit 53 sign on the southbound side that I photographed the morning of 1/24/2007). The green color chosen is also a nod to the original color of the booth structures. The sign shown occupies the "center lane" of the three toll lanes incorporated by this toll plaza structure. There is also a smaller informational plaque located approximately at the left toll lane, which is transcribed below. The date I drove my '68 VW to Boothe Memorial Park to take this and the other toll booth pictures shown on this page was Tuesday, January 9th, 2007--part of Connecticut's unusuall mild and snow-free (up to the point of the creation of this page, anywayt!) winter.

IMAGE AT THE LOWER RIGHT: This is a view I took standing inside of the toll plaza, approximately in one of the toll lanes. I used my camera's flash to illuminate some of the inside roof construction appearance, which is also slightly reflected along the top edges of the green colored toll collector's booth.

Having driven through these toll booths many times in my life before they were removed from service in 1988, I find it interesting to go and look at the preserved one at Boothe Park, as it brings back many memories. I find the inside roof appearance of the booths especially interesting, with the rough-hewn, log structural elements--"Adironak-style," I guess you could say (at least for the interior).

Inside roof detail of the preserved Merritt Parkway Toll Booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, CT - photo date January 9, 2007There is an informational plaque at the front of the preserved toll booth plaza, that gives some history of the road and the toll booth itself, which I'll transcribe here (including the "typo" that appears at the end) in the bold type section below:

MERRITT PARKWAY TOLL BOOTH PLAZA

Built in the late 1930s, the Merritt Parkway was designed for beauty as well as efficiency in traveling through southern Connecticut. The intent of the road was to bring the weary city driver into a restful park-like setting which was accomplished by landscape architect Weld T. Chase, and the head engineer, Earl Wood. George Dunkelberger added 68 unique and spectacular bridges which still stand today along the 37.5 mile road. Mr. Dunkelberger also designed the tollbooth plazas, the first of which opened in Greenwich in 1940.

When Connectciut decided it could use the revenue from a toll charge on the parkway, both the plaza and single booth method were used. Eventually, there were three plazas built, one each at Greenwich, Milford, and Wallingford. In 1940, gas was 20 cents a gallon, the toll was 10 cents, and the speed limit was 35mph. It took about two hours to travel the 70 miles from Stratford to New York City, which was considerable improvement over the five hour trip on the Post Road.

The design of the plazas was rustic in nature to blend in with the environment. A cabin-like design using logs and simple green wooden parts was chosen for these small structures. Almost 50 years later the state decided to end all tolls in Connecticut, and those on the Merritt Parkway closed in June of 1988. At that time, the Friends of Boothe Park, Inc. saved the toll booth plaza from the Milford site and had it moved and restored at Boothe Memorial Park and Museum are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As mentioned above, the actual location of the above-transcribed plaque is approximately at the left toll lane of the toll booth plaza, and also incorporates some small graphic images--that unfortunately my camera was not able to capture well--a good reason for another future visit to Boothe Park, I'd say!

BELOW: Here are some overall views of the preserved Merritt Parkway toll booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford. Top to bottom, the views are facing approximately: north, east, and west. Thanks to the winter season, a slight bit of the Housatonic River is visible through the trees in the second, approximately eastward-facing view.

The Webmaster's '68 VW visits the preserved Merritt Parkway Toll Booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, CT, January 9, 2007

The preserved Merritt Parkway Toll Booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, CT, January 9, 2007

The preserved Merritt Parkway Toll Booth at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, CT, January 9, 2007

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Wilbur Cross Parkway "plate topper"

"Plate toppers" are a historical artifact of the automobile world. They were light metal castings that were created to signify or commemorate specific places, perhaps that the car's owner had visited/were fond of, or where he or she came from. Typically, they feature words and small graphic elements in their design, and two elongated lugs at the bottom, which are meant to be used to attach the topper to the top of the car's license plate (using the same fasteners that attach the plate to the car). Occasionally you'll run across them at antique auto show flea markets, or displayed on antique cars at car shows. The Wilbur Cross Parkway, as far as I know, is the extension of the Merritt Parkway (a.k.a.: CT Route 15), starting on the east side of the Housatonic River, extending from Milford, up through Meriden, where I believe CT Route 15 then becomes known as the Berlin Turnpike. As I recall, Diane found this very unique Wilbur Cross Parkway plate topper (BELOW) being offered for sale by someone on ebay.

Wilbur Cross Parkway plate topper, image source unknown

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Interesting Merritt Parkway Links to visit for more information

The internet has many interesting places to discover where much more can be learned about the Merritt Parkway and related subjects; just a short session of "googling" led me to these (and I'm sure there are plenty more good ones):

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy (previously mentioned on this page): http://www.merrittparkway.org/

Merritt Parkway Overview: http://www.byways.org/browse/byways/2452/overview.html

Kurumi Connecticut Roads - The Merritt Parkway: http://www.kurumi.com/roads/ct/merrittpkwy.html

Merritt Parkway Historical Overview: http://www.nycroads.com/roads/merritt/

Wikipedia Merritt Parkway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merritt_Parkway

Merritt Parkway Bridges: http://www.past-inc.org/historic-bridges/merrittpkwybridges.html

Merritt Parkway Bridge Photos: http://www.roadfan.com/merrittpage1.html

Wilbur Cross Parkway: http://www.nycroads.com/roads/wilbur-cross/

CT Route 15 - Merritt, Wilbur Cross, Berlin Turnpike: http://web.mit.edu/smalpert/www/roads/ct/ct_15/

Merritt Parkway Toll Plates: http://ctpl8.tripod.com/id41.html

Connecticut State Library digital web archive of documents surrounding the history of the Merritt Parkway: http://www.cslib.org/merritt (this link added as of 8/18/2008)

We have just created a new "More Merritt" page, with another new local newspaper article recently published, as well as some great Greg Mattesen photography: http://home.comcast.net/~shorelinesteve/MERRITT/TheMoreTheMerritt.html (this link added as of 2/17/2010)

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Hemmings Motor News features the Merritt Parkway in the May 2007 issue (this section newly added as of 4/1/2007)

Scan of page 42 of the May 2007 edition of Hemmings Motor News, featuring Craig Fitzgerald's article: "Connecticut's Merritt Parkway"Are we experiencing a "mini-renaissance" in Merritt Parkway appreciation? Maybe so, judging by the wonderful article that appeared in the just-received May 2007 edition of the legendary antique auto collectors "bible" from Vermont, Hemmings Motor News (http://www.hemmings.com/). On page 42, in the prestigious color section (where the new "editorial content" of "traditional" Hemmings now appears), there is a one-page feature by Hemmings writer Craig Fitzgerald entitled "Connecticut's Merritt Parkway - Sometimes a jewel can be hidden in plain sight." The accompanying picture here is a low-res scan of the page that we made from our copy of the May '07 HMN (note that in addition to the colorful map graphic and picture of cars rounding a tree-lined bend on the Parkway, the cover of the fine Bruce Radde book, "The Merritt Parkway," copyright 1993, Yale University Press, is also depicted), and we also decided that it'd be worth transcribing the article's text. So, please enjoy Mr. Fitzgerald's fine essay which follows below:

"Often our historic and scenic drives are well off the beaten path, in areas of the country unsullied by modern life. Not so with this month's entry. It's one of the busiest byways in the Northeast. The Merritt Parkway is a 38-mile stretch of asphalt, pulled tight between the cities of New Haven and Greenwich, on the New York state line.

Built in the 1930s, the Merritt Parkway was Connecticut's first divided-lane, limited access highway. Named for Connecticut congressman Schuyler Merritt, the Merritt's purpose was to dissipate the incredible traffic that was already clogging the Boston Post Road, more commonly referred to as Route 1. Route 1 runs along the coast, cutting through population centers of Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, and Bridgeport. The Merritt Parkway was conceived as a bypass, which would run well inland of Route 1, through sparsely populated puckerbrush.

Also known as Connecticut State Highway 15, the Merritt Parkway is today restricted to non-commercial vehicles not exceeding 7,500 pounds, 24 feet in length, 8 feet in height, and 7.5 feet in width. So you don't have to get out your tape measure, let's just say that if you want to take the Merritt today, you won't have to deal with big trucks.

For almost its entire length, the Merritt Parkway is covered by a canopy of greenery, and even though it is a major link between Fairfield County in Connecticut and New York City, it often feels like you're miles from any urban center, driving under the cool shade of its trees.

Constructed during the Great Depression, the highway represented a significant public works project, putting thousands of people to work. According to the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, in 1935, highway department officials estimated that the Merritt Parkway project employed 2,000 men for two years. "From Connecticut's point of view," according to the historical information on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy's web site, "the money needed to build the Merritt would have to be spent on unemployment relief."

Crossing the Merritt Parkway are 69 bridges, all completely original in design. Architecturally, the bridges are mostly rigid-frame reinforced concrete. But in addition to being functional, staff architect George Dunkelburger ornamented each bridge with a vareity of New-Classical and Modernistic designs. No two of the 69 (originally 72) bridges are alike, but many of the bridges repeat motifs such as the Connecticut state seal. Many of the bridges contain depictions of Connecticut's Native American heritage, as well as its Puritan settlers, and the design and construction of the Parkway itself, according to the Public Archaeology Survey Team's web site at http://www.past-inc.org/ . The stylized wings on the James Farm Road bridge reflect the Art Deco movement, which was at its peak when the bridge was constructed.

For more information on the Parkway, contact the Merritt Parkway Conservancy in Westport, Connecticut, at 203-661-3255, or visit the site on teh web at http://www.merrittparkway.org/ ."

Good job Mr. Fitzgerald and Hemmings Motor News! In honor of the occasion, I also affixed an official "Merritt Parkway Conservancy" decal to my '68 VW today--click HERE to see it.

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