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June 23, 2015

The Merritt: Queen of All Parkways



Cruising along on the Merritt Parkway awhile back I was struck by its natural beauty, unique bridges and amazing landscaping.  But until I did some research, I didn’t appreciate its history.
A hundred years 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, two thousand 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.
As the Merritt was being planned, a major real estate scandal caught Darien real estate agent G Leroy Kemp in cahoots with two brokers as they paid inflated prices for land for the parkway and split the proceeds.
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, 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.  Their adornments were better appreciated when cars were
poking along at half of today’s speeds, but they are still beautiful. 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 Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s.  Tolls were dropped in 1988.
The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles.  One of the original booths is now preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious now since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 where 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.  Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

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