Cross Purposes

T here’s an element of time travel on Route 15. Known as the Merritt Parkway from Greenwich to Milford and the Wilbur Cross Parkway as it passes New Haven on its way to Meriden, 15 wasn’t all built at the same time or with the same priorities, and it shows.

The proposal to build a parkway through Fairfield County was first put forward in 1923 as part of a traffic plan for greater New York. Connecticut officials were also eager to relieve congestion on the crowded Boston Post Road. Despite the objections of many Fairfield residents, the project was approved, funded by a $15 million Fairfield County bond issue and begun in the spring of 1935 during the Great Depression, when construction jobs were sorely needed.

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Named for Republican congressman Schuyler Merritt, the Merritt Parkway’s first segment opened in 1938, and the full length was complete in 1940. It’s seen as “an icon of the automobile age and a model of highway planning,” incorporating “excellent engineering, … respect for the natural environment and … inherent beauty,” writes Bruce Radde in The Merritt Parkway (1996).

But when the route reaches its Wilbur Cross stretch, beauty and whimsy begin yielding to utility. This is partly due, Radde says, to the fact that “the rolling landscape that animates the Merritt is largely absent on the other side of the Housatonic River.” But it’s also a function of timing. By the time proposals to extend the Merritt toward Hartford with a new parkway came along, the world was a different place.

Funded by unpopular tolls on the Merritt, construction on the Wilbur Cross began in 1940 and was “practically halted” by World War II, though it did get as far as the Derby Avenue overpass, which opened on Christmas Eve in 1941, 17 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Radde writes that the Wilbur Cross Parkway bridges built in Milford and Orange before the war “do show the same spirit that informs the earlier designs” on the Merritt, where George L. Dunkelberger created 68 bridges, each with a unique “imaginative treatment” running “the gamut from the dramatic to the whimsical.”

Sure enough, at exit 56 in Orange, the overpass bridge is decorated with six concrete ornaments meant to look like flaming wheels. Originally, “the area behind each wheel was painted red,” reports Larry Larned in Route 15: The Road to Hartford (2002). Between exits 57 and 58, also in Orange, the small painted “coats of arms of Orange and Yale” are centered on the overpass archways, Radde notes.

North of Orange, however, the bridges are “plain to the point of being undistinguished.” Here, overpasses are built of bare-faced concrete and rusted steel. Northbound and southbound lanes are divided not by a landscaped island but rather by a humble strip of grass, a single guardrail, a concrete barrier.

And yet, the Wilbur Cross has a few surprises up its lanes. The view from atop the hill just south of New Haven’s exit 59 is an impressive, ski slope stretch that falls and then rises into Heroes’ Tunnel. Upon closer approach, the literal light at the end of the tunnel comes into view, along with trees and sky behind a wavering veil of exhaust.

Engineers of the Wilbur Cross wanted to “[come] as near to New Haven as possible, and also [avoid] the numerous Basaltic rock formations for which this part of the State is famous,” wrote project engineer Walter C. Maynard. “Several lines were run in an attempt to accomplish this purpose, but the best of these resulted in anything but a pleasing line either on the ground or on paper. Finally, a line was boldly drawn which straightened out the worst portion of the project and there it was—right over the top of West Rock!”

The best way “over” West Rock was through it, leading to the construction of the state’s first vehicular tunnel, according to a New Haven Register article published at the time. The tunnel’s November 1, 1949 opening was celebrated by attendees who drove through in both directions, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon at the nearby State Highway Department service garage. The tunnel is now scheduled for what the state calls a “rehabilitation/replacement” project, with construction expected to begin in 2022.

The parkway was named for Wilbur Lucius Cross, a Yale English professor who later became governor of Connecticut from 1931 to 1939. “’It is fitting that this parkway should be named after the late Governor Cross,’” said then-governor Chester Bowles at the 1949 tunnel opening, according to the Register. “‘It was Governor Cross who took the Connecticut farmers out of the mud and then worked for the superhighways we now have.’”

Today the Wilbur Cross bears more traffic than perhaps even its engineers could have imagined. Tens of thousands of vehicles travel the road every day. The speed limit of 55 miles per hour is treated as a mere suggestion on a road that was constructed for a maximum speed of 45, and accidents are common—67 in the first four months of this year in New Haven alone.

Nevertheless, the parkway remains a favored alternative to what Radde calls “the bleakness and aggressiveness of Interstate 95.” Woods and meadows line much of the route, and rare is the straightaway worthy of an interstate highway. The Wilbur Cross is only 29 miles long. Measured in time, it’s long enough only to listen to a handful of tunes and maybe drink a cup of coffee. But it’s the important last link in a chain of parkways—Hutchinson, Merritt, Cross—that winds from the big city to small cities, from New York to home.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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