The Historical Society of Easton Presents the story of the Sport Hill Road Bridge.
One upon a time, the trip from the New York border in Greenwich to New Haven took four hours to complete by automobile. There was but one continuous through-route, the Post Road, that exacerbated drivers with its seemingly countless number of traffic signals along a mostly urban sprawl where one town melded into another.
By 1920, railroads were still the preferred method of transporting goods over long distances, but trucks were quickly gaining ground for shorter hauls. Scheduling of trucks was easier and smaller loads could be easily accommodated, getting merchandise to its destination faster and less expensively than by rail. Adding truck traffic to the increasing number of personal automobiles traveling the Post Road was soon making travel along the coast almost as slow as it had been during the days of horses and wagons.
While traffic was often snarled along the coastal corridor by the mid to late 1920’s, the potential problem had been foreseen way back in 1907, when the Connecticut Automobile Parkway Corporation received a charter to build and operate an “automobile boulevard” between New York and Boston. A thoroughly ambitious plan, it never made it past the initial planning stages. But those plans had another road paralleling the Post Road through Fairfield and New Haven counties with grade separations at intersections with all the existing highways and railroad tracks. Throughout much of the 1920’s a new road to parallel the old Post Road was debated and by 1926 surveying began in anticipation of finally building a new highway. It was quickly determined that property acquisition costs, along with multiple marshland and river crossings close to the Connecticut shoreline would be prohibitively expensive. An inland route was soon the favored option. Convincing the state legislature to fund the project was another story.
But by the time of the great Depression, road construction ranked high among public works projects because the job opportunities those projects provided for large numbers of both unemployed and often unskilled workers put money in their pockets and food on their tables. It was early 1930 when Connecticut, Highway Commissioner, James MacDonald, saw the potential of road construction relieving both the problems of traffic congestion and unemployment at the same time. Plans for a new road were once again discussed.
Before state engineers decided on the exact location of the new roadway, they investigated at least six full-length routes, along with multiple variations through each town along the parkway’s proposed line of travel. By 1931, one of the earliest routes under consideration for the parkway began near the New York line, extending from the Post Road in Greenwich, through Stamford, New Canaan, Wilton, Weston, and Easton, then curving southeast through Trumbull and Stratford where it would then connect again with the Post Road. While this line incorporated the requirements for an inland parallel route prescribed by the original proposal, it ignored many of the geological obstacles of lower Fairfield County, not the least of which were some of the higher ridges and rocky outcroppings. The topography of this section of Connecticut had ridges and valleys that ran north-south, while the proposed roadway would run east-west. This would require a great deal of both rock blasting and expensive excavation through the ridges, while at the same time the filling-in of the valleys to get a manageable gradient that would keep traffic moving at a steady speed.
By the time the final design was settled upon, the new road would pass through eight Fairfield County towns, but the portion through Wilton, Weston, and Easton had been moved south to pass through northern Norwalk, Westport, and Fairfield. One can only surmise that part of the changes made were influenced by the plans of the politically powerful Bridgeport Hydraulic Company to complete their series of connected reservoirs in Weston, Easton and Fairfield during the same decade.
The final location of the new road helped in the state’s decision to make the Merritt into a “parkway”, rather than a simpler and faster by-pass around the congestion of the Post Road. Truck freight through Fairfield County was mostly local; the rails still provided the best option for long-haul loads. By moving the new road so far inland, the added truck traffic from the Merritt to each of the coastal towns where most of most of the truck freight was destined to be off-loaded would simply be over-burdening to the local arteries that would connect the Merritt to the Post Road.
The Connecticut General Assembly eventually defined a parkway in this manner: A parkway shall mean any trunk line highway receiving special treatment in landscaping and marginal planting, which shall be especially designed for, and devoted exclusively to, the use and accommodation of noncommercial motor vehicle traffic ,and to which access maybe allowed only at highway intersections designated by the highway commissioner and designed by him so as to eliminate cross traffic of vehicles.
The die was cast by late 1933 when Connecticut Governor Wilber Cross and Commissioner James MacDonald announced that the Merritt would cost $15 million to complete (the final cost was much greater), and pending an approved grant application for Federal Emergency Relief from the Public Works Administration, they were prepared to approve construction contracts for work to commence early in the following year. In the spring 1934, a $347,000 federal grant was approved for initial grading and bridge construction along seven miles of the highway, and an additional grant of $91,077 was awarded later that year. The long-debated project was finally underway.
In the spring of 1934, with only some of the rights-of-way having been secured, work began anyway. Much of the federal grant money had been ear-marked for bridge construction, so in a rather unorthodox move, Commissioner MacDonald let out contracts to build new bridges where no roads had yet been laid out or started. One such bridge was the one at Sport Hill Road, just a few yards south of the Easton-Fairfield town line.
The M. A. Gammino Construction Company was awarded the $39,005 contract to build the bridge in the spring of 1937. That section of the parkway was scheduled to be the third of four legs to be built between the New York state line at Greenwich and the Housatonic River, a total distance of about 37.5 miles. The first section between Greenwich and Norwalk hadn’t yet seen the concrete poured for the roadway by the time the Sport Hill Road bridge was completed in the late summer of 1937. In fact, when Fairfield’s Sport Hill Road Bridge was completed, and all the concrete forms and cranes were removed that year, the right-of-way had not even been cleared, much less graded or paved. The finished bridge sat in the middle of a field, next to a farmhouse and barn that had not yet been razed. It was if Charlie Lacy had planted the seeds for a huge edifice in one of his fields…perhaps an early version of “If you will build it, they will come.”
The Sport Hill Road bridge sat in that field for nearly a year before work started on the road that would eventually pass beneath it. The old Easton Turnpike – now called Sport Hill Road, would need to be raised on both ends in order to have the travel lanes pass above the new parkway. The Congress Street intersection would need to move to the north a bit in order to make the grade to the new bridge gentle enough to give the intersection a safe sightline. The Lacy house would either need to be razed or moved. The family chose to move it to a new location on Jefferson Street.
By 1938, nearly all lands for the parkway had been acquired. The state had purchased, or taken by eminent domain, some 300 separate tracts of property covering about 2,600 acres. On this property were numerous structures that had to be moved or razed including one church, fifty-one houses, thirteen barns, three stables, twelve garages, a greenhouse, a studio, a shop, a playhouse, and thirty-two other assorted buildings – a total of one hundred and sixteen structures in all. A fairly low number given the need for a three-hundred-foot wide right-of-way that was over 37 miles in length.
If you’ve ever given directions to a friend traveling east on the Merritt, you probably realize that Exit 44 at Black Rock Turnpike isn’t followed by Exit 45, but rather by Exit 46 at Sport Hill Road. That is because Exit 45 was originally on the drawing board for Morehouse Highway, a once through road from lower Fairfield all the way to its intersection with Westport Road in Easton.
Especially difficult road cuts were encountered at both High Ridge and Long Ridge in Stamford, Ponus Ridge in New Canaan, and Black Rock Turnpike and Morehouse Highway in Fairfield near the Easton town line. The high ridges in each of these areas required an extensive amount of blasting and grading to establish an acceptable gradient.
Morehouse was especially difficult given the need to maintain Congress Street on the northern side of the Merritt while constructing a new bridge to carry the southern portion of Morehouse across the new parkway. In the end, the grade to the upper section of Morehouse in Easton would have simply been too steep and given the lack of open land between Congress and the parkway, an interchange at that location was abandoned before construction even began. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that Morehouse Road in Easton was reconnected to Congress Street below when the roadway was significantly re-graded and altered. From the late 1930’s until then, Morehouse Road had essentially dead-ended at the Fairfield town line.
The first leg of the new Merritt Parkway officially opened on June 29, 1938, but it wasn’t until November of 1939 that Easton saw the first cars exit the new road at Black Rock Turnpike and Sport Hill Road and head north into a town that would be forever changed now that it was only an hour and a half drive from the center of Manhattan.