The Merritt

Running from the New York border to the Housatonic River and opened 80 years ago this year, the Merritt Parkway has maintained a nostalgic charm even as the volume of cars traveling on it test its limits.  Sure. I’m talking about a highway, but this one has personality.

The Merritt was completed in 1938 as an extension of the Hutchinson Parkway.  It officially ends/starts at the Sikorsky Bridge, where the Wilbur Cross Parkway begins.  This is Route 15, but most people just call it The Merritt.  Like most people I have a love/hate relationship with The Merritt, and it’s directly related to the volume of traffic on it at the time.  The Merritt is a great alternative to I-95.  There are no trucks, buses or trailers of any kind on the Parkways in the region, and that makes for a more pleasant drive.  Unless there are thousands of cars jammed on this two lane highway, or there’s an accident that you have to wait out.  Or there’s road work or tree work being done.  Basically there are a lot of variables that make it a roll of the dice as to whether The Merritt is a good choice.

But a drive down the Merritt Parkway is a time warp to when people viewed a car ride as an adventure.  The journey was as much a part of the trip as the destination.  We’re going out to the country!  We’re going into the big city for the day!  The Merritt wasn’t made for commuters, it was made for adventurers.  And its design makes it a part of that adventure.

The first thing you notice when you drive the Merritt is the trees, which closely line both sides of the road and for much of it’s length in the median as well.  The trees create a feeling that you’re driving down a country lane to visit your grandparents, not commuting 90 minutes to your job in the Stanford.

The second thing you notice about the Merritt is the bridges.  Each of the original bridges is unique, mostly in the Art Deco style from the period.  Art Deco was all the rage in the 30’s, and like Rockefeller Center you feel like you’re in a different time when you see the detailing.  That every bridge is different makes them a destination along the way.  They aren’t just another generic bridge that you’re passing under, they have a personality.  Stopping to smell the roses, or at least take notice of the bridge as your driving at highway speed, is a uniquely Merritt experience.

The third thing you notice, especially if you are entering from one of the side roads or from the rest areas, is that the road was built for cars going a different speed.  Coming from a dead stop to 60 MPH is an adventure when there’s moderate traffic at highway speed.  When it’s busy and the gaps are few and far between it’s a different kind of adventure.  Pulling into one of the rest areas with their old brick facades makes you decompress immediately.  These tight little rest areas burst at the seams on a busy weekend, but during the quiet times you feel like you’ve pulled into the corner store.

To me the Merritt really starts at the Heroes Tunnel.  Its name, changed from West Rock Tunnel, honors first responders.  West Rock Ridge has some interesting history that warrants its own blog post so I’ll save that for another day.  While technically part of the Wilbur Cross, the tunnel has that mid-19th century feel to it, meaning it’s not a soulless civil engineering project, but has a certain charm to it.  I’ll take that, because I’ve seen plenty of highway in my time traveling the country that has none of that charm.

Up in Massachusetts, there’s a stretch of Route 3 that runs from Lowell to Burlington that was once very much like the Merritt Parkway.  The bridges were all sided with stone, and the highway itself was two lanes each way with trees tightly lining it, including the median strip.  Like the Merritt it was jammed at rush hour but it felt like you were in the forest anyway.  In the early 2000’s they widened Route 3.  Seemingly overnight the trees were cut down, the median bulldozed, the bridges torn down and wide new bridges replaced them.  Route 3 became another highway, slightly faster but without the soul it once had.

They say that the Merritt Parkway is an endangered species.  That the fate of Route 3 will befall Route 15 at some point as the volume of cars demands changes.  I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.  There needs to be a place for old charm in our modern world.  And at some point something will replace the infrastructure of roads and gas stations that we’ve built up to support our primary method of transportation.  As our population grows and rents increase, there’s a tendency to expand outward.  Urban sprawl demands taking more of nature to ease our commuting times.  It takes grassroots support and political will to resist those who would bulldoze the old to make way for the new.  With changes in how we work and talk of new mass transit options perhaps the demands for ever expanding roads will ease.  Let’s hope the Merritt remains it’s charming old self.