One hundred and forty thousand drivers cross the Connecticut River on I-84 at Hartford every day, unaware that the magnificent but unseen structure beneath them holds a coveted spot on the National Register of Historic Places and turns 100 this month.
Completion of the Bulkeley Bridge in 1908 was celebrated with three days and nights of parades, speeches, fireworks and historic tableaux, reportedly attended by 250,000 people. Arches and other architectural details of the bridge were outlined in white lights at night.
The civic pride in the bridge stemmed from a history of misfortunes. The first bridge, built in 1810, was destroyed by ice floes in 1818. Its replacement burned in 1885. A temporary wooden bridge, completed in 1895, was carried away by ice five months later.
The Bridge Commission envisioned a lasting, monumental structure. A huge undertaking, construction took three years and $3 million. Bridge design and construction was overseen in meticulous detail by one of Hartford's leading citizens: Morgan G. Bulkeley, president of the Board of Commissioners of the Connecticut River and Highway District. A renaissance man, he was president of Aetna Life Insurance Co. for 44 years, mayor of Hartford, governor of Connecticut, U.S. senator, president of baseball's National League, owner of a Hartford team and a member of baseball's Hall of Fame.
But, in many ways, the bridge that bears his name is Morgan Bulkeley's crowning achievement.
The Hartford Bridge, as it was first called, was compared in a souvenir book to "the famous London Bridge, which has hitherto ranked as one of the greatest of its kind in the world." The Hartford Bridge had surpassed London Bridge: It was longer, wider, had more arches — and the arches were higher. But less than 40 years later, the bridge went out of sight and out of mind.
Devastating floods in 1936 and 1938 brought demands for protection from a polluted river. So, new dikes walled off the river from Hartford and East Hartford in the 1940s. Bridge abutments extended from the water to the top of the dikes — preventing pedestrian access on the riverfront from the north side of the bridge to the south side. When I-91 was built adjacent to the Hartford dike, it became more difficult to get to the river's edge.
The Bulkeley Bridge took on added importance in 1964, when it was widened as part of the interstate highway system. More traffic flowed over it the bridge on the new I-84 — but drivers couldn't see the magnificent structure.
A public-private partnership among Riverfront Recapture, the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration took steps to remedy that situation. I-91 was rebuilt to make way for a landscaped plaza over the highway that reunites downtown Hartford with the river. A structure around the Hartford abutment has restored pedestrian access from one side of the Bulkeley Bridge to the other. A paved, lighted riverwalk from Riverside Park to the bridge reconnects the park with downtown.
People can again get close enough to admire the graceful but powerful granite arches and marvel at the engineering that produced such an architectural treasure.
Riverfront Recapture and the DOT worked together to celebrate the bridge's centennial by lighting the bridge facades during October. LED lighting, energy-efficient and capable of changing colors, highlight the arches' and piers' architectural details. The plan is to turn this temporary lighting scheme into a permanent installation.
The bridge's birthday will be celebrated on Sunday from noon to 3:30 p.m. At 2 p.m., a rededication plaque will be unveiled in Hartford's Riverside Park. The public should attend this free event, which will include historic automobiles, trucks and bicycles, bridge photos from construction to the present day and a vintage baseball game.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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