ConnDOT: Chapter 2 DOT History

Chapter 2 DOT History



In Connecticut in 1895, there were about 12,000 miles of roadway. Although there were some paved streets in the cities, the vast majority of these roads were still simple, unimproved dirt roads. With around 2,000 Wheelmen in the state and wedged between two hotbeds of road reform, New York and Massachusetts, the crusade for road improvement seems to have come early to the Nutmeg state. The early campaign for state aid for road improvement in Connecticut was quite vigorous. Several bills for road improvement were submitted to the legislature and its Committee on Roads, Rivers and Bridges. One finally succeeded on July 3, 1895, with Governor Vincent O. Coffin signing into law the Good Roads Act. The State Highway Commission was born.

The Good Roads Act, based at least in part on model legislation produced by the League of American Wheelmen and the federal ORI, appointed three commissioners to oversee the distribution of funds to towns for road construction and ensure that proper construction techniques were used. On July 9, 1895, Governor Coffin appointed James H. MacDonald of New Haven, W.R. McDonald of Cromwell, and A.C. Sternberg of West Hartford as the first highway commissioners. Almost no biographical information on these early commissioners is known. James H. MacDonald, who was to become the first single Commissioner of Highways in 1897, was known as a strong advocate of the good roads movement and was later active in the American Road Builders' Association.

The new highways program had a budget of $75,000, to be distributed to towns according to their relative wealth on a matching funds basis. County governments (which existed until the 1950s) and towns were to receive matching funds on an equal basis. In order to receive any funds, the towns had to construct roads that met the state's new standards for construction. These standards required roads to be properly surveyed and engineered using qualified professionals, to be constructed of Telford or Macadam pavement, and to have travel lanes 16 feet wide flanked by two shoulders two or three feet wide. Although construction was under control of the town, the highway commissioners were to periodically inspect the construction of the roads. It was clearly the aim of the Highway Commission to have as many improved pieces of road built in as many towns as possible with the intent that the towns would learn the proper methods of road construction.

The fact that the state had an abundant supply of native stone, both near the surface in ledge formations and in stone walls, prompted the requirement of the hard-surfaced Macadam or Telford road systems. These surfacing technologies had been developed in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Two Scotsmen, John McAdam and Thomas Telford, separately developed relatively economical methods for providing level, dry road surfaces. Telford's method called for the creation of stone foundation for the road. Consisting of large flat stones, this foundation was meant to serve as a base for approximately six inches of hardened material. The hardened material on top consisted of gravel or earth that had been run over several times with a cast-iron roller topped by a box carrying two or three tons of sand. McAdam conversely recognized that dry soil generally could support the weight of traffic and that pavement was necessary only to provide a smooth, dry riding surface. Consequently he eliminated Telford's stone foundation. Macadamized roads, as they came to be called, were usually from seven to ten inches thick and consisted of crushed rock packed tightly into thin layers, with a top surface of sand or finely crushed limestone rolled and sometimes watered to provide a well bound and smooth riding surface.

Approximately half the towns in the state inquired about the new program established by the Good Roads Act. Fifty-four (54) towns initially participated, and 17 towns had entered into contracts by September 30, 1895. By the end of 1895, almost $31,000 had been spent and 35 miles of road had been built, despite a lack of qualified contractors and equipment. Another outcome of the program was a road census conducted by the state, which determined that there were 14,088 miles of road. Of these, 5,558 miles were classified as main roads. Of all roads, only 463 miles were stone or macadam, another 1,896 miles were gravel, and the preponderance, 11,729 miles, were still dirt roads. Clearly the state had a long way to go before it got out of the mud!

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In the Highway Commission's report to the Governor in 1897, Commissioner James H. MacDonald revealed his bias as member and advocate of the Good Roads Movement. He observed that the Good Roads Movement in the state had suffered due to the inherent conservative nature of the Connecticut farmer, who he believed had suffered so much from the loss of men and revenue during the Civil War. According to the Commissioner, farmers had never recovered from this loss, and this conservatively tinged their attitudes 37 years later. MacDonald stated that he had given many Good Roads talks throughout the state, and following established Good Roads and Wheelman policy, had advocated the creation of trunk roads, running south to north and west to east across the state, of uniform width, and following the old turnpikes as much as possible. Still, being a political appointee, MacDonald recognized the political power of the existing system of distributing funds to the individual towns, and advocated its continuation on a more liberal basis.

The three commissioners found it almost impossible to both supervise road construction and administer the program. The Commission's annual reports of those years mention the lack of staff to assist the Commissioners in these tasks. In 1897, legislation was passed that replaced the troika of commissioners with a single commissioner of a highway department. James H. MacDonald became the first Commissioner of the Connecticut State Highway Department (the Department).

The 1897 legislation made some changes in the highway program. It gave the towns more latitude in certain aspects of road improvement; it allowed them to select the highways to be improved, advertise for bids, and let the contracts, while the state's role remained completely supervisory. The bill also limited the maximum amount to be spent in any one town to $3,000. It further limited the expenditure to public roads, which it defined as only those main highways which led from one town to another. It further eliminated the counties from contributing to road improvement and from authority over the roads. This bill required the towns and the state to split the costs of road improvement. As a result, from 1897 to about 1908, towns had complete say over which roads would be improved with state funds.


As the nineteenth century came to a close, the advancing technology of the trolley car had a major impact on American life. Before 1895, street railways were confined almost entirely to densely populated areas of cities, because the low-voltage direct-current systems used at the time could not transmit electricity for very great distances. Intercity trolley systems became possible, and extremely popular, after the three-phase electrical distribution system came into use in 1894. Unlike the bicycle, the interurban electric car was convenient, affordable even to lower-paid workers, clean, relatively fast, and provided shelter under any kind of weather condition. Trolleys were used by everyone: families going out to the country for a picnic, rural residents entering the city to shop, fishermen heading to a nearby stream, salesmen making business calls, and resort- goers. For country and city folk alike, the trolley was an event, and allowed a previously unknown mobility for most Americans.

Expansion of trolleys proliferated around Connecticut and around the country. In 1902, there were 987 traction companies in the country with a capacity of 4.8 billion passengers. The trolley industry was big business, and the interurban lines began to seriously compete with the steam railroads, particularly the New Haven Railroad, for both passenger and commercial freight services. Prior to the advent of the trolley, the railroads, which were also converting to electrified lines, had a monopoly on intercity travel. Trolleys generally had lower fares than railroads, were often more comfortable, and were usually more convenient, especially for short trips. To beat the competition and capitalize on what some believed was still a growth industry, the New Haven Railroad decided to acquire all of the trolley properties in southern New England, investing about $120 million from 1904 to 1907 -- a considerable sum and more than the company's own capitalization at the time.

The New Haven Railroad's trolley acquisition started first in Connecticut. The New Haven trolley lines were acquired from Fairhaven & Westfield Railroad in 1904, followed by Greenwich trolley lines bought from the Greenwich Tramway Company, and Hartford trolley lines acquired from the Hartford Street Railway Company, as well as lines operating in other towns, including New London Norwich, and Montville. Within a year and a half, almost all traction properties in Connecticut had been acquired, and were organized under a subsidiary corporation called the Connecticut Company. But trolley construction had already fizzled out in Connecticut by 1903, and financial difficulties associated with overbuilding were beginning to surface. Financial problems were waiting "down the line" for the New Haven Railroad.


To better understand the needs of the state, the General Assembly appointed a special committee to canvass the towns to determine the number of miles of town highways in each town and to gather opinions from each selectman as to the kinds of roads best suited for each town. It was determined that there were approximately 2,300 miles of inter-town roads and that these roads should be about one-half macadamized and one-half gravel surfaced. The report also showed that only 178 miles of these roads were paved; 515 miles were gravel and the remaining miles were dirt. The committee further recommended that the state subsidize road construction based on a sliding scale. The state would pay three-quarters of the road building cost in towns with a grand list value of less than $1 million, and two-thirds of the cost to towns with grand lists over $1 million. It further recommended that the annual appropriation be such that approximately 80 miles of highway could be built a year, so that the entire network of inter-town roads could be improved in about 25 years.

Based on these recommendations of the special committee, new legislation was passed in 1899, called Chapter 175, "An Act to Provide for the Improvement of Roads". The act incorporated the sliding scale of funding road construction projects and authorized the state to appoint highway inspectors. Appropriation to the Department increased from $150,000 to $450,000 in 1901. In 1899, 48 miles of new road were built at a state cost of $99,000.

Chapter 175 did nothing, however, to change how road projects were selected. The choice of roads to be built or improved remained in the hands of town first selectmen. The most important roads were not always those selected for funding. Bemoaning this situation, Commissioner MacDonald rather bitterly noted in 1901 that, during the previous half century, so much money had been wasted on unwise building and repair of roads that, had this money been directed into more necessary improvement, a first-class highway between all of the hamlets, villages, and cities of the state could have been constructed. He further observed that:

"there were jealousies to have the road to be improved in front of every man's house who resided in the town; 15,000 miles of roads, the majority of which needed improvement; over 5,000 miles of these main roads all of which needed more or less treatment; large bonded indebtedness, small grand lists, large taxes to pay, farmers overworked and poorly paid."


The need to create improved roads was magnified by the increasing numbers of automobiles in the state. By 1901, there were so many that Connecticut enacted the first automobile traffic law in the country, limiting speeds to 15 miles per hour in the country and 12 miles per hour in the city. Not only was this for safety reasons, but increased speeds from cars with narrow, hard rubber tires destroyed the dust binder on macadamized roads, creating ruts and eventually ruining the roads. In 1903, the state began to require registration of automobiles, with owners initially required to make their own license plates. In the first year of this law, some 1,500 drivers registered 1,353 vehicles with the Secretary of State.

By 1905, nationally, the spirit of Progressivism reigned. Although Progressivism is usually associated with issues of voter initiative, reform and recall, the general Progressive attitude in terms of public works projects was to centralize authority and to place the design, construction and supervision of major projects in the hands of qualified engineers. This sentiment was also prevalent in Connecticut and would affect not only highways, but other major transportation modes as well.

Centralization of control and requirement of technical competency was particularly extended to highway design and automobiles. In 1905, the legislature placed the responsibility for all roadway engineering on the state, with an appropriation of $30,000 to cover that cost. Additionally, after years of complaints of poor maintenance by the towns, the state took over the maintenance of state aid roads. In the same year, legislation was passed requiring that motor vehicle number plates be provided by the Secretary of State. Registration fees were based on the horsepower of the car; the fee was $3 for an automobile with less than 20 horsepower, $5 for 20-30 horsepower, and 50 cents per horsepower for vehicles with over 30 horsepower. This was followed in 1907 by additional legislation requiring the licensing of drivers for a fee of $2. Funds obtained from automobile registrations, drivers' license fees, and traffic fines was to be used to fund maintenance activities. Although the legislature had authorized the Highway Department to take over road maintenance on state roads as early as 1899, this responsibility was confirmed in the 1907 legislation, which clearly placed the obligation for highway repairs and maintenance on the state. Towns were required to refund one quarter of the funds expended for repairs within their borders, an unpopular aspect of the law that was repealed in 1923.


Commissioner MacDonald continued his push to establish a distinct trunk line system. In 1900 he issued the following report:

"The effort of the State has been directed in accordance with the laws under which we have worked, to the improvement of the present existing main highways, and it will be some time before the present existing highways are brought into proper condition necessary to accommodate the travel with convenience and comfort. Indeed, any policy removed from this, with the main highways needing attention so much, would not be wise.

While these highways, as they now exist, are not at all times as direct for through travel as we would wish to have them, they fully answer the purpose originally intended, of communication between the farm and the market.

No trunk line through the State east or west, north or south, laid independently of the main highways now existing, would answer the purpose of assisting produce to market as well as the now existing main highways.

When the main highways now existing have all been improved, it may be thought wise to build an independent trunk line, but, for the present, the State money and all our energy should be used on what we have to improve without laying out any new work.@

MacDonald felt that the state was overloaded with too many small roads, and that if the number were divided by two, the towns' indebtedness would be greatly reduced. In his report to the Governor in 1900, MacDonald submitted a map and description of ten north-south and three east-west trunk lines in addition to the Boston Post Road, which he noted would be completely modernized because the shoreline towns were focusing their state appropriations on this road. He recognized that there were only a few main trunk lines running from east to west due to heavy grades and mountainous conditions found in the eastern and western parts of the State. The total trunk line system covered 1,400 miles, described as:

"Beginning at the State Line in Rhode Island and extending westerly through Salisbury, into Massachusetts.

The second beginning at the State Line in the Town of Sterling and entering New York State near Kent.

The third trunk line begins at the State Line in the Town of Killingly and runs to New Milford; thus, we have fourteen trunk lines which are practically the principal highways of the State, the Old Boston Post Road being the first and most important; then the ten trunk lines running from it to the north; and the three trunk lines running east and west."

In 1908, Commissioner MacDonald reported on the progress of the trunk line system improvement. It was approximately 53 percent complete, but he emphasized that most of the work lay in improving the trunk lines following the Old Post Road, the New Haven to Springfield route, and the trunk line running through the Naugatuck Valley up to Colebrook.

By 1911, highway improvement was an issue of major national interest. Led by automobile interests, such groups as the Lincoln Highway Association pushed for an improved transcontinental route, while the National Highway Association presented plans for a 51,000 mile system of trunk lines and a web of roads connecting every state capital. Between December 1911 and July 1912, over 60 road bills were introduced in Congress. However, initial federal aid for highways was quite limited, focusing on farm-to-market roads and roads for rural free delivery, with federal aid to states coming from the Post Office budget. Many states with no highway departments formed one during this period, as this was a prerequisite to the receipt of federal funds. However, full scale federal involvement was still another five years distant.

In Connecticut, by 1913, promotion of the state's trunk lines had succeeded in the construction of almost 605 miles of MacDonald's trunk line system and contracts were in effect for another $1.2 million of roadway construction. There were 319 miles of new state aid roads and contracts for state aid road construction were valued at close to half a million dollars.


Water-borne transportation came under the scrutiny of the state in 1909, when the General Assembly authorized the establishment of a Rivers and Harbors Commission to investigate and report upon the state's waterways. In 1911, the state directly entered the realm of waterway transportation when the Connecticut General Assembly appropriated $1 million for construction of a steamship terminal at New London, to be known as the State Pier.

This period also saw the first state regulations concerning the operation of airplanes. In 1911, Governor Simeon E. Baldwin presented to the General Assembly a proposal to regulate air transportation. Acknowledging the airplane's potential "as a regular mode of transportation between distant places", he recommended:

"the passage of a statute providing for their registry in the office of the town clerk in each town in which one is owned: forbidding their use for flights within this state unless in the charge of someone approved by a competent authority as capable of directing their course with due skill and care."

This act is considered the first aeronautical law enacted by a government agency; it would not be until 1926 that the federal government would pass the Air Commerce Act, which included certifying pilots. The Secretary of State's office was charged with enforcing the new Connecticut law, since aircraft registration and pilots' licenses were issued there.


In the early 1900s, railroad companies were merging and further consolidating their monopoly powers, so, despite the success of the competing trolley industry, railroads came under further regulation. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had been under pressure for years to establish rates for the railroads. The ICC already had the power to veto rates that appeared "unjust and unreasonable", but had never actually set rates. In 1906, this changed when Congress passed the Hepburn Act, which authorized the ICC to establish the rates railroads could charge for commercial shipping and to approve or deny rate increases. The first major test of the act came just two years later, in 1908-1909, when dropping freight revenues caused railroads to unsuccessfully seek rate increases.

In Connecticut, railroads had been under state regulation since 1853, prompted by the rapid growth of the railroads in the early nineteenth century. The first regulatory authority, the Board of Railroad Commissioners, inspected railways, regulated speeds, standardized signals, and implemented safer operations. In 1911, this authority was absorbed into the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), created in that year by the General Assembly under the "Act Concerning the Regulation and Supervision of Public Service Companies". This act brought regulation to the trolley industry, as well, for the Commission's purpose was to regulate railroads, street railways, and any express companies that had special privileges on railroads or street railways.


Although the state did not yet have complete control over the construction of most bridges, several major structures were completed early in the twentieth century. In 1907, the Hartford Bridge (now named after U.S. Senator Morgan Bulkeley) was completed across the Connecticut River at a cost of approximately $3 million. This grey and pink granite bridge between Hartford and East Hartford was one of the last major stone arch bridges built in the state. This much-anticipated bridge replaced the 1818 covered bridge which had burned in 1895, such that ferries were once again in business. Its multiple arches extend 1192 feet in nine spans that rise about 45 feet above low water. A large bridge, it was originally 82 feet wide and was traversed by double trolley tracks down the center of the bridge.

In 1911, the Saybrook-Lyme toll bridge was dedicated, replacing a small steam ferry that had previously connected the two towns. This 1,800-foot long steel bridge contained a section that was a two-arm rolling lift draw bridge which could create a 200-foot clear opening for the passage of ships. The 24-foot wide roadway had a trolley track laid down its length. With an initial speed limit of 6 miles per hour, this bridge provided vital access to the summer resort and fishing towns of the southeastern coast of the state. The $500,000 bridge was opened with great fanfare, including a 1,000 car motorcade led by Senator Bulkeley.

Content Last Modified on 9/9/2003 10:17:36 AM