ConnDOT: Chapter 3 DOT History

Chapter 3 DOT History



Charles Joseph Bennett became the second Commissioner of the Highway Department in 1913. Born in England, Bennett had received an engineering degree from Union College in Schnectady, New York, coming to Connecticut in 1904 as an engineer for the New Haven Railroad and also serving as superintendent of streets for the City of Hartford before joining the Department. With Bennett's appointment, the Department moved into a new era, one in which the basic concept was that the state had a duty to build and maintain an efficient and high quality road system. New building materials were used and roads were continuously improved.

Some of the first new materials tested were in the area of road surfacing. As previously mentioned, the stress of automobiles on macadamized surfaces frequently caused roadways to disintegrate into great billowing dust clouds. To combat this, the state began building concrete paved roads in 1913, the first section of which was built in the Terryville section of Plymouth on a portion of what is now U.S. Route 6.

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By 1913, Commissioner Bennett had refined the trunk system to 14 trunk lines with a total length of just over 1,000 miles. They essentially followed MacDonald's routes, with a few shortening modifications. In 1913, the state legislature recognized these roads as a separate and complete responsibility of the Highway Department and appropriated direct, non-matching funds for their improvement. By 1914, the Commissioner noted that 60 percent of the trunk lines were improved with the following seven trunk lines virtually complete:

1. The road from New York to Westerly, Rhode Island, along Long Island Sound

2. New Haven to Springfield, by way of Meriden and Hartford

3. Stratford to Winsted, up the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys

4. New London to Thompson, passing through the French River Valley

5. Danbury to the Rhode Island border through Waterbury, Hartford, Manchester, Willimantic and Putnam.

6. Norfolk, through Winsted and Hartford, adjoining the road to the east mentioned above

7. The road from Saybrook to Hartford and thence branching east and west adjoining the two roads mentioned above.

Throughout his term as Commissioner, Bennett pushed to complete the trunk road system and fill in the gaps in the State Aid roads leading to the trunk lines. He developed several special funding methods to permit the state and the towns to construct or improve large sections of roadway all at once rather than in piecemeal fashion over several years. One method, passed by the state legislature in 1913, empowered the Commissioner to enter into an agreement with a town for construction that exceeded the value of a single year's normal or anticipated appropriation. The town would pay the full construction costs and receive reimbursement annually from the state aid fund until the state's share of the expense had been paid back.

Bennett's efforts to complete the gaps in the road system was affirmed by the 1919 General Assembly's special appropriation of an additional $600,000 to complete the unfinished sections in the State Aid system. Still, Bennett estimated that it would cost another $24 million to complete the trunk line system and another $9 million to complete the State Aid system. State funding was nowhere near enough; the legislature appropriated only a small fraction of the needed funds, allocating only $2 million to reconstruct trunk lines with hard surfaced pavements.

Over time, more and more responsibility and control over Connecticut's roads was placed in the hands of the Highway Department. In 1915, the General Assembly placed the responsibility for bridge construction on the Highway Department. At the same time, all state-owned toll bridges and ferries were transferred to the Highway Department. The legislature also authorized the Department to petition the Public Utilities Commission to remove as many at-grade railroad crossings as possible. Two major bridges were built during this period: between 1917 and 1919, the Thames River railroad bridge was converted to automobile use and the bridge over the Niantic River between East Lyme and Waterford was built.

In 1917, for the first time, the Highway Department was authorized by law to clear the trunk line highways of snow. This function was so well received that succeeding sessions of the General Assembly enlarged the authority to cover all highways maintained by the Department.


Commissioner Bennett realized that in order for the Department to make significant progress in the improvement of the highway system, there needed to be improved organization. Bennett identified three basic functions of the Department and, accordingly, formed three bureaus within the Department: planning and construction of highways under the supervision of a deputy highway commissioner; repairs of highways under the charge of a superintendent of repairs; and accounting and records under a chief clerk.

The planning and construction of highways was delegated to the direct charge of seven division engineers corresponding to the seven construction divisions located throughout the state. The divisions were located in Hartford (2), New Haven, Norwich, Winsted, New Milford, and Middletown. Each division engineer prepared all plans for the construction of roads within that division. Specifications and proposals were prepared at Department headquarters in Hartford from information transmitted by the division engineers. Contract letting and bids were also prepared and supervised from Hartford.

The superintendent of repairs was responsible for 11 repair districts, each of which was under the stewardship of a district supervisor. Repair districts were located in Hartford, Windsor Locks, West Willington, Putnam, Norwich, Deep River, New Haven, Naugatuck, New Milford, and two at Norwalk. The supervisors, in turn, employed foremen and laborers who performed the repair work. To support the repair districts, by 1917, the Highway Department had established a central repair facility in Portland. Eventually known as the Portland Plant, the facility was used to maintain and manufacture equipment that the Department needed.

Under the chief clerk, a group of accountants maintained a system of double entry bookkeeping that was modified to meet departmental demands. Each contract was entered against the annual appropriation as a charge. Consequently, it was possible to obtain at any time the balance of funds available for work to be done. The accounting bureau also maintained charts which showed the total amount of appropriation to be expended, and the rate at which the money should be spent in order to be properly supervised yet expended before the end of the appropriate fiscal year.

To carry out all of these various duties, Department personnel in 1918 consisted of the following: 10 headquarters staff (located in Hartford); an assistant superintendent of repairs; a special assistant; a chief draftsman; a bridge supervisor; a superintendent of the Portland plant; six division engineers in field offices; and eleven supervisors of repairs in field offices.


In 1911, the state had appropriated $1 million for construction of a steamship terminal at New London. Construction of the State Pier in New London started in 1914 and was completed in 1916. During dredging operations, a large number of iron cannonballs and shot were uncovered, dumped in the harbor during the Revolutionary War to prevent capture by the British. In 1916, while World War I raged in Europe, the Germans berthed the first ocean going cargo submarine, Deutchland, at the pier, carrying a cargo of textile dyes. The Germans subsequently built sheds for receiving cargo, which ultimately reverted to the state. The Navy took control of the pier during both World Wars. The first commercial steamer, Western Glen, docked at the pier in 1919 to discharge 6,488 tons of flour.

The location, on property owned by the Central Vermont Railroad, was selected with the understanding that large amounts of freight would be coming through via the Central Vermont Railroad. That railroad and the Canadian National Railroad offered differential rates to the middle west, making them the preferred carriers. In 1922, both the Central Vermont Railroad and the Canadian National Railroad diverted a large number of automobiles and general cargo to the State Pier for shipment to Australia and New Zealand. The deal, however, was canceled by the Canadian ports who put political and economic pressure on the Canadian National Railroad to ship through home ports.

From 1914 to 1969, the pier was administered by a series of commissions, the last being the Commission of Steamship Terminals.


World War I, even before the United States officially entered the war in 1917, had a tremendous effect on highway development countrywide. From about 1915 on, efforts to supply munitions, food, and supplies to Europe began to overtax the capacity of the country's rail lines. As railroads increasingly failed to keep up with national demands, people looked increasingly to the roads for their commerce and travel needs. This situation undoubtedly contributed to the passage of the first Federal-Aid Road Act in 1916, although national lobbying efforts had been ongoing for years.

The 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act provided aid only to those roads directly under control of a state highway department, and funds were limited to $10,000 per mile. The intent of the legislation was primarily to improve Rural Free Delivery (RFD) roads while avoiding the formation of disconnected patterns. The Connecticut Highway Department used the meager available federal appropriations for improving and completing the trunk line system, as it was part of the RFD system. The first contract let under the act was to provide concrete pavement for a section of what is now Route 10 in the Hamden-Cheshire area in 1917. Other roadway sections that received aid included Glastonbury to New London, Bethel to Bridgeport, Norwich to Westerly, and Danielson to East Killingly.

The early years of the 1900s were years during which Highway Department and construction contractors learned and moved forward together in the art and science of roadway construction. Some of the new methods being tried included drilling and blasting of rock; sub-base, drainage and concrete paving processes; construction machinery development; and the use of small gauge railroads, with steam engines, to haul materials to the job site. After World War I, steam engines were being replaced by the newer, more capable gasoline engines. In the winter of 1922-1923, the first gas-powered shovel was brought to Connecticut, and in spring of 1923, was first used on federal-aid road construction from Litchfield to Torrington.


The reliance on rails was made clear by the events surrounding World War I. Because of a mild recession before the war, the railroads had already cut back on construction of new rolling stock (rail cars) and cargo facilities. Then the successful U-boat campaign against merchant shipping in 1916 created a shortage of ships, making it impossible to unload rail cars at ports. A manpower shortage further limited the speed at which the cars could be unloaded, so that the rolling stock was not being returned to use.

By early 1917, the railroads were suffering a shortage of 158,000 cars. By November, 1917, 180,000 rail cars were trapped in eastern ports, unable to unload, resulting in dramatic coal and food shortages, particularly on the east coast. The severity of the rail situation was exacerbated by the passage of 1,321,000 outgoing troops through the ports and one of the worst winters on record. Rail construction continued through these years in an attempt to meet these needs with rail mileage peaking in Connecticut in 1920.

The incapacity of the rails under these extreme conditions turned attention to the roads once again. The successful trip made by the United States Army to drive heavy motor trucks from Detroit to Baltimore in the middle of the winter of 1917, for delivery to France, garnered further support for the betterment of highways under the auspices of national defense. After the war, in 1919, the Army further promoted the improvement of roads by driving a 75 car caravan coast-to-coast.

In addition to these promotional events, economic circumstances were building favor for highway travel. In the late 1910s, with the railroad shortage in full effect, motor trucking became a viable alternative, and, since trucking was not regulated and truckers could undercut railway rates, it was also an economic alternative. By the time the war ended and the railroads were released by the government, the railroads had permanently lost many customers to trucking.

By 1921, the highway promoters had managed to obtain the passage of the first Federal Highway Act. This act mandated that federal aid be focused upon "such projects as will expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways, interstate in character." The intention was to create a system of strategic access points and highways connecting all capitals and important cities. The bill specified that funding could be applied to only 7 percent of a state's total road mileage, 3 percent of which could be primary roads and 4 percent secondary roads. The bill still emphasized rural roads; 40 percent of the funding was for farm-to-market roads, which then comprised 80 percent of all roads in the United States. Connecticut received $2.5 million, which was focused on interstate road replacement.


Despite the beginnings of federal aid, Connecticut was unable to make significant progress in road improvements. In 1921, Commissioner Bennett recognized that only about 13 percent of the state's roads were in an improved condition. He asserted that the increasing traffic (on the order of 1 car per 14 residents), which was causing severe congestion, would require expanded and improved roadways. He wrote:

"It will be well for us again to outline the existing conditions. There is at present in the State 12,000 miles of highway, including all types of rural and State roads, not including city streets. Many of these miles are unused, and possibly may be discontinued. On the other hand, there are State road improvements made to the extent of approximately 1,600 miles, or a very small proportion of the total mileage, no matter how much it may be curtailed due to discontinuance. On this system of State roads is concentrated a tremendous traffic. Statistics show that approximately there are fourteen persons to each passenger car in the State, and this proportion is gradually changing so that eventually we may expect at least one car to each ten persons. Somewhere, of course, the number of passenger cars must stop increasing but we have no accurate measure of the extent to which motor trucks may be used in the future, nor have we any means of determining the ultimate number of car miles to be operated by passenger car or truck.@

The indications are, therefore, of an increased traffic to an unknown extent. Even with the present ratio of motor vehicles, our improved roads are subjected at times to a traffic at times beyond their capacity. If it were possible to divert this traffic to other roads during periods of congestion, our difficulties would be much less, and the possibility of accidents and delay materially reduced. Until we can extend our highway systems, it must be easily seen that these congestions will continue; that the difficulty of maintenance will increase, and that there will be unquestionably dissatisfaction with the highway system of Connecticut.

Our problem, therefore, is two-fold; we must improve the surface, widen and straighten our existing State highways at an enormous cost; and we must also extend our present highway systems in order that the congestion of traffic may decrease. It is hard to state which of these two necessities is the greater. Given to choice, however, it would seem that it is far more necessary to make our present roads more adequate for travel, even at the expense of extensions -- but both are important -- and to provide for the necessary roads of proper condition to accommodate the motor vehicles we have at present licensed in this State would demand the expenditure of very nearly $40,000,000 immediately. With this expenditure, we could safely say that our highway system was adequate for the purpose of existing traffic.

It is idle to expect that any such expenditure could either be authorized or made within a reasonable time (so that we must face the necessity, for the next few years at least, if not for an indefinite length of time, of having a highway system inadequate for the traffic demands), and this fact should be thoroughly understood by all. In the opinion of the writer, the demand for improvement in highways will increase until some radical means of meeting the demand is found by the legislature.

It is unquestionably true that the legislature is not in a position to understand the needs of the State as a whole and the effort on the part of this Department is to gradually educate the general public to the conditions and make suggestions as to the necessities which seem to face us.

The expenditures for highways for the next two years will be curtailed rather than increased unless the increase in motor vehicles far exceeds the estimate made when the fees were passed. Our main difficulty is to get the information of conditions to the public as a whole. To illustrate, everyone knows of one or more highway conditions which are bad and which should be corrected. Very few, if any, have any knowledge of the total number of such incidents which demand attention and the total expenditure necessary to correct all the difficulties which face us. It is only when general dissatisfaction with the system as a whole becomes so serious that drastic steps will be taken to improve conditions which are at present inadequate as stated above."

In order to obtain more money for transportation, the legislature in 1921 instituted a gasoline tax, but the receipts were designated for the Connecticut General Fund and had little effect on highway expenditures. Not until 1923 was this money earmarked for the Highway Fund.


The rising importance of motorized vehicles (and by extension roadways) for mass transportation was reflected when, in 1921, the responsibilities of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) were expanded to include the regulation of motor buses. The PUC, as before, continued to regulate railroads, street railways and express companies having privileges on railroads or street railways. The PUC remained the sole regulating authority of these various forms of mass transit until the 1960s.

Content Last Modified on 9/9/2003 10:17:59 AM