A tale of the Baldwin bridge: Crossing the CT River

The former incarnation of the present Baldwin Bridge, as seen in 1911.
For hundreds of years the Connecticut River was a barrier to east-west travel that was only overcome by an uncertain and frequently death-defying ferry service. Sometimes it took four or five hours to cross the river. Sometimes the little vessel did not reach its intended landing spot.

And in the early 1900s, a growing number of automobiles led to popular support for a bridge to cross the river.

Ferry service, as it was known since 1661, was doomed when State Senator James H. Day of Old Saybrook and Representative J.H. Nobe of Old Lyme proposed, and in1909 Governor Frank B. Weeks signed a bill to construct a toll bridge across the Connecticut River.

The new bridge was built in 17 months costing a little less than its budgeted $500,000. It was 1800 feet long and 24 feet wide with a surface of spruce planks over yellow pine. The drawbridge gave a 200 foot clearance to vessels and was operated by electricity from the Shore Line Electric Railway Company powerhouse on the river bank at Ferry Road.

It was not the first bridge over the Connecticut River, there was a covered one in Bellows Falls, Vermont in 1785. Nor was it the first one in Connecticut, there was one in Windsor in 1796. Nor was it the first toll road, that was the Mohegan Road between New London and Norwich in 1792.

But, a bridge was a huge change – a once in a lifetime event – that was dedicated on August 24, 1911, when thousands of people came by train, automobile, carriage, and on foot to see the beauty and take part in the celebration.

The local paper reported that the new connection “was opened with a monster automobile parade and formal exercises befitting the occasion. The old town was in gala attire, many of the residences and stores, especially along the route of the parade, being handsomely decorated, some with a few flags only and some with a more pretentious display of the red, white and blue.”

The incredible “monster” parade included 500 decorated automobiles. This at a time in 1911 when there were 21,371 cars registered in the entire state of Connecticut. The number of cars in Old Saybrook - population 1,516 - was 17, Old Lyme had 31, Deep River 45, Essex 30, Westbrook 21, and Chester 24.

The dedication day parade began near Old Saybrook’s town hall and was led by chief of police George Watson Beach, owner of the castle-like house at Cornfield Point. The next cars were the bridge commissioners and engineers.

A friendly competitive spirit enlivened the great gathering. The newspaper reported that “one of the most unique was trimmed to resemble a dirigible airship, with a colored balloon floating above.”

“The machine in which rode ex-Senator Morgan G. Bulkeley was prettily trimmed with purple wisteria. There were cars trimmed in yellow and green, and other combinations. One was completely covered with the national colors. One was finely decorated with flags while red bells swung overhead. A clever trim of golden rod distinguished one car while another was brilliant with a bower of pink roses. One machine was rigged like a ship with nautical flags strung from her spars.”

The procession moved slowly through the throngs and headed for the old Ferry Road to the new bridge, crossed the river and wound its way through Old Lyme and back to the bridge for speeches.

Lt. Gov. Blakeslee announced that Fenwick and Saybrook had been awarded a silver cup for the finest display of automobiles. The cup had been purchased by the commissioners for $90 and was reportedly “a handsome trophy, standing nearly 2 feet high and will be kept in the town hall at Old Saybrook.”

No one in today’s town hall, nor several state museums and historical societies, seem to know the whereabouts of the cup.

August 11, 1911 marked the completion of an important public work that provided an unbroken highway over which automobiles could easily travel. But, by 1947 the narrow structure carried a daily average of 6,500 cars and trucks and the bridge was opened some 1500 times causing both road and river backups.

Once again, Old Saybrook and Old Lyme legislators proposed a new bridge. Local stories suggest that Gov. Raymond Baldwin bought into the idea after it was proposed to name it after him. True or not, Baldwin is the only person in Connecticut history to serve as Governor, U.S. Senator and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. It was not a bad choice.

The name remained when, once again, in 1994, similar over-capacity problems led to the construction of a third bridge.

Editor’s Note: This Aug. 24 the Old Saybrook Historical Society is hosting a Centennial celebration of the dedication of the bridge by sponsoring an antique automobile parade following the route of the earlier motorists and ending at an antique automobile show and luncheon at Saybrook Point. Those interested in participating in the parade or obtaining reservations for the luncheon should contact the Historical Society at 860-388-2622 or visit their website: saybrookhistory.org

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