SECOND LOOK: Interstate highway spurred Southington's growth

Published on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 22:27
Written by Art Secondo

When Interstate 84 was completed through Southington’s western section 57 years ago, most folks figured it was just another mode of accommodating the new and faster automobiles that were being built.

As the 1950s came to a close, the period of post-war adjustment, there were few who imagined that this long stretch of concrete had been the brainchild of a young soldier in 1919.

When a caravan of Army vehicles experimented by embarking on a cross-country trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, it became quite apparent that America couldn’t depend on its rural road system. It took 62 days to reach California, and one of those participating soldiers was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Slightly less than 30 years later, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was said to be impressed by the Autobahn highway in post-war Germany. This wide stretch of highway would become the design for a new America.

But it wasn’t planned to help Americans get from one place to another faster, but rather for military purposes. When Eisenhower became president, he wanted an Interstate Highway System that could be an evacuation route for citizens in the event of an enemy attack, and for the rapid movement of military equipment across the country.

Thus, in 1953, during the Cold War, the federal government designed a plan that would snake 42,000 miles of highway through the busiest parts of the nation. Three years later Congress approved the Federal Aid Highway Act and paid for 90 percent of the construction, with states paying the remaining funds.

The new Interstate Highway System was specifically designed to accommodate automobiles with limited speed. Officials figured 70 mph would be the top speed. Highway planners didn’t figure on trucks the size of houses and cars that would resemble rockets. That miscalculation could be excused when one recalls the engine strength of a 1956 Chevy compared to a 2018 Mustang.

Yet the biggest problem wasn’t the immediate durability of the road surface, but instead it was interchanges, those curving attachments that we use to get on and get off the Interstates. Only 16,000 were part of the original plan. Those interchanges were a big expense later on, as communities wanted those whizzing cars to stop and shop. Motorists also had to travel miles to get on those Interstates.

Were it not for Eisenhower and the 62-day across-the-country caravan, we might still be driving Route 10 for a trip to New Haven or Hartford. Can you imagine getting to Waterbury by way of Southington Mountain, or visiting Meriden via the old Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike?

The impact of the Interstate highway system energized America and allowed states like ours to literally connect their towns and cities. It allowed the tremendous growth of industry, employment, imaginative retail offerings and commercialization of just about everything. It also drastically changed the way we would live.

The Interstates suburbanized America and allowed for the sprawl of U.S. cities but along with that came congestion, smog and a dependency on the automobile. The use of mass transit declined. Family life would change for better or worse.

The Interstate 40 years ago made a slow but major impact in Southington. It sliced through old rural roads, splitting farmlands and dividing property lots that had stood against the passage of time for decades. And for Southington, it brought the first of many-to-come retail giants - G.E. Madison’s.

Interstate 84 gave Southington an identity. It provided Plantsville with traffic. It connected us with our neighbors.

Yes, Interstate 84 brought with it a curse of speed and death and suburban growth. The Interstates have literally pushed us to live life with a gas pedal.

Locals were excited by the town’s original department store, G.E. Madison’s. Heavy traffic had not yet arrived. Traffic lights were few and far between. Trains went back and forth right behind G.E. Madison’s. Plainville was still 15 minutes to the north. New Haven was a country drive of 20 miles and at least 90 minutes. Hartford seemed further. State police cars were visible only at parades. Directions meant pointing your finger while guessing which way was east or west.

Interstate 84 came to Southington like an old relative who came for a while and stayed forever.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns, Southington Herald on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 22:27. Updated: Wednesday, 31 January 2018 22:29.