Building the Gold Star bridge was no ordinary construction project

Piers for the new bridge cut a swath through the East New London neighborhood in 1941, after dozens of homes were demolished. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
Piers for the new bridge cut a swath through the East New London neighborhood in 1941, after dozens of homes were demolished. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)

Editor's note: This story was drawn from the archives of The Day.

 

What it took to get Anna Ruppert and her car across the Thames River involved a lot more than gasoline and tires.

Seventy-five years ago Tuesday, on Feb. 27, 1943, Ruppert paid a 15-cent toll and became the first ordinary driver to cross what we now call the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.

Her mile-long trip over fresh pavement was uneventful. But what went into making it happen was anything but routine.

It involved nightmarish traffic jams and years of wrangling in the state legislature. It took, by one estimate, enough construction material to fill 21 miles’ worth of railroad cars.

It included careful negotiating with a federal bureaucracy fighting a world war, and a last-minute crisis over how to pay the $6 million price tag.

More than a hundred families in the path of progress lost their homes. Five construction workers lost their lives.

Here’s how it happened.

Traffic hell

One day in 1937, as the old Thames River bridge slowly swung open for a vessel to pass, Benjamin Hewitt decided that, rather than sit in his car and wait, he would count the vehicles lined up ahead of him.

He tallied 198 cars, 19 trucks and five buses, which had collected in just five minutes. Such tie-ups were increasingly common, and calls were mounting for a new bridge high enough for boats to pass beneath it.

The old bridge, which switched from railroad to highway traffic in 1919, was easier to use than the ferry it replaced, but drivers had to thread their way through downtown New London to get to it.

In the early 1930s, when the Coast Guard Academy was built and Electric Boat started making submarines, the traffic jams became epic. The two-lane bridge opened any time a vessel appeared, and delays lasted as long as 20 minutes.

After several false starts, the legislature got serious about discussing a replacement in 1939. When lawmakers came to see the situation firsthand, they became believers.

As they watched from Thames Street in Groton, the USS Falcon, a Navy surface ship, headed upriver and the bridge opened. Every street in sight quickly filled with idling cars.

Not long afterward, a law easily passed that created a five-member commission and directed it to build a new bridge.

The commission oversaw a year and a half of planning, design, traffic surveys, public hearings, test borings, bond issues and contracts. By early 1941, construction was set to begin.

Eminent domain

Sixty people filed into Shiloh Baptist Church to hear of a desperate situation.

Decades before Kelo v. New London, the city was enduring its second major round of eminent domain in three years, the first being the Ocean Beach Park project.

Homes in the way of the bridge were doomed as the state bought or condemned more than 100 properties. There was little protest beyond the occasional quibble over monetary awards.

But for six families, the situation was dire. The crowd at Shiloh learned their neighbors faced immediate eviction and had nowhere to go. The city’s fair rent committee, including the Rev. A.A. Garvin, Shiloh’s pastor, had stepped in to help.

No solution was obvious as the city faced a wartime housing shortage. People were staying in attics and cellars; military men and defense workers had to live apart from their families.

Garvin said a search was underway for an empty building that might house the families temporarily. What became of them isn’t known. No further reports appeared in The Day.

Construction disaster

Piers to hold up the bridge, huge frames of concrete and steel, soon were rising from the ruins of East New London, where dozens of buildings had been leveled. Areas once lined with homes were now empty save for steps from the sidewalk leading to front porches no longer there.

Most of the 30 piers were on land, but the five in the river posed a greater construction challenge. They had to go through 40 feet of water and 125 feet of mud to reach rock bottom.

Cofferdams, four-sided metal enclosures, were sunk, sealed and pumped out so construction could proceed underwater.

On Aug. 12, 1941, George Hendricks, 32, reported for his first day of work and was assigned to the cofferdam at Pier 26. After lunch, he was 18 feet down when a tugboat passed overhead.

The wake from the tug reached the cofferdam, which collapsed so suddenly, “it was like a gun going off,” an official said.

Amid crashing timbers and steel beams, nine of the 10 men inside swam to the surface, seven of them with injuries. Then the wreckage caught fire, nearly trapping a dozen others.

Divers searched for Hendricks, but his body didn’t surface for four days.

The accident may be the source of an urban legend that endures even now: that a worker lies entombed in the bridge’s concrete.

War restrictions

With a crowd watching from Crystal Avenue on Dec. 4, 1941, a 32-ton steel girder was lowered onto Pier 15 as work on the superstructure began.

Acquiring 13,000 tons of steel for the bridge, no small task in ordinary times, was trickier during a war. The federal government controlled the use of critical materials, and state officials had to argue that the bridge was vital to EB and the Naval Submarine Base. The project was granted high priority, ensuring its completion.

As the bridge slowly took shape in 1942, work was marred by the deaths of three men who slipped and fell into the river in separate incidents. Honoring the code of bridge workers, their colleagues did no work the day after each death. The cofferdam accident and an earlier fall put the project’s death toll at five.

The crowning milestone came on Oct. 31, 1942, when the two halves of the truss-and-cantilever span, built out from both banks, joined mid-river.

A month later, the bridge was 99 percent complete, with all materials to finish it already on site. So it was perplexing when the War Production Board suddenly ordered all work to stop.

The board’s thinking was unclear, but it was persuaded to reconsider a week later. Among the reasons was the imminent availability of scrap metal from the old bridge.

Highway approaches

The Groton-New London Bridge, as it initially was called (it didn’t get its current name till 1952 or its southbound twin till 1973), was more than just a span across the river. The project changed the landscape as familiar places like the Old Town Mill were left tucked beneath a towering steel roof.

Because the bridge was so high — 135 feet — long approaches were created.

Hodges Square in New London was reworked to accommodate a cloverleaf of entrances. A pond was filled in. A brook was diverted. Streets changed course or disappeared.

In Groton, part of Route 84 (now 184) was abandoned, and another part became a four-lane highway. An entire hill was taken down and carted away.

In Waterford, a new highway blazed a 5-mile trail from the Niantic River to the bridge. It later became part of Interstate 95.

Toll controversy

With the last rivet in place, two eleventh-hour issues arose, both stemming from the 1939 law that authorized the bridge and changing conditions caused by World War II.

First, tolls had been planned to pay for construction and upkeep. But the idea’s appeal was fading, and local lawmakers introduced bills to lower or abolish the tolls.

Questions also arose about whether the toll schedule, created before gasoline rationing reduced traffic, would produce enough revenue. As legislation flew calling for lower tolls, it turned out they might have to be raised instead.

Second, the war department had stipulated that the old bridge be demolished as soon as the new one opened. Now a consensus developed for keeping it.

If the new bridge were bombed by the enemy, the argument went, the old one could serve as a backup, even though a respectable bombing might easily take out both.

“The tearing down of the old bridge at this stage of the war is like sinking an old battleship just because a new one has been launched,” said state Rep. William C. Fox of New London.

The Day stirred passions with a full-page editorial. In overwrought prose salted with capital letters for emphasis, the paper urged lower tolls and called saving the old bridge a vital necessity for the ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Some saw the old bridge as a toll-free option for defense workers, while the Navy and Coast Guard wanted it left with the draw open for navigation. There was so much confusion that Gov. Raymond Baldwin twice postponed the opening of the new bridge.

At the last minute, the toll was lowered from 25 to 15 cents. A law passed ensuring state funds to cover deficits and mandating the old bridge's demolition unless the military objected (it ultimately did not).

Two days later, on Feb. 27, 1943, the ribbon was cut and Anna Ruppert drove across the river. Behind her was 75 years’ worth of traffic.

j.ruddy@theday.com

On Aug. 12, 1941, a cofferdam, a sealed enclosure allowing underwater construction, collapsed with 10 men inside, killing one of them. The wreckage then caught fire. The arrow at lower right points to a worker swimming to safety. (AP Photo)
On Aug. 12, 1941, a cofferdam, a sealed enclosure allowing underwater construction, collapsed with 10 men inside, killing one of them. The wreckage then caught fire. The arrow at lower right points to a worker swimming to safety. (AP Photo)
The first completed section of the superstructure stretches from Lewis and Winthrop streets, left, to Front Street in New London in early 1942. (Day photo)
The first completed section of the superstructure stretches from Lewis and Winthrop streets, left, to Front Street in New London in early 1942. (Day photo)
Work on the center span of the bridge, over the river channel, is seen in progress in October 1942. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
Work on the center span of the bridge, over the river channel, is seen in progress in October 1942. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
The completed bridge was a mile and an eighth long and 135 feet over the water at its highest point. The toll booth is visible at lower left on the Groton side. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
The completed bridge was a mile and an eighth long and 135 feet over the water at its highest point. The toll booth is visible at lower left on the Groton side. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)

The life and times of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge

1889: First Thames River bridge opens to rail traffic
1919: Bridge converted for automobiles
1927: Legislative push for new bridge starts
1939: New bridge authorized by the legislature
1941: Construction begins
1943: Groton-New London Bridge opens
1951: 20-year “suicide bridge” era begins with first of 17 fatal jumps
1952: Name changed to Gold Star Memorial Bridge
1963: Toll collection ceases
1964: Bridge becomes part of Interstate 95
1967: Suicide fence is erected
1969: Work begins on southbound twin bridge
1972: Safety net snaps masts of Coast Guard barque Eagle
1973: Southbound bridge opens; original closes for rebuilding
1975: Rebuilt original bridge opens
1990: Cement truck topples off bridge, killing driver
1993: Four-year lead paint removal begins
2005: Southbound bridge named for U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II
2017: Multiyear rehabilitation begins

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