Your Turn: Memories of crossing the Thames

This year is the 100th anniversary of the first automobile crossing between Groton and New London (in November 1919). And before that? Before that, the lower Thames could be crossed by boat only: first canoes, then rowboats, scows, sailboats and a variety of ferries.

Settled in the mid-1600s, New London and Groton were originally considered a single town, a pair of Siamese twins, if you will, conjoined by the Thames River, and sharing the best deep water harbor on Long Island Sound.

Together, these sister cities survived the British attack on Sept. 6, 1781, when the Redcoats burned New London and massacred the colonists defending Fort Griswold in Groton. Together, the two cities healed from the war and in the 1800s prospered from the lucrative sealing, whaling and shipbuilding industries. But always, there was the three-quarter-mile expanse of water separating them.

For Europeans touring the United States in the 1800s, this made the railroad trip from Boston to New York a must-do adventure destination, since there were no bridges over either the lower Thames or the mouth of the Connecticut River. When the westbound train from Boston reached Groton, its engine was uncoupled and the passenger cars were rolled onto a ferry that steamed across to New London.

There, they were hitched to a new engine that pulled them to the Connecticut River where the whole process was repeated.

Charles Dickens, the author of “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol,” described his hair-raising journey across the Thames in 1868: “The steamer rises and falls with the river ... (and) the brain is banged uphill or banged downhill ... At one of these crossings yesterday, we were banged up to such a height that the rope broke and the carriage rushed back downhill to the boat again.”

Frightening stuff.

As kids in Groton, we considered it an adventure to cross the Thames by boat. When my best friend Joan Newbury and I were in middle school, we paddled a canoe from Baker’s Cove, around Jupiter Point, Avery Point, and Eastern Point, and then upriver to visit the Coast Guard Barque The Eagle.

At the mouth of the Thames, a Coast Guard cutter came alongside our canoe and tried turning us back. (“Two girls in a canoe? Not safe”).

We laughed. We knew Joan’s cousins Karen and Carl had rowed from New London to Groton to visit their Grandmother Newbury on Thames Street just a few years before — and they were only 5 and 6 years old at the time!

The first bridge across the lower Thames was built in 1889. It was a railroad swing bridge, only 20 to 30 feet above the water, with a mid-section that rotated to one side to allow tall ships to pass up or down river. When a larger railroad bridge was built in 1919, the swing bridge was converted to a two-lane roadway, becoming part of coastal Route 1.

For the first time, cars, buggies and trucks could drive between downtown Groton and New London.

I vividly remember waiting at the swing bridge while a boat passed through. I was only a toddler, and I sat, hot and squished between my parents in the front seat of our old Pontiac. (No, child seats hadn’t been invented yet).

In the back seat my older brothers were jumping about in excitement as they saw a yacht approaching the open passage: “Oh look, there it is, two masts. Oh, look at the sails.” I stretched as tall as I could and craned my neck, but I was too small to see the boat. My head didn’t even reach my parents’ shoulders, and the Pontiac dashboard was too high. But then I saw the tip of the mast as the yacht passed. Success! The bridge then closed, and we continued on to New London.

This two-lane bridge soon became inadequate for the increasing traffic. In 1943, it was replaced by a soaring, four-lane steel tress span, towering 155 feet above the river. Crossing that high metal thread of steel and concrete spooked anyone with a fear of heights, including my father and me.

It even changed our language. Instead of saying “we’re driving to New London,” we now said we were “going over-town,” an oblique reference to the bridge’s height.

As children, we’d heard gory stories of accidents during the building of the bridge. (Our father was on the bridge commission at that time, so we heard it all). The worst was the tale of man who had fallen into the wet cement of the bridge footing and was entombed there for eternity.

And then there were the suicides and the unexplained high incidence of heart attacks among ticket takers. Somehow, that bridge just seemed jinxed.

So, when I was 10, I got up my courage to walk the Gold Star Memorial. It saved a penny in bus fare, but mostly I needed to challenge my fear of the span. From the start, the sidewalk trembled as each car rumbled by, and it got much worse as I approached mid-span. I didn’t dare touch the railing or the cement shoulder, for fear they would crumble away and dump me into the water below.

But I survived, and my fear of the bridge was largely cured.

In 1973, a second, twin span was built, more than doubling the bridge’s capacity and making the Gold Star Memorial Bridge the largest structure in the state of Connecticut.

The building of the bridge and Route 95 did have some unintended consequences. In Groton, the Thames Street area had been the center of town since colonial days, but it now is quiet. Gone are Costa’s Fish Market and all the other stores that had surrounded the old bridge and ferry landing.

In New London, Route 95 cut the downtown off from the northern third of the city including Riverside Park, the Coast Guard Academy and Connecticut College.

On the Groton side of the bridge, there is currently an effort to save the Mother Bailey House on Thames Street, an important colonial landmark. In New London, the city hopes to reclaim and restore Riverside Park to its former glory. Change may be inevitable, but it’s also important to honor the past.

Me and the bridge? We’re old friends now.

Your Turn is a chance for Times readers to submit stories and commentary. To submit, email times@theday.com.

Editor's Note: This corrects the date of the construction of the Gold Star Memorial bridge's second span.

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