The story behind Greenwich’s long and windy roads
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) — Any driver who has spent time on the back roads of Greenwich must surely have had a moment, somewhere along an S-curve marked with a 15-m.p.h. speed limit sign, wondering: What were they thinking when they built this?
Blind spots, sharp descents, narrow lanes framed by stone walls — these are the road-design features all over Greenwich, from an era when men and machines moved at the pace of a dairy herd, that torment 21st century drivers today.
While Greenwich is hardly unique in its antique road design, anyone who has ever driven down Cat Rock Road in Cos Cob and others like it — windy and highly unpredictable — might make the claim that Greenwich has the crookedest back roads in New England.
It’s hard to determine with certainty how the unusual road patterns emerged. The usual explanation is that older roads originated from Native American settlement patterns and pathways, though that may be more myth than reality, said a researcher of the early maps and documents of Greenwich.
“It’s not really known or documented whether they began as a deer path, then became an Indian path, and then the template for a road,” said Missy Wolfe, author of “Hidden History of Colonial Greenwich.”
Wolfe, who has been transcribing and digitizing old Greenwich documents for scholars and history-lovers, said the earliest roads were often used to move sheep and cattle around, and those roads are still in existence today.
The route up Sheep Hill Road to Palmer Hill Road, then crossing the Mianus River, and down Valley Road to Mill Pond at Cos Cob was used for livestock, Wolfe said. “Those roads exist today,” she said. Another network of roads was built for Greenwich farmers to take their grain to a mill in Stamford.
The serendipitous nature of the local roads also originated from the lottery of land grants, Wolfe said. “Every year, they would specify a huge section of land and distribute it by lottery. And then you would get your piece of land — but there was no roads to service the land you got. You’d get the land first, and the road came later,” said Wolfe, who has spent long hours researching old town records. “They would cut new roads into the wilderness, and usually they referenced someone’s home where the road was near.”
Among the earliest roads in Greenwich was Stanwich Road, Wolfe said. It connected the more heavily settled section of town along the coast to a new settlement at Stanwich, developed in 1730. It is typically narrow and windy in parts.
Representative Town Meeting member Peter Berg said he often hears complaints about the crazy roads from newcomers. One story that encapsulates the challenging nature of local driving conditions was a road-rage incident a few years back, Berg recalled, that led to a hostile encounter among two drivers after a head-on collision. “The same two guys had a head-on collision in the same spot, several weeks earlier, driving their other family vehicles,” Berg said. “True story.”
Local drivers know to take their time on Cat Rock and Cognewaugh, another road that feels like it was airlifted from the Italian Alps into the rocky knolls of midcountry Greenwich, especially when school buses are on it. But Berg said even the locals have their anxious moments. “Those curves are so sharp, if there’s a school bus coming the other way, you have to back up to let that school bus through,” said he said. “You can’t see another car coming the other way until you’re well into one of these curves. And when these guys in those trucks are delivering swimming-pool water — they’re cowboys — that’s scary.”
Another factor in the odd design of back roads was the decline and sale of old estates in the 1920s and ’30s, at a time when Greenwich was becoming an automobile-centered suburb. Many old estates in the north end of town were developed as residential subdivisions, and new roads were built to access them, eventually becoming public thoroughfares. Willard Devaul, a civil engineer who worked on the road network in the 1920s and ’30s, said that the subdivisions were designed to put the new home sites on higher terrain. The goal of the engineers was to work out a design that served the needs of selling real estate at premium prices, not to make an efficient transportation system.
“Putting roads through a subdivision is trying to put the roads through the poorer part, and lower part (of the former estate), and then keeping the house sites up high,” Devaul said in a 1972 interview he conducted with the Oral History Project at Greenwich Library.
Devaul added that “in those days, they didn’t have the power drills and things like that,” so road-builders in the 1920s and ’30s often avoided hills and rock formations, creating odd turns.
Another transportation oddity that has perplexed generations of commuters is the unusual curve on the Merritt Parkway through Greenwich, defying the otherwise straight path that runs parallel to Route 1 to the south. Blame it on a wealthy industrialist, Henry Croft, who died in 1947. He refused to have his estate along Clapboard Ridge Road and Grahampton Lane disturbed by the parkway, completed in 1938, and he and other politically connected backcountry residents — called “blockers” at the time — successfully pushed the parkway to the north of them, creating a bulge that persists to this day.
The back roads of Greenwich carry their share of dangers. North Street was listed as among the most unsafe roads in Greenwich by the University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Crash Data Repository in 2018. The roadway saw 40 collisions that year. Lake Avenue was the scene of 24 crashes.
As those numbers attest, Connecticut’s back roads have been cited as among the most dangerous in the country. A safety study in 2015 found that although the country roads convey only about 10 percent of all vehicle traffic in Connecticut, the winding roads between towns accounted for more than 40 percent of all traffic fatalities in the state. The study, by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group that advocates for highway safety, cited the narrow lanes, sharp curves, non-existent shoulders, steep slopes, poor alignment and out-dated design as persistent dangers on back country roads.
The old roads can be lovely and dangerous at the same time. Relics from the Model-T era of suburbanization and road design, the byways tell their own unique stories in concrete and asphalt.
A historian of Connecticut highways and roads, Scott Oglesby, a self-described “road geek,” has written extensively about transportation history in the state and finds it perpetually fascinating . As he once observed, “Connecticut roads seem to have a lot of history crammed into a small area. ... I like how roads tie everything together geographically. They help unite us through many different topics. If you’re interested in history, politics, engineering, photography, traveling — interesting roads overlap all those.”
Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com