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Bulkeley Bridge

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Bulkeley Bridge

Overview In 1903 the State of Connecticut began construction on the Bulkeley Bridge to connect Hartford to East Hartford across the Connecticut River. It was named after a former Mayor of Hartford and Senator at the time of its construction Morgan G. Bulkeley. The bridge was proposed to replace a two-lane covered toll bridge that opened in 1818. The 974-foot span carried horse traffic, and in 1890 trolley lines were added, connecting Hartford to East Hartford and Glastonbury. On May 17, 1895, the bridge was destroyed in a raging fire. The legislature looked for a way to replace the old wooden bridge with a more permanent and iconic bridge that would hold up to the elements, honor Connecticut’s heritage, and perhaps most importantly keep Connecticut hiring instate. The costs of construction are estimated at roughly $3 million for the State of Connecticut which adjusted for inflation is the most expensive bridge project in Connecticut history. The bridge opened on Oct. 6, 1908. Its nine spans were 1192 feet long in total. [1] The bridge is currently listed on the United States National Register of Historic places as a heritage site.

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One of the most prominent architects who worked to plan the site was Edmund Wheelwright who was the city architect for Boston, Massachusetts. Amongst his famous works are the Boston Public Library, the Longfellow Bridge in Boston, the Massachusetts Historical Society Building, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. He was a fellow of the American Institute for Architects and served on its board sporadically from 1892-1900.

After researching some Ancient European examples the architects and engineer decided that uncomplicated geometry and restrained architectural detailing that the simple design of arched stone bridges contained would create the proper sense of strength, beauty and dignity. (2) The Bridge is the largest stone arch bridge in the world, as soon after the Bridge’s completion concrete and steel became the standard for bridge construction. Not only was it the last of its kind, but also in many ways the Bulkeley Bridge was one of the greatest. Five of its spans are longer than any of the other stone arches in the state. It consisted of 100,000 cubic yards of grey and pink granite from Connecticut’s own quarries; the tolerances for the stone-cutting were exactingly close at less than 3/8" over the whole face of a 10-ton block. [2] This stone was cut by the Stonecutters in the Norcross Bros. Quarry whom were the most skilled and highest paid of all the laborers.

Beyond merely constructing the bridge for traffic purposes, the architects had a vision which included a complete redesign of the entire riverfront property. The government decided to tear down several run down housing projects to give a more open and serene view of the river. When the bridge finally opened in 1908 it was marked with a three-day celebration of parades, speeches, and fireworks, reportedly attended by 250,000 people.

Changes since completion

Until 1942, the Bulkeley was the only motor vehicle bridge across the Connecticut River between Warehouse Point and Middletown, and handled a lot of cross-state traffic: US 5, US 6, and US 44; and earlier routes 17 and 101. This created congestion problems for the emerging motor vehicle demand that was booming around the time of its completion.

Congestion on city streets and the Bulkeley Bridge led the state to build an expressway bypass route and a new crossing, the Charter Oak Bridge to the south. The traffic relief on the Bulkeley was short lived, but much more significant changes were to come. In 1964, the bridge was widened to eight lanes, but this was to the disappointment of some transiters who had hoped that the bridge would be expanded to twelve lanes, but the bridge structure simply could not handle that many lanes.

Very little of the Bulkeley's artistic value can be appreciated from the lanes on Interstate 84. So other agencies and helpers have initiated efforts to provide parks and trails which are being built on both sides of the Connecticut River with the hope of offering great views of the bridges.



The stone for the bridge itself was provided by the quarries at Leete’s Island between 1904 and 1908. The bridge consists of nine semi-elliptical spans set on piers supported by concrete filled wooden Caissons sunk up to 50 feet below the river. The base of each pier is finished in rough-faced, gray ashlar from Beattie’s Quarries, and the arches, piers, and railing constructed by Stony Creek pink granite, supplied by Norcross Brothers. (5)


Immediately as construction began there were problems with the “sandhogs” hired to dig the foundations for the bridge itself. This work often fell to African American workers who were exempt from Unions and who held the lowest forms of labor in American society. In addition to African Americans a hodgepodge of immigrants and unskilled workers operated in caisson chambers built so that workers could adapt to the different air pressure when traveling under water to dig. Iron pipes carried forced air from engines on shore, along the bridge's footpath to the caissons.  The work took place around the clock on 8-hour shifts, but even the strongest sand hog could only work a few hours at a time under the river.  Considering the difficulty of the work, sand hogs were only paid $2.50 a day. Despite the grueling conditions and the low wages the contractors McMullen, Weand and McDermott, who were in control of the site still withheld and delayed pay to the laborers. After their payment was delayed for a second week the laborers began to strike. This matter was quickly resolved when striking workers threatened to cut off the air supply to the scabs working on the bridge that crossed the picket line. The threats were quickly dealt with and the strikers got their money the next day. (4)

Government’s Role

Naturally as a government project the bridge was built from tax revenues, and was an effort to improve the infrastructure of the Hartford area. With the emergence of automobiles as a consumer item, bridges were needed so cars could cross the Connecticut River to move freely between Hartford and East Hartford. The State of Connecticut awarded contracts to all different sub-contractors to complete the job. Upon completion the bridge remained the property of the State of Connecticut, and it is responsible for all maintenance that the bridge requires.

News Articles

1)      http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50E13F73F5A12738DDDA10A94D8415B878CF1D3


[1] http://www.kurumi.com/roads/ct/br-bulkeley.html

[2] http://www.past-inc.org/historic-bridges/stone-bulkeley-right.html

[3] http://www.ctmuseumquest.com/?page_id=6464

[4] http://homefront.homestead.com/sandhogs.html

[5] Deborah DeFord - Stony Creek Granite Workers Celebration/Leete's Island Books - 2000

Last Updated on Saturday, 06 November 2010 17:12  


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Flesh and Stone

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