9 Stone Bridges

Alert  — and history-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther writes:

It’s hard for us to imagine today the difficult problem that rivers, streams and brooks posed for Westport’s early settlers and travelers.

At first, traversing even small tributaries required getting wet. Later, rudimentary crossings were built so that carriages and wagons could manage the steep approaches, rocky bottoms, and wetland mud without tipping over, snapping axles, or becoming mired.

These overpasses became more problematic in the early 20th century, when the automobile came into fashion. Smoother transitions across Westport’s many brooks — most notably Willow, Muddy and Deadman’s — were needed.

Which brings us to Westport’s early stone bridges.

Around 1920, a series of 19 Craftsman-style stone bridges were built throughout town. Nearly a century later, 9 remain.

That’s a remarkable number considering they’ve seen nearly 100 years of use. They’ve survived hurricanes and “100-year storms,” and endured the collisions of decades of distracted drivers.

One of Westport’s 9 stone bridges, this carries Greens Farms Road traffic over Muddy Brook (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Today we pass over these bridges daily. Yet few of us notice their rustic presence. Their stone walls (“parapets,” in bridge lingo) were designed to convey the sense of a park-like setting — an aesthetic popular at the time.

Most blend seamlessly into the roadside landscape, often appearing to be mere continuations of Westport’s many fieldstone walls. They are simple, folkloric, and historically important.

And they are at risk.

The Cross Highway bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

One of them in particular — on Kings Highway North — has a target on its back.  The town has hired a firm to design its replacement.

This concerns me and my fellow Westport Preservation Alliance colleagues Morley Boyd and Helen Garten. We are pushing back against the replacement plan favored by the town’s Public Works Department.

We’ve also made a pitch to the town to collectively nominate all 9 bridges for listing on the National Register.

While we would love to see all 9 bridges thematically nominated, we’re especially worried about the Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook.

It matches the style of the other 8 bridges. More importantly, we believe it may have been built atop even older stone abutments. It’s possible that its enormous foundation stones may date back to the original King’s Highway, built in 1673 to carry mail from New York to Boston. Losing this bridge to a modern replacement would be tragic, especially if portions date back to pre-Revolutionary times.

Large stones in the abutments beneath the Kings Highway North Bridge may be remnants of a much earlier bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

We’re also concerned that the other 8 bridges will confront a similar replacement plan “down the road.” That’s why we’ve suggested the town pursue a National Register designation.  This will help protect the bridges — and may also make them eligible for rehabilitation grants.

To become eligible for a National Register listing, the history of these structures would be fully researched. State Historic Preservation Grants are available to conduct this work.

We feel that these very special bridges possess the integrity of location, design, setting, materials and workmanship to qualify for this distinguished honor.

On a more visceral level, the preservation of these bridges will allow us to appreciate the human craftsmanship that went into building them.  By picturing the crew of local men who lifted each stone by hand and mortared them in place, we’ll not just notice these bridges — we will feel them.

Evergreen Avenue (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The locations of 4 of the 9 bridges have been identified above.  Do “06880” readers know where the other 5 are? See if you can find them as you drive around town (or, for the expats, as you travel down Memory Lane).

Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 9, 7 p.m., Town Hall Room 309), our request that the Town pursue a National Register listing for these nine early 20th Century bridges will be heard by Westport’s Historic District Commission at its public hearing.

We hope they are willing to cross that bridge when they come to it.

23 responses to “9 Stone Bridges

  1. Dan, Thanks very much for the alert about this. I’ll be at the meeting Tuesday night to lend support.

  2. With all you know, and all you notice, Wendy Crowther, you’ve never stopped amazing me. Nicely written too.

  3. Valerie Seiling Jacobs, Co-Chair Save Westport Now

    Dan: Thanks for running this. And a big thanks to Wendy, Morley, Helen and all the other people who work so hard to preserve our history and town character.

  4. Martha Constable

    Thank you for this article, and for this important effort!
    As a resident of the Evergreen Avenue Historic District, I am grateful that our bridge was specifically included as one of the historic structures in our district when it was created in 2008. I recall that Public Works was not pleased with that designation at the time, and spoke out against it. Fortunately, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff sided with the neighbors, and the bridge remained on the list.

  5. When we were told to leave our home on lower Lyons Plain in the Oct 1955 Flood, my wife and I, with our 3 month old son and pet dog, drove across North Avenue and as we crossed the Coley Town Road bridge it collapsed under our rear tires. My legs were like jelly as the adrenaline rush left. The replaced bridge should be dedicated as “The Paul Newman Bridge” (who lived only yards from there) and who did so much charitable work for Westport and neighboring Weston.

  6. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    I love every one of the bridges mentioned in the article and more. I sincerely hope they can achieve Historic Preservation Status. Mr. Hyman, I was a teenager in 1955 and remember the hurricane and flood. I have lots of newspaper articles that my family saved. I’ll have to look to see if there is a picture or article that mentions the Coley Town Road Bridge. Thanks Dan for bringing this to our attention and many thanks to Morley, Helen and Wendy for their tireless preservation work. A P.S. that has nothing to do with the bridges. When I signed on the internet this morning I was greeted with an article about the “Winter Freeze.” I kept staring at the picture with the article. It really looked like Compo. I finally looked at the fine print. Copy wright Spencer Platt/Getty Images: “A snow and ice covered beach in ( you guessed it) Westport, CT” I did want to correct them and say: ” That’s Conn. not CT.”

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    As a Westport ex-pat, it’s comforting to see that regardless of the circumstances, there are many residents seeking to safeguard the town’s charm as evidenced by structures such as the bridges.

  8. Many people look to vacation in Europe and other parts of the world spending their hard earned time off from work admiring the places that have managed to preserve the historical details of their towns and surrounding natural landscape. Europe has become the go-to place to visit quaint villages to explore the historical details that we’ve come to admire & treasure. Those special places become destinations for our relief from our day to day battles with living our lives. When I came to live in Westport 20 years ago I felt like I had moved to one of those places and I couldn’t get over feeling like I was permanently on vacation. Everywhere I drove was picturesque. Getting off the train on my daily commute I was tickled to drive the bridge with twinkling colored lights in the winter holiday months. (I would have been glad to wait my turn it was magical.) When the UN flags fly on the Post road bridge it makes me proud to be in Westport. As I drive around the surrounding lanes, and quaint streets past historic homes and stone bridges I feel like I no longer need to travel to exotic places I live it every day. Last summer we drove up 95 to visit the “destination” towns that have come to treasure their town’s historical details like those in Europe that have become important to preserve. I understand the pressure to keep things safe and relieve the problems of traversing our roads but do you really want to give up why you moved here?
    Why did you move to Westport?

  9. Don L. Bergmann

    Wendy Crowther’s writing is almost as beautiful as the bridges she, Morley Boyd, Helen Garten and so many others are working to preserve. We all need to follow up with the next step, the Historic District Commission meeting on Tuesday. 7:00 p.m., Room 309 in Town Hall. If you cannot attend send an e mail to HDC Chair Randy Henkels or HDC Administrator Carol Leahy. I will be writing because of recent eye surgery that prevents me from driving at night.
    Don Bergmann

  10. I strongly support the nomination of Westport’s historic stone bridges in Westport for inclusion on the National Register. These bridges collectively and meaningfully contribute to the unique character of Westport.

    One of the largest and seemingly best preserved stone bridges in Westport is located in my district at the intersection of Center Street and Greens Farms Road. The bridge, which spans Muddy Brook, is built on a curve so it’s actually quite unusual. It is also a gateway to one of the most scenic views in Westport which is Nyala Farms which includes pastures, stone walls, stone barn and matching stone well house.

  11. Mark Bachmann

    Fascinating and useful article, Wendy. Thank you!

  12. Werner Liepolt

    The stonework on the bridges as well as that on the walls, gates, and stairs which tie together older neighborhoods is irreplaceable and goes far to define the tenor of our town. Much of it is a direct conduit to the past that masons like those of the Mills family created. Thanks for this thoughtful and farsighted initiative.

  13. Jack Whittle

    These beautiful stone bridges quietly contribute to the quaint, New England town character that many find so very attractive about Westport, and Westport’s Plan of Conservation and Development calls upon us to preserve. I applaud and support the efforts of Wendy Crowther, Morley Boyd and Helen Garten to pursue listing them on the Historic Register, and otherwise save these bridges from removal or insensitive rehabilitation.

  14. The stone bridge on Center Street, close to W. Parish was beautiful. I use to walk visitors there it was that picturesque. They replaced it with a now rusted out ugly bridge. It seemed like it happened over night. Not even the Greens Farms Association stopped it.
    Please don’t let this happen to other stone bridges in Westport.

  15. We are so lucky to have these wonderful stone bridges. They are historic reminders of simpler times as well as the visually beauty and unique characteristics they each possess.

  16. Nancy Hunter

    Playing in the worn down stone walls along Sturges has always been my favorite memory. Glad to know the stone bridges are still in tack.

  17. Lisa Podurgiel

    I unequivocally support the efforts of Wendy Crowther, Morley Boyd and Helen Garten in the preservation of these quaint and unique stone bridges, which grace our roads with their understated beauty. Further, I would advocate for more of our tax dollars being allocated towards restoring and maintaining our town’s historic resources. Sadly, shamefully, it seems more and more are forever lost to us and future generations as the years go by.

  18. Pam Barkentin

    Willow Brook runs through my property on Richmondville Avenue. The culvert was “improved” a few years ago to prevent the horrendous flooding we always had. Previously there had been no parapets but they would be built as part of the project. As per my request, the town built Craftsman style stonework to stay in tune with the style of the neighborhood’s 1920’’s architecture.

  19. Jacques Voris

    I have been thinking about this all day. One the one hand I tend to align with the preservationist efforts to maintain the older structures in town. First, because many of them have personal connections to myself and my family. Second, and more generally, it is these structures that are part of the what makes Westport unique. Any town can have a concrete slab of a bridge built, but bridges like this are artistic and practical. Thirdly, a melding of the first two, these bridges were built by local people, members of our community, craftsmen learning the trade at their elders knee. Fathers and sons, brother, uncles, and cousin would often be on the same crew. That is something I like to see preserved, that sense of the community.

    But I am a pragmatic person, bridges need to be maintained, and sometimes replaced. A century ago many people still drove a team of horses pulling a wagon instead of a motor car. But time has gone on, and more cars have come, heavier vehicles too. I presume that the town wishes to replace these bridges because they can no longer safely carry the load of modern life. I also presume they wish to replace them because it would be cheaper and faster to replace them verses updating the existing bridges.

    But my preservationist sentiments run strong. If we tear them down, cast them aside now, what will we have? The town will lose some of its character, and we won’t be able to get it back. We will become just another place. Yes, updating the bridges will cost more money, but isn’t that an investment in our future? An investment is maintaining the charm of the town that has brought so many people here over the years, both as residents and guests. I think it should be our first instinct to see if we can achieve the goals we have today and still maintain what we have had before. Update, not replace when possible.

  20. People move to, live in, and keep Westport in our hearts in large part because of the sense of timelessness that can be found in the town’s historic homes, its meandering roads, and it’s beautiful stone bridges. If these things aren’t protected, everybody loses.

    Elyse Evers Kingery, Staples ’74.

  21. I drive by one of these stone bridges often on Lyons Plain Rd. I assume it was replaced when the road was diverted at some point, with the nondescript and uninspired bridge that we drive over today. While no longer used, it’s nice to see it still around, as surreal as it may be sitting in the middle of the woods.

    That being said, I am concerned about safety as well… while on a very different scale, my mother drove across the Mianus River bridge in 1983, the night before it collapsed. How safe are these 100+ year old bridges? How much weight can they take? I’m not a structural engineer and don’t have the answers, but it’s something we should know the facts on. Also, what would they replace it with? Something like the one on Lyons Plain, ugly and plain?
    The ideal solution would of course be to preserve the stone bridges, but also ensure that they are safe for cars to drive over. Is it possible to have both safety, and a beautiful appearance?

  22. On my kitchen cabinet in New Mexico hangs a picture of the old stone bridge over the Aspetuck River on Lyons Plain Rd. My childrens’ family portraits were taken there and I gazed at it every time I left or came home. The beauty and serenity found in that glance has grounded me and given me a sense of peace for years.

  23. The beautiful stone bridges are a poetic reminder to us that we can preserve what makes the town rich beyond the hedge funds, fund raisers, and our usual ostentatious display of wealth. After visiting lovely vintage and antique homes during the holiday tour, it was clear that we walk the roads of history and need to observe and breathe in what makes us feel proud of the town … and keep it as a tradition. The stone bridges should be essential to life in Westport and Fairfield county.