Connecticut

The Glory Days of the Berlin Turnpike

In the early 1950s, the king of Connecticut's roads was the Berlin Turnpike, lined with colorful kitschy roadside architecture. It was the main route from Hartford toward New Haven between 1942 and 1965.

The Berlin Turnpike also ranked as one of the great neon strips of the Northeast, featuring 20 traffic signals and at least 200 businesses. It had diners, dairy bars, hot dog stands, motels, drinking places, bowling alleys, dance halls, petting zoos and 32 gas stations.

People called it ‘Gasoline Alley.’

berlin turnpike little village

A typical Berlin Turnpike motel. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library postcard collection.

The road began as a turnpike in October 1798, when the Hartford and New Haven Turnpike Company formed. Then opened the next year, it was one of the first turnpikes to be built on as straight a line as feasible instead of on roads that already existed.

The state paved the turnpike in 1909 after bicyclists and automobile enthusiasts lobbied for better roads. In 1920 it was then upgraded as part of a continuous paved road between the borders of New York and Massachusetts. The Hartford Courant emphasized the benefit to fans of Harvard-Yale football: “Berlin Turnpike Officially Open, Splendid Stretch of Concrete Ready for Football Crowd,” read the headline. In 1942, the state added two lanes to the turnpike.

Makris Diner. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library postcard collection.

Makris Diner. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library postcard collection.

The Berlin Turnpike, A Model Road

During the 1950s, 40,000 people a day traveled between Hartford and Meriden.

''When it was going full blast, it was a model of what was happening on highways everywhere in the country,'' George (Larry) Larned, a State Transporation Department historian, told the New York Times in 1987. ''It was bumper to bumper.''

Freda Farms dairy bar. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Freda Farms dairy bar. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

On Oct. 27, 1965, Interstate 91 opened a few miles to the east. Traffic on the Berlin Turnpike dropped 75 percent.

The Wonder Bar. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library poscard collection.

The Wonder Bar. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library postcard collection.

Business dried up. Motels that once catered to middle-class tourists became hot-sheet shops. The Wonder Bar mysteriously burned down.

Olympia Diner postcard

Olympia Diner postcard

By the 1970s, Gasoline Alley had turned into Death Valley or Torch Alley.

The turnpike since bounced back, now featuring big box stores amid the relics of its past glories like the Olympia Diner.

Hartford Courant writer Dennis Barone argued the Berlin Turnpike deserves designation as an official scenic road.

The Berlin Turnpike (1942) is our Via Sacra, and the Olympia Diner (1952) is our Triumphal Arch. Whereas covered bridges evoke the horrors of so many headless horsemen, eyes light up with fond memory or present-day joy at so much as a mention of the Pike.

This story was updated in 2018.

 

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Carol MacDonald

    Carol MacDonald

    October 12, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    So cool. What a shame it’s gone.

  2. J Anthony McDonald

    J Anthony McDonald

    October 12, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    From one McDonald to a MacDonald, I agree… those were the days!!!

  3. Bill Revill

    Bill Revill

    October 12, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Some of these remain … and are still open for business.

  4. Kathleen Ryan

    Kathleen Ryan

    October 12, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Just drove the length of it yesterday and commented to my husband about the number of motels. Now I know why! It has indeed bounced back, big box stores and chain restaurants mostly getting the credit. But there are some great state and regional retailers and restaurants represented here as well.

  5. Kristie Rubendunst

    Kristie Rubendunst

    October 12, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    In days of yore, the Berlin Turnpike was always one of my favorite drives! A victim of the interstates and changing times…

  6. Larry Cultrera

    Larry Cultrera

    October 13, 2014 at 7:29 am

    my favorite of all my photos, my first successful time exposure… the fantastic Olympia Diner in Newington, CT from 1981

  7. Marisol Mendez

    Marisol Mendez

    October 14, 2014 at 8:23 am

    I pass almost every other week thru there also you can see the castle in the top of the mountain! Beautiful!

  8. Regina Hines

    Regina Hines

    October 14, 2014 at 8:56 am

    my folks use to drive it all the time

  9. Sebastian Giuliano

    Sebastian Giuliano

    October 14, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    This isn’t on the Berlin Turnpike – it’s on the Silas Deane Highway (Rte. 99).

  10. Julie Spinelli

    Julie Spinelli

    October 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Brings back so many wonderful memories.

  11. Debbie Miller

    October 15, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Remember Gems Department Store, Two Guys, E.M.Lowes & Pike Drive-Ins? Emerson Zoo, Mortensen Dairy (with the cows on top of the building), just to name a few!

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  14. Cathy

    November 2, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Who remembers the College Inn on the Berlin Tpke? Same side as McDonalds and near the western shop…in the back.

  15. Joyce

    February 3, 2018 at 1:04 am

    Omg yes! I remember the College Inn. My friends and I used to go there every weekend! So glad someone else remembers it besides me! Had so much fun there and the “black light” was so awesome at that time! Great memories!

  16. Joyce

    February 3, 2018 at 1:08 am

    I remember, as a kid, going to Maine traveling on the Berlin Turnpike ever August. We would always make a stop at Lofts Candy along the way.

  17. Kevin

    March 18, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    I grew up on the Berlin Turnpike. Worked at the Hawthorne Inn all through High School. What a great restaurant and great memories. Chef Tony Salerno and the Grelak\family were good to work for. The waitresses worked there a lifetime. Remember Lums and Mr. Steak and Bonanza Steakhouse? The Salsbury Diner, Kinney Shoes, Datsons, the Ideal Motel, KFC, Robert Hall Clothier, etc..

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