Business and Labor

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 2020.

 

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