Back in January I wrote a blog post that mentioned the Gold Star Memorial Bridge wherein my virtual and real-life pal Princess Patti left me a comment that said she remembered crossing the Thames River on the old bridge. I was a bit perplexed as Patti and I are from the same generation and I just couldn't remember there being another Gold Star Bridge though that was always a good possibility that there was as I didn't grow up in the area due to being an Air Force Brat and spending time in quite a few other parts of the country. Still, her comment stuck with me and I figured it was time to do some research and see what I could find out about the Gold Star Memorial Bridge - a bridge that my mother has always hated driving over for as long as I can remember!
The story of the Gold Star Bridge predates the story of the Connecticut Turnpike (Interstate Route 95/395) which began way back in 1955 ~ even before I was born! It was then that construction began on the turnpike - a six-lane highway, engineered for a design speed of 60 miles per hour, that extended from the New York State border to East Haven. Once past East Haven, the turnpike continued on with four lanes to the Town of Killingly. With some local exceptions and a change from steel guardrails to Jersey barriers on the narrow median in most places, Interstate 95/395 is the same today as it was back when it first opened in 1958 although it is no longer the toll road that it once was following the removal of the eight barrier toll plazas from the turnpike on October 9th, 1985.
Long before work began on the Connecticut Turnpike though, construction had already begun on what would eventually become known as "the free section" of Interstate 95 that ran between Waterford and Stonington. The first section was originally intended as an improvement to US Route 1 and opened in 1943 as a 3.6-mile-long, four-lane stretch between Waterford and Groton. That stretch included the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, a toll bridge over the Thames River between New London and Groton. This was probably the original Gold Star Memorial Bridge that Patti remembered!
In 1963 the tolls were removed from the bridge and in the mid-1970's a parallel span over the Thames River was constructed right next to the original bridge. This may be the "new" bridge that Patti was thinking of! At the same time improvements were made to the original Gold Star Memorial Bridge as well as to the interchanges at the western bridge approach and since then it's pretty much stayed the same. The twin bridges have eleven spans each, which makes the Gold Star the longest bridge in Connecticut, with an average of 117,000 vehicles a day making the crossing over the Thames River.
During my research I was also able to find out that the bridge was designated as the "Gold Star Memorial Bridge" in honor of those members of the Armed Forces of the United States from Groton, New London, and Waterford who lost their lives during World War I, World War II, and the war in Korea. When the bridge was named in 1963, I'm pretty sure no one had thought about what toll the Vietnam War was going to take otherwise I'm sure those service members who lost their lives in that horrific campaign would have been honored also.
Perhaps it's only fitting that on the northern side of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge stands the United States Coast Guard Academy on the New London side and on the Groton side, the Navy's very first Submarine Base as well as The Submarine Force Library & Museum which is the Home of the USS Nautilus - the world's first nuclear powered vessel, first ship to go to the North Pole, and first submarine to journey "20,000 Leagues under the sea." Pretty cool, huh?