West Rock Park Baldwin Drive

January 29, 2021

West Rock’s Baldwin Drive is nothing more than a glorified trail over and through the far reaches of the park. Used mostly for hiking and mountain biking, it is an unmaintained paved road that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. Baldwin Drive was originally designed as one of the most scenic parkways on the East Coast, intended to be a grand entrance to the city of New Haven from the Merritt Parkway.

Baldwin Drive connects with Regicides Drive near Judge’s Cave, the famous glacial erratic that once hid fugitive Regicides from British agents in 1661, at the southern summit of West Rock State Park. The former parkway (in the literal sense a way cutting through a park) rides along the top of the ridge for several miles before eventually descending and circling back to the main gatehouse at the base of the mountain.

The road is named for former Connecticut Governor Simian E. Baldwin who upon his passing in 1927, bequeathed $100,000 to the New Haven Parks Commission, which led to the acquisition of much of the land that the road passes over. Baldwin had been a founding member of the Parks Commission in 1879. Through 1924, he served with the parks group and was personally responsible for the conservation of thousands of acres of land within the New Haven city limits.

In addition to adding to what was then a city park, the funds left by Baldwin put a plan in motion to construct a “skyway” that would provide motorists with astounding panoramic views of New Haven, Hamden, Woodbridge, Bethany, and in the distance Long Island Sound and other surrounding communities. The Baldwin Parkway was one of the first of its kind in the Northeast and its construction predated the groundbreaking of the Merritt/ Wilbur Cross Parkway by nearly 10 years.

Baldwin Drive was a public works project during the Great Depression. While it is often credited as being a WPA project, the road was built in 1933 to 1934, before the formation of the Works Progress Association in 1935, and therefore was most likely a project under the Public Works Administration (PWA) banner. The basic principles were the same, helping to put unemployed persons to work during a period of record unemployment in the nation and state.

The road was completed over 15 years before the West Rock Tunnel (known after 9/11 as Heroes Tunnel) ran the Wilbur Cross Parkway under the ridge continuing its path towards Hartford. In the early 1940s the plan was to connect Baldwin Drive and the Wilbur Cross Parkway moving local highway traffic over the 700 foot ridge and dropping motorists down into Westville as a grand entrance to the Elm City. Clearly that plan changed and never came to fruition.

The 1950s and 60s were the heyday of cruising along New Haven’s skyway for both cars and bicycles as the road hosted several Olympic trial races. In the 1970s, Baldwin Drive attained the reputation of being a destination to park and party. Today broken glass and old cans still litter spots as relicts of a different American era.

Buoyed by community environmental advocacy West Rock joined the state park system in 1982, becoming the second largest Connecticut state park. Eventually due to budget cuts Baldwin Drive was closed as a motor throughway. The decreased maintenance and care has allowed the drive to become worn, brittle, and overgrown while over the years the trees and brush have grown, obscuring the incredible and vast views. Over the course of the recent decades the lack of daily motorized traffic, along with volunteer care and advocacy has reawakened the unique natural habitat of a number of plants and animals continuing West Rock’s legacy as a one of a kind destination in New Haven.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives

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