Connecticut’s Movable Bridges

Movable Bridges of Connecticut

The Connecticut Department of Transportation defines a movable bridge as “any type of bridge that can be opened to allow traffic below (usually on a navigable body of water) to proceed.”[1]

In Connecticut, most movable bridges are either bascule bridges or swing bridges.

  • Bascule – “A type of movable bridge that pivots (or rolls) at one end, allowing the other end to rise up in the air.”[2]
  • Swing – “A movable span which pivots in a horizontal plane, usually at the center, opening so as to parallel the waterway and clear a channel on either side of the pivot.”[3]


Connecticut has a long history of people and goods traveling by water and land. In the early days, rivers were crossed by ferry creating little conflict between the modes of travel. As more bridges were built, land and water travel were in conflict. During the 19th century, engineering and technology were not advanced enough to build bridges high enough for vessels to pass. Navigation of rivers required draw bridges, which limited the size of vessel based on the size of the span. Land travel was also impacted, with delays as the bridges opened and closed. It wasn’t until the 20th century that state, local or federal governments were building Connecticut’s bridges. Prior to that, they were built by private companies and required legislation in the Connecticut General Assembly in which the companies were granted permission to build bridges in exchange they were to maintain them and were allowed to charge tolls (with limitations set by the General Assembly). It was, and still is, a complex relationship between commerce and industry, commercial tolls, various levels of governments and travel by land, rail or water.

The earliest draw bridges were made of timber and operated by hand.[4] Swing bridges came to replace rail ferries as the railroads expanded. While not used on larger rivers until later, they were used on smaller waterways. As the iron industry expanded t o meet the needs of ever growing railroads, the engineering and technological advances could be applied to bridges, especially since the railroad companies were interested in the strength and low maintenance afforded by iron.

As automobile traffic drastically increased during the 20th century, the tension between land and water travel came into play. To avoid delays in automobile traffic, most bridge construction employed high level crossings with enough clearance to allowed most vessels to pass. Remaining railroad crossing often still employ movable bridges, as it is neither practical nor possible for all trains to climb the steep incline for a high-level crossing.


One of the earliest known Connecticut drawbridges is New Haven’s Tomlinson Bridge, originally built in 1797 to supplement or replace Isaac Tomlinson’s ferry business across the Quinnipiac River. It was reconstructed in 1807 and 1842. Along the way ownership transferred to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, which was ordered by the state to replace the wooden bridge in 1885. Two years later, the city of New Haven owned and operated the bridge. The current vertical lift bridge, owned by Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Providence & Worcester Railroad Co[5]., was opened in 2002.[6]


Image from WhereWaterMeetsLandPage18

Tomlinson Bridge, from the Library of Congress

image from The Library of Congress

Tomlinson Vertical Lift Bridge from Hardesty & Hanover

  image from Hardesty & Hanover

Further Reading

  • Where Water Meets Land: Historic Movable Bridges of Connecticut
    • by Bruce Clouette, [Hartford] : Connecticut Dept. of Transportation in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, 2004
    • StLib Conn Doc T687 cLwh
    • “This book, produced by CONNDOT in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, is intended to provide a compilation of essential information on Connecticut’s historic movable bridges….it includes information not only for teh surviving examples but also for those that have been removed or replaced in recent years.” p.3
  • Search our catalog
    • Historic bridges — Connecticut
    • Historic bridges — Connecticut — Pictorial works
    • Movable bridges
    • Movable bridges — Connecticut
    •  Bridges — Connecticut
    • Bridges — Connecticut — History — 18th century — Sources
  • Connecticut State Archives
  • State Agencies
  • Bridges & Rivers, State of Connecticut Photo Gallery -Connecticut Photo Gallery is  a juried collection of images submitted by citizens, and selected by the State.

[1] Clouette, Connecticut, and United States, Where Water Meets Land, 3.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 76.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] “New York Construction News | Tomlinson Vertical Lift Bridge.”

[6] “Tomlinson Lift Bridge.”