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Bring Back The Isle Of Safety

February 27, 2005

At the entrance to the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor is a curious structure. It's 55 feet long and has a distinctive reddish tiled roof. Though it is worn and in need of repair, it has presence. There is no sign telling what the structure is, where it came from or why it is plopped where it is. Yet anyone who was in Hartford before 1976 would recognize it immediately as the Isle of Safety, the signature landmark on the corner of State and Main streets.

Restoring it and returning it to its rightful place in the center of downtown would make a powerful statement about the revival of the city. In short, let's bring it back.

The need for this iconic piece of street furniture was identified in 1909, when State Street was made a two-way street. This meant there was no safe place to wait for the trolley.

On Dec. 27 of that year, Alderman Thomas Russell proposed that the city create a waiting place by placing iron posts and ropes on State Street, north of the Old State House (then city hall). This would form an "aisle of safety." After two and a half years of intermittent dickering, a waiting area opened on July 24, 1912, consisting of movable black iron standards with connecting ropes to form a fence. The press dropped the "A" and dubbed it the "Isle of Safety." They liked that the public could wait "out of danger of traffic," but questioned the bureaucracy and the politics that had taken so long to get it done.

In January of 1913, the artist Charles Noel Flagg waited for the trolley between the ropes in the Isle of Safety. He later wrote to the street commissioners: "We have been waiting a long while for a waiting station near the city hall. I have an idea of how such a station could be established. While we are waiting for something more substantial, would it not be possible to elevate the road bed with a small rounded platform, perhaps six inches above street level on that part of the street adjoining the trolley tracks, now marked uncertainly by movable posts? ... It is certainly bad for anyone to stand in puddles of water, or perhaps slush... I have seen such a raised platform in New Orleans and know from personal experience that it is practicable and adds much to comfort." Frustrated by previous dealings with the city, Flagg ended his letter: "I have no hope that anything of this kind will be built in the near future."

But Flagg's letter hit a responsive chord. On Feb. 4, 1913, the superintendent of streets was directed to study Flagg's suggestion. Just one week later, the city engineer produced a preliminary design. The street board then approved the plan for a raised platform partially covered by a roof. The original platform was to be 15 feet by 100 feet and curved at the ends. On it would be a covered waiting area some 55 feet long. The city awarded separate contracts for the platform and the roof. There were delays in getting materials, but in December of 1913 the Isle of Safety, with its columns and tile roof, was completed. It soon became a welcoming downtown landmark.

For the next 60 years the Isle of Safety provided shelter as well as a downtown compass point.

However, on Jan. 14, 1976, the Hartford city council approved one of the most convoluted traffic plans ever conceived. State Street would be completely redesigned into five lanes: the two for buses, the two for Asylum Street and the far-left lane for those turning south onto Main Street. This meant if one was coming up State Street from the Founders Bridge and wanted to turn left or south onto Main Street, one first had to go right or north on State Street. If one wanted to turn right onto Main Street, one first had to go left onto Central Row.

As part of the design, the Isle of Safety would be removed. The Knox Park Foundation stepped in and moved it to the western corner of Trumbull and Asylum streets. Eleven years later, with the building of City Place II, the Isle of Safety had to move again. It was then given to the trolley museum. In 1985, the city closed State Street to vehicular traffic from Market to Main for developers of the adjacent building who wanted more brick space for their project.

The Isle of Safety is part of our city's history. It is a landmark in the truest sense of the word, for it marked the land. One gave directions to and from it. It was the place to meet someone. As part of the revitalization of our city, we should reopen State Street, restore the Isle of Safety and return it to its original place of prominence.

Wilson H. Faude is a historical consultant and executive director emeritus of the Old State House.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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