New Jersey Route 17N, primogenitor of the current Route 17, was strung together from threads of local roads in the early 1920s. Stretching thirty-odd miles from Newark to the New York State line, NJ 17N briefly became Route 17 before being partially redrawn and rechristened Route 2 in 1928.

The opening of the George Washington Bridge in October 1931, quickly made NJ 2 a sclerotic artery. The meandering two lane blacktop roads it followed were among the few north-south links to Route 4, the new four lane "super highway" running west from the new bridge to the industrial city of Paterson. However, road-building was an ideal project for putting depression-era America to work. Between 1932 and the spring of 1936, New Jersey rebuilt NJ 2 as a four lane parkway with a grass median and "roundabouts" to mix traffic at major intersections. NJ 2's new alignment largely bypassed its existing route, which ran northeast from an intersection with Route 4 at Arcola along Paramus Road and swung north along Franklin Turnpike to connect with NYS Route 17 at Suffern.


Throughout the 1930s, New Jersey, the first state to have a highway department, invested in handsome highway architecture for its many new roads. Bridges and overpasses were poured in rough-textured aggregate. Their designs followed the lines and forms of the fashionable art deco style, but with enough embedded beaux arts detail to give a respectful nod to tradition. Similar structures appeared all over the state, on rural highways as well as city boulevards.

Just south of the New York State line, US Route 202 ran through a shallow valley in parallel with a stream formed by the confluence of the Ramapo and Mahwah Rivers. In 1933, NJ 2's engineers spanned the valley with a concrete deco-style bridge. Like many highway structures of the time, the new bridge's side walls were poured in repeating sections, with a band of rectagular spaces that lent the suggestion of a balustrade. Atop each abutment, a concrete oblisk supported a brass lantern to illuminate the travei lanes.

Shortly before the final section of the new NJ 2 connected Ridgewood with Allendale in December 1935, the New York Times pictured its freshly-poured white concrete curving across a gently-rolling pastoral landscape, an irresistable invitation to imitate Tazio Nuvola at the wheel of his Alfa Zagato Spider in the 1936 Mille Maglia.

Although the Times article called the new NJ 2 a "continuous open way", it lived up to this billing only briefly. By 1941, traffic lights had appeared at some of its intersections. At about 8:20 PM on Monday, August 25, 1941, the Bason family, traveling east to Jersey City from a visit in Ridgewood, stopped at the end of a quarter mile backup for the light at Sheridan Avenue in Waldwick. Moments later, an Albany-to New York City Greyhound bus rear-ended their car, which exploded in flames. All eight members of the family died in the highway's worst accident.

"For the convenience of military convoys", NJ 2 reverted to its old designation as NJ Route 17 to conform with New York State's highway numbering scheme during early 1942 . Before the New York State Thruway opened in 1956, Route 17 was nicknamed the "Holiday Highway" because it provided New York City's most direct connection to the Catskill resorts. But, as the seamless post-war carpet of suburbia unrolled across the scattered towns of north Bergen County, Route 17 was no longer the "express highway" the Times had envisioned twenty years before.

By the mid-1950s, much of Route 17 had become lined with businesses whose parking lots were accessed from travel lanes. Right-angle intersections poured cars from subdivision sidestreets into highway traffic without the benefit of merge areas, while median cut-throughs dared drivers to rocket across lanes of oncoming traffic. As traffic moved faster and in volumes that would have been inconceivable before the war, Route 17's parkway-like features became ever more lethal. The grass median with its low curb proved ineffectual in preventing deadly "crossover" collisions, while motorists sometimes plowed through the centers of roundabouts at high speed.

Route 17's original features vanished gradually. By the 1960s, salt and heavy traffic were taking their toll on its deco architecture. It disappeared a bridge rail here, a pylon there, before the roadwidening projects obliterated it in wide swaths.

After a local newspaper began campaigning against "Deadman's Circle" in the late 1960s, the last roundabout north of Paramus was replaced by a conventional intersection controlled by traffic lights. A thirty mile string of Jersey barriers supplanted the grass median in the 1970s, the same decade in which the highway north of Paramus became eight lanes wide. Then, in turn, an overpass replaced the last traffic light in the 1980s.

When the original Paramus cloverleaf was rebuilt in 2002, the Mahwah bridge became northern Route 17's last trace of depression deco. The bridge survives as a tantalizing collection of fragments, which traffic makes extremely challenging to observe at close range.

The New York State-bound lanes' deco-style sidewall is not even a memory, replaced by Jersey walls when the bridge was widened to accomodate the highway's four additional lanes. However, despite a few patches of spalled and crumbling concrete, the southbound lanes retain their balustrade-style sidewall and the bridge's keystone-shaped cornerstone.

Although the oblisk at the north end of the bridge survives in near cosmetic perfection, the south oblisk has lost its upper detail and been crudely patched with bone-white portland cement that stands out like scar tissue and age splotches against the rough tan original aggregate. The last trace of either oblisk's lantern is a metal plate that covers their electrical connections.

Beneath the bridge's south span, US Route 202 looks like a country road. However, it is actually a section of the early highway that connected the New Castle, Delaware area with Bangor, Maine. The stream that runs beside it once invited travelers to pull the seat cushions out of their Model As for a creekside picnic. Today it is almost invisible behind the thick fringe of tangled brush, trees, and creepers on US 202's shoulder.

Viewing the bridge's northern span requires blazing a trail through brush and scrambling down a steep bank to a small island in the stream. Despite the echoing boom of the highway traffic above and the obligatory fast food plastic bobbing in the shallows, the island is a strangely secluded spot, covered with lush, untroden grasses and booby-trapped with natural ankle-height tripwire vines and barbed wire in the form of thorny wild rose tendrils. The river's steep north bank is covered with thick brush and small trees, whose branches obscure much of the bridge facade and have even infiltrated its balustrade.

The riverbed offers an unintendedly dramatic view of the undebelly of the bridge. Here the original slender rectangular pillars and vaulted arches stand in contrast to the squat round columns and square lintels of the newer parallel span that carries the northbound lanes, suggesting one of Giorgio di Chirico's shadowy, ominous cityscapes.

Jimmy and Sharon Williams' "1920s New Jersey Highways" has information about old roads statewide that cannot be found anywhere else on the internet. The illustration showing Route 17N in the 1920s was constructed from a 1927 map on their site. Interestingly, a comparison of this map with others from the 1930s and 40s shows that Route 17N crossed the future path of Route 4 east of Hackensack, several miles east of today's gigantic moxing bowl cloverleaf in Paramus. By 1933, as NJ 2, it ran along Paramus Road, which intersects Route 4 in Arcola, perhaps a mile to the west of the current cloverleaf.

A few overpasses and bridges on NJ Route 4 between the George Washington Bridge and the Route 17 interchange in Paramus still retain fragmentary deco architectural detail. Clean your windshield and don't blink if you're watching for them. Slightly further west, the bridge that carries Route 4 into Paterson has intact deco pillars and oblisks.Paradoxically, the hardest images to find on the internet are those of common sights. This rule applies doubly to once-commonplace structures that have faded into extinction. The Green Brook Bridge (1931), one of whose lanterns is shown in black and white above, is a rare example of lost highway deco memorialized online. The bridge, which linked several towns in Somerset and Middlesex counties, was demolished in 2001 for an Army Corps of Engineers flood control project. However, the Corps first commissioned a full historic preservation study of the original bridge, photographs from the which are online at its New York District website.

The National Register of Historic Places listed the Woodbridge Cloverleaf (1929), which connected present-day Routes 1, 9, and 35, as the first cloverleaf intersection verified to have been constructed in the United States. It was still in excellent structural condition when it was replaced by a safer, higher capacity interchange in 2002. To document it, the New Jersey Department of Transportation commissioned a full architectural survey, a historical booklet, and a video entitled "On-ramps to Innovation". Sica Productions, creator of the video, has many fabulous vintage and recent photographs of the cloverleaf on its website. The Green Brook Bridge and Woodbridge Cloverleaf each share distinctive stylistic features with the Route 17 bridge at Mahwah, including keystone ornamentation, luminary oblisks, and faux balustrade sidewalls.

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