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Interstate 91 turns 50

  • Northbound lanes of I91 at Greenfield/Deerfield line.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • I91 northbound lanes at Greenfeild/Deerfield line.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Route 91 Looking north at the bridge construction over the Deerfield River in Deerfield. Recorder/Paul Franz

It could be considered a bit of a stretch to say that Interstate 91 marks its 50th anniversary this year, since the highway opened in stages, with a key stretch in Greenfield opening in 1965, but the scope of the project was definitely a stretch from anything that had come before, or has come since.

But a $7 million, 7.5-mile stretch — part of the national system that forever changed the rural landscape and lifestyle — was opened on Dec. 3, 1964, from Exit 20 just north of Northampton to Exit 24 near the Whately-Deerfield town line.

The first, $2.4 million stretch of the interstate had opened in Massachusetts in Bernardston in June 1960. A $2.2 million section from Route 10 in Bernardston to the Greenfield line opened Sept. 24 that year, celebrated by a roller skating race along the new pavement.

In 1964, “Our Gateway to Prosperity,” as the highway was called at a December 1959 meeting at the Weldon Hotel, was being designed, engineered and constructed in myriad phases, meetings and arguments, including the legendary phone call from Deerfield Academy Headmaster Frank Boyden to the White House to have the alignment changed to West Deerfield, across the river from the route beside Routes 5 and 10 that would have had the highway entering Greenfield near Cheapside.

“It was great,” former Franklin County Engineer William Allen told The Recorder at one point about the excitement over the new highway that was seen as a way to supercharge the region’s economy. “Everybody could hardly wait. I just knew people wanted it so bad they could taste it. It was a godsend.”

The interstate meant the loss of farmland in places like Bernardston and Deerfield, and it eliminated the Greenfield hamlet known as North Parish. But it also brought progress.

“The thing sort of marched down the valley,” Allen said. “Once it started, traffic started to swell.”

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