In 1991, the Connecticut State Legislature approved a construction project in the small city of Willimantic — a bridge over the river that ran through the middle of the town, which would connect State Highways 32 and 66. Residents had long been in favor of the plan save for one unusual objection: it looked boring. Residents demanded a bridge with a little more style and yielding to the public pressure, Connecticut’s DOT enlisted an architect for the project.
Willimantic’s “Thread City Crossing” Bridge is the result of this give and take. A 475-foot span over the Willimantic River, flanked at all four corners with 11-foot bronze statues of frogs, each perched atop a giant spool of thread; the eye-catching design won the bridge a Federal Award for Excellence in Highway Design in 2002. Visitors and passersby have been puzzled at the design. Cartoonist Bill Griffith, creator of the strip “Zippy the Pinhead,” even used one of his strips to ask about its meaning. But residents immediately understood the reference to two iconic symbols of Willimantic.
The frogs pay tribute to a long-beloved story from the town’s past. In the 1750s, during a lengthy heat wave, townspeople were shocked out of a sound sleep by horrific noises coming from the woods. After posting guards overnight, they sent a search party into the woods to investigate the following morning. A short way into the woods, they discovered the source of the noises — a dry pond full of bullfrogs, which had been fighting each other over either the water or territory. “The Great Bullfrog Battle” has been a favorite tale in Willimantic ever since, and residents have adapted it into song, epic poetry, and even an operetta over the years. The actual site of the frog battle is a short drive from the Frog Bridge, in Willimantic’s more rural district Windham Center.
The thread spools refer to more recent history. In the late 1800s, Willimantic was a leading thread manufacturer in the United States, with the Willimantic Cotton Mill Company cranking out 50,000 spools of thread each week. One of its buildings was at one time the largest textile mill in the world. Business kept booming through the early 20th Century after the mill became part of the American Thread business conglomerate. Towards the end of the century, American Thread moved the bulk of its business to southern states, and Willimantic’s mill closed in 1985. Today, Willimantic is in the process of converting the buildings to apartments, art studios, and office space. The Windham Mills complex is right next to the bridge, and a Textile History museum lies nearby.