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The Merritt Parkway - Connecticut's National Historic Road

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Background

Controversy and Scandal

The Merritt Parkway Opens

About this Exhibit

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The Story of the Merritt Parkway

Situated in Fairfield County, running from the border of the Town of Greenwich with New York to the Housatonic River at the Stratford-Milford border, is a 37.5 mile road named the Merritt Parkway.

Merritt Parkway looking west toward the Easton Road exit in Westport, photo

The idea for the Merritt Parkway was a solution that State Highway Commissioner John A. MacDonald proposed to alleviate the traffic congestion on the old Boston Post Road (Route 1). MacDonald called his concept a "parallel road" starting at the Connecticut-New York border.

However, the General Assembly was not interested in funding such a huge public works project. Instead, it appropriated money in 1926, which the State Highway Department used to hire consultants to prepare a study of MacDonald's idea. Though the report sat around for the rest of the decade, safety concerns over the loss of life on Route 1 and support for a construction project that would employ out of work labor gained support in the 1930s.  In addition, the Fairfield County Planning Association saw a new highway as good for development.

Merritt Parkway looking east atop ledge east of King St. in Greenwich, photo

The total cost of the highway was 21 million dollars making it the largest public works project in Connecticut history.  The federal government failed to provide any New Deal money for the Parkway’s construction.  Under pressure from advocates in Fairfield County and nine term Republican Congressman and resident of Stamford Schuyler Merritt, for whom the parkway is named, the General Assembly voted to allow Fairfield County to issue bonds totaling fifteen million dollars.  In addition, the state contributed another 6 million.

Construction began on July 1, 1934 and eventually employed over 2,000 workers. The first 17.5 miles were opened to the public on June 29, 1938, and on September 2, 1940, the last 20 miles plus the steel bridge over the Housatonic River at Stratford were opened.

Called the “Queen of the Parkways,” the Merritt was built during an era of road building in which a leading idea was building roads that would take urban dwellers into rural America.  The goal was to provide a peaceful, lovely drive that would revive the senses, instill an appreciation for nature, and provide an edifying rest from the pace of modern urban life.

Merritt Parkway looking east from atop ledge at "Ripple Cut" in Greenwich, photo

Of special note was the Parkway’s landscaping.  Engineer for Roadside Development A. Earl Wood hired Weld Thayer Chase, who held a degree as a landscape architect from the Massachusetts Agricultural College at Amherst.  Both men favored the approach of Frederick Law Olmsted, who advocated the use native plants in parks he designed. 

During construction, Chase and two other landscape architects, Bill Green and Russ Barnes, went ahead of construction teams, saving as many trees as possible from being cut down by tagging them and showing engineers how to provide gently rounded hills alongside the highway. If trees were to be cut, Chase and his crew dug them up for replanting along the Parkway. Landscaping the Parkway achieved a significant economy by using surplus trees and shrubs kept by the State Forester.

Arborio contract landscape division unloading pines on Merritt Parkway in Greenwich, photo

Chase directed the planting of new trees and shrubs and other native plants along the hills and on the “landscaped dividing strip.”  Even today, although the original landscaping has grown over, a drive along the Merritt can be a satisfying, “intimate” experience.

More famous than the landscaping are the 35 bridges crossing the Parkway designed by George Dunkelberger, an architect working for the State Highway Commission.  These are steel frame, concrete bridges, and though highly regarded now, at the time, criticism came from some towns in the path of the Parkway who wanted stone bridges.  In recent decades, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and other groups have submitted petitions and testified before the Connecticut General Assembly and US Congress opposing alterations to the Parkway that would alter these highly-prized structures.

Lapham Avenue Bridge over Merritt Parkway in New Canaan, photo

Construction of the Parkway was not without its scandal.  At the beginning of the project, Commissioner MacDonald rejected the use of eminent domain in the courts to secure rights of ways.  Instead, to save time, he appointed a Darien real estate agent, G. Leroy Kemp, as the official state land purchaser.  Kemp and two associates bought land at exorbitant prices, which they helped to inflate, and then split the large commissions.  Since few knew the exact route, Kemp was in an advantageous position to get landowners to agree to the extravagant prices.

Warren Creamer, the Parkway project engineer, who reviewed the purchases, worried about the unreasonably high cost being paid to property owners and became a “whistle blower.” During the Fall-Winter of 1937-38, newspapers carried sensational headlines of rumored nefarious land transactions. On January 25, 1938, a special Grand Jury convened in Fairfield County to investigate the allegations.

Unidentified section of the Merritt Parkway, photo

At the same time, the head of the Department of Public Works and future governor, Robert A. Hurley, issued a scathing report alleging gross mismanagement in the State Highway Department, blaming the situation on the poor administrative skills of Commissioner MacDonald. Hurley’s report focused its criticisms on construction of the Merritt Parkway and declared that the bridges were unsafe. The press ran headlines and stories about the Hurley Report, forcing Governor Wilbur L. Cross to demand that Commissioner MacDonald answer the report’s accusations. The Commissioner sent a rebuttal report to Cross on February 28, 1938.

On March 18, 1938, the Grand Jury indicted G. Leroy Kemp and his two associates, Thomas H. Cooke of Greenwich and Samuel H. Silberman of Stamford, for conspiracy to divide real estate commissions.  On April 28th, it issued a final report denouncing the land purchases recommending that the Merritt Parkway Commission be abolished and calling for the resignation of Commissioner MacDonald.  Governor Wilbur L. Cross asked for the Commissioner’s resignation, and MacDonald gave it to him in a signed letter the next day, April 29. Shortly after receiving the letter, Cross appointed William J. Cox, a professor at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University and friend, as the new State Highway Commissioner.

G. Leroy Kemp’s case went to trial. On the stand, he admitted to having destroyed records of the land purchases. The jury found him guilty on two counts of conspiracy and gave him a sentence of three to seven years in jail. He served four years and was discharged. He then worked in the research department of the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company and died in Rochester, New York in 1956.

After resigning, John A. MacDonald got a job as a salesman for the Glen Falls Portland Cement Company in Glens Falls, New York.  When the state was preparing to open the first 17.5 miles of the Parkway in June 1938, Governor Cross invited MacDonald to accompany him in the first car to drive on it.  The former commissioner accepted, and the Hartford Courant published a photograph of a line of dignitaries with MacDonald behind Robert Hurley, his former nemesis.  He died of a heart attack at his West Hartford home on April 18, 1939 at the age of 49.

The Merritt Parkway Grand Jury absolved Warren Creamer of any blame in the land purchasing scandal.  He stayed with the Highway Department as its chief engineer until his retirement in 1966.  He died at Hartford Hospital in 1979.  The State Archives has his field books with which he drew the line across Fairfield County for the Merritt Parkway and his daily work diaries that show his involvement in the investigation of the accusations.

Survey diagram for the Merritt Parkway, photo

What of the Dunkelberger bridges labeled as safety hazards by the Hurley Report? Governor Cross hired respected engineer Charles J. Bennett to study the bridge and highway designs.  In a short report dated March 2, 1938, Bennett concluded:

"It is my opinion that the construction of bridges on the Merritt Parkway is not a serious traffic hazard and that with careful study of traffic control and protective marking this highway can be considered an excellent piece of highway construction.  There is no reason to expect calamitous accidents on account of the bridge construction."

Bridge construction continued, and those across the Parkway are a unique part of the Parkway’s charm.

Mark H. Jones
March 29, 2008