The Merritt Parkway - Connecticut's National Historic Road
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Controversy and Scandal
The Merritt Parkway Opens
About this Exhibit
To learn the
story of the Merritt Parkway, select from the list of topics above.
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.
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.
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.
Of special note
was the Parkway’s landscaping.
Engineer for Roadside Development
A. Earl Wood hired
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.
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,
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.
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.
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