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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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Key People

  • W. Thayer Chase - Landscape architect for the Merritt Parkway.
  • Warren M. Creamer - Project engineer for the Merritt Parkway.
  • Wilbur L. Cross - Governor of Connecticut when construction of the Merritt Parkway began. 
  • Edward J. Daly - State Attorney General during the construction of the Merritt Parkway.
  • Robert A. Hurley - Commissioner of the Department of Public Works. He was asked by Governor Cross to investigate the State Highway Department.
  • G. Leroy Kemp - Real estate agent employed by the State Highway Department to negotiate land purchases for the Merritt Parkway.
  • John A. MacDonald - State Highway Commissioner in charge of the Merritt Parkway Project.
  • Schuyler Merritt - Chairman of the Commission supervising construction of the Parkway and the person for whom the Merritt Parkway was named.

Weld Thayer Chase was born in 1908 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, one of five children, to Herbert and Sarah (Bryant) Chase. His father delivered rural mail in Newport County and set an example for performing voluntary acts of public service and helping others. His mother stressed the arts and required each child to learn a musical instrument. While a young boy, Chase attended the Thayer School of Newport. When a teacher saw him drawing a tree, she wrote his mother urging her to develop this talent. Sarah Chase took the advice and enrolled him in instructional courses at Newport Art Association. There, Chase later recounted, he “discovered a talent for art.”

As a teenager, he worked in gardens on some of Newport’s finest estates. It was logical that he would major in botany when he attended Rhode Island State College (now the University of Rhode Island), graduating in architecture at the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts, Amherst). Chase acknowledged that the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, especially his emphasis on the use of indigenous plants, influenced him. At Amherst, Chase also met and befriended William Green, whose timely phone call would change the course of his career.

In the summer of 1933, he continued his education, this time off the campus, touring the European gardens that had impressed Olmsted. Following his brother’s example, Chase spent five months bicycling through England and the Continent, as far south as Rome, Venice, and the Riviera. His home base for the expedition was the residence of the Curator of England’s Kew Gardens. Years later, Chase would pose proudly with the bicycle and hat that he used on his “grand tour.”

In 1935, while working in Rhode Island, Chase received a phone call from his college friend, William Green, about an opening for a landscape architect with the Connecticut State Highway Department’s Merritt Parkway Construction Project. Green stated that A. Earl Wood, Engineer for Roadside Development, was looking for a landscape architect who supported the use of native as opposed to “exotic” plants. Chase applied for the job, and Wood hired him.

Chase was the lead landscape architect for the Merritt Parkway Project. He planned and supervised the planting of 22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs along the Parkway’s 38 miles. He also instructed highway engineers in covering ragged cuts made during construction with gentle roadside slopes. He worked on the project from 1935 until 1942. While in the field, he boarded with a family in Trumbull.

In 1942, Chase joined the State Park and Forest Commission as the landscape architect responsible for planning and overseeing construction of trails, pavilions, campsites, and parking areas at state-owned forest, parks, and beaches. He remained with the Commission for thirty years, attaining the rank of Assistant Director in 1966.

In 1972, his former supervisor, A. Earl Wood, now Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, asked him to serve as a Special Assistant to the Commissioner to set up the agency’s Environmental Division. Chase worked for the Connecticut Department of Transportation for a year and retired in 1973 after 38 years of state employment.

Chase did not retire into inactivity but participated in local affairs in Wethersfield, the town in which he and his wife, Ruth, lived. Chase was a long-time member of the Wethersfield Historical Society, was Deacon Emeritus of the First Church of Christ, served as director of the Great Meadows Conservation Trust, served on the Silas Deane Highway Task Force, and was a member of the Meals on Wheels Planning Committee. As a member of the Wethersfield Village Improvement Association, he selected the Association’s annual architecture award. Chase also helped to plan and landscape Butternut Circle Open Space, Cove Park, First Church Village, the E. Merson-Williams School Flagpole area, and the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center.

In 1988, he received an award from the Wethersfield branch of the AARP as its volunteer of the year. In his acceptance speech, he read his first citation for civic involvement; at the age of eleven in 1919, he bought a War Savings Bond. He also remembered his father, noting that he “exerted many hours beyond his duty.”

Chase passed away March 26, 2003 at the age of 94. His wife Ruth passed away August 17, 2005 in Wethersfield.

Introduction to Record Group 69: 036, Weld Thayer Chase Collection.

Warren Milton Creamer - photo portrait

Warren Milton Creamer
The portrait of Warren M. Creamer was reproduced with gracious permission from the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers, from their Annual Report, Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers, 1952, opposite title page [CSL call number TA1. C76].

Warren M. Creamer was born July 18, 1894, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the son of Warren E. and Margaret Creamer.  In 1917, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford with a degree in engineering. He began working for the Connecticut State Highway Department in 1922, and soon afterwards married Elizabeth Glazier.

Creamer served as the project engineer in charge of the design and layout of the Merritt Parkway from Milford to Greenwich. After reviewing land purchases made by G. Leroy Kemp, a real estate agent employed by the State Highway Department, he became concerned about the unreasonably high cost being paid to property owners, and became a “whistle blower.” A scandal ensued, and a grand jury was convened to investigate the matter. Kemp and his associates were found guilty, but the Grand Jury absolved Warren Creamer of any blame. 

Creamer continued his career with the State Highway Department and later served as Director of Engineering and Construction, and Director of Staff Services. He retired in 1966. 

In 1952, he served as President of the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers. He also sat on the Highway Research Board in Washington, DC. He died on July 7, 1979, at Hartford Hospital. He is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.

"W.M. Creamer Dies; Designer of Parkway." Hartford Courant, July 8, 1979, pg 22A; digital images, Historical Hartford Courant 1923-1984 (http://www.il.proquest.com/ : 23 April 2008).

Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers. Annual Report, Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers, 1952, opposite title page [CSL call number TA1. C76],

G. Leroy Kemp - photo

G. Leroy Kemp, a Darien real estate broker who twice served as a Representative in the Connecticut General Assembly (1927, 1929), was employed by the State Highway Department to negotiate land purchases for the construction of the Merritt Parkway. He and his  associates had a scheme whereby they would buy land at exorbitant prices (that 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.

Rumors of land purchasing schemes led to an investigation by a special grand jury. 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, with conspiracy to divide real estate commissions.

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.

"G. L. Kemp, 56, Dies in Rochester." Hartford Courant, May 17, 1956, pg 4; digital images, Historical Hartford Courant 1923-1984 (http://www.il.proquest.com/ : 23 April 2008).

John Alexander MacDonald - photo portrait

John Alexander MacDonald
The portrait of John A. MacDonald was reproduced with gracious permission from the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers, from their  Annual Report, Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers, 1939, page 339[CSL call number TA1. C76].

John Alexander MacDonald was born September 15, 1890, in Putnam, Connecticut. He was the son of state senator Archibald MacDonald and his wife, Sarah. As a young man, John attended Putnam High School. He then went on to study at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he graduated in 1914 with a degree in civil engineering.

After graduation, MacDonald came back to Connecticut and married Ethel M. Johnson, also of Putnam. In 1917, he was employed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, where he held the position of Deputy Commissioner.

In 1923, MacDonald was appointed State Highway Commissioner by then governor Charles A. Templeton.  At the time, Route 1, or the Boston Post Road, was the main road along the shoreline. The two lane road with traffic stops resulted in heavy congestion and safety concerns. MacDonald sought to relieve this problem by creating a “parallel road” from the Connecticut-New York border. In 1926, the State Highway Department hired consultants to study the concept. The project gained support, and construction on the Merritt Parkway began on July 1, 1934.

Rumors of land purchasing schemes by real estate agents employed by the State Highway Department led Governor Cross to assign the  Commissioner of Public Works, Robert A. Hurley, to investigate the agency. On January 6, 1938, Hurley submitted his report. In it, he severely criticized both the State Highway Department as a whole, and Commissioner MacDonald, in particular.

MacDonald answered the charges laid against him in his own report submitted to Governor Cross in February, 1938. He focused on Hurley’s, “crudely deceptive and cruelly destructive” allegations toward him and the State Highway Department.

A Grand Jury was convened in Fairfield County to investigate the matter of land purchasing, and on April 28, 1938, it issued a final report denouncing the purchases and calling for the resignation of Commissioner MacDonald. MacDonald resigned the next day.

Afterwards, 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.

"Death takes Former State Roads Chief." Hartford Courant, April 19, 1939, pg 4;
digital images, Historical Hartford Courant 1923-1984 (http://www.il.proquest.com/ : 23 April 2008).