April 28: Connecticut’s Historic Merritt Parkway Marred By Corruption Charges

 

Connecticut’s historic Merritt Parkway is the oldest scenic parkway in the United States.  One of the first limited-access, divided-lane highways in the United States, its novel use of entrance and exit ramps preceded the Eisenhower interstate system by decades.  Lined with trees, carefully maintained green spaces, and passing underneath dozens of uniquely decorated stone overpasses, it was designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and practical, serving as a much-needed bypass for drivers traveling on US Route 1, Connecticut’s congested coastal highway.

The need for an additional coastal highway parallel to Route 1 became evident as road volume, traffic jams, and automobile accidents steadily increased in the 1920s.  Groundbreaking ceremonies for the Merritt Parkway took place in 1934 to great fanfare, and the Parkway opened to the public four years later in 1938 — but not after the project weathered a scandal that sounded all too familiar to citizens who lived through the numerous government corruption trials of the early 20th century.

On April 28 1938, a Grand Jury reported that land purchases for the state’s new Merritt Parkway project had been marred by waste, extravagance, and gross incompetence.  A three-month-long investigation had resulted in two men being indicted for corruption, including Connecticut’s State Highway Department commissioner John A. MacDonald.  According to the Grand Jury report, MacDonald had used local enthusiasm for the new highway project to line his own pockets, directing state land purchases through a real estate broker (and personal friend) who engaged in widespread price-gouging and profiteering.  Under intense public and political pressure, MacDonald resigned in disgrace the next day.

The breathless press coverage surrounding the Merritt Parkway land-purchasing scandal was so pervasive that it threatened to overshadow the official opening of the Parkway later that same year.  State Public Works Commissioner Robert A. Hurley, the whistleblower who initiated the investigation, may have been the sole individual involved in the investigation who didn’t mind all the press coverage: two years later, he successfully ran for Governor after campaigning on an anti-corruption, “New Deal” style platform.

This page, one of many from the National Historic American Engineering Record report on the Merritt Parkway, includes examples of the Parkway’s landscape, bridges, and novel highway design.

Further Reading

Hurley Report on Highway Dept. and Merritt Parkway to the Governor,” Connecticut State Library Digital Collections

Life Magazine archive: Merritt ParkwayACL Magazine

Merritt Parkway,” Historic American Engineering Record no. CT-63, Library of Congress