April 28: Corruption Paves the Way for the the Merritt Parkway


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 country, its novel use of entrance and exit ramps preceded the Eisenhower interstate system by decades. Lined with trees, carefully maintained green spaces, and with dozens of uniquely designed stone overpasses, the Merritt was designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and practical. It would serve as a beautiful and much-needed alternative to US Route 1, Connecticut’s congested coastal highway, on which road volume, traffic jams, and automobile accidents had steadily increased throughout 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 — but not before the project weathered a scandal all too familiar to citizens who lived through the many government corruption trials of the early 20th century.

On April 28 1938, a Grand Jury reported that land purchases for the Merritt Parkway project had been marred by waste, extravagance, and gross incompetence. A three-month-long investigation 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 the highway project to line his own pockets by directing land purchases through a personal friend who engaged in widespread price-gouging and profiteering. Under intense public and political pressure, MacDonald resigned in disgrace the day after the Grand Jury report was released.

The breathless press coverage surrounding the land-purchasing scandal was so pervasive it cast a shadow over the official opening of the Merritt Parkway later that same year. It also cast a very dark cloud over the re-election chances of the previously popular Governor Wilbur L. Cross, who was defeated in a bid for a fourth term that fall.

State Public Works Commissioner Robert A. Hurley, the whistle-blower who initiated the investigation, may have been the only person who benefited from all the press coverage. In 1940, he became both Connecticut’s first Irish-American and first Catholic governor after campaigning on an anti-corruption, “New Deal” style platform. For him, the Parkway through Fairfield County became a road to high office, today in Connecticut history.

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

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