October 2010 Archives

Highway Hi-Jinks


A loyal reader asked me to talk about how officials determined the path for the Merritt Parkway and Interstae 95.  This sounded interesting, so I did some research.

The Merritt Parkway was built in the 1930s as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project.  The WPA was designed to get Americans back to work during the Great Depression.  Many projects were public works-related, such as improving highways and rebuilding cities.  In Connecticut, officials wanted to build a modern highway from New York to Fairfield to the Housatonic.  It would provide a scenic highway with grassy dividers, which would relieve the traffic along the coast (Route 1) and serve as a main artery near areas of population.  No trucks would be allowed to use it.  A center median would be used to prevent head-on collissions.  It would be named after a long-time Congressman - U.S. Representative Schuyler Merritt. 


                                              Coutesy National Byways Program   

The project was divided between two men.  Landscape architect W. Taylor Chase designed the actual road and park part.  Officials wanted to maintain the predominantly splendid vistas with various vegetation and rolling hills.  Chase was to protect the flaura and fauna (plants and animals) as best as possible.  Of course, he had to build the road taking drainage, geology and obstacles (natural and man-made) into consideration.  There was also some resistance from estate owners, who had invested large amounts of money in their property.  The road was built to curve through farmlands and forests.  A 300-foot right-of-way was purchased in anticipation of future expansion.  This, however, has never materialized.  For one thing, residents in Norwalk set a precedent by winning a lawsuit which prevented changing some ramps.  Preservation groups oppose rebuilding because it would mean the demolition of the beautiful bridges. 

George Dunkelberger, a bridge architect, was chosen to create Art Deco classical and stone bridges using French, Italian and English styles.  He built 35 unique bridges which contributed to its being  nominated for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Greenwich resident Renee Anselmo sponsored a grant which resulted in the Parkway being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.  In 1995 the Connecticut Trust and the Connecticut Department of Transportation received a National Preservation Honor Award for its efforts to preserve the highway.  Anyone who travels the Merritt has to marvel at the beautiful sculpture of each bridge. 


Unfortunately, the opening of the highway was overshadowed by scandal.  The project was riddled with illict land deals, scandalous engineering reports and overspending.  The State ended up spending $6-million for $3.2-million worth of land.  A grand jury investigation found that the state spent $1,255,541 for land assessed at $228,196.  Land prices had soared when the project was announced.  Not only that, but there were charges of irregular bidding, collusion, padding, engineering mistakes, and poor management.  In one instance, the road was moved to save a tree at the request of a former landowner!

Despite all the shenanigans, the Merritt Parkway was opened on June 29, 1938.  It remains a beautiful testament to the foresight of our predecessors. For you real sticklers, tolls were paid on the Merritt from 1939 to 1988.

While the Merritt was designed to calm traffic along the southern coast, Interstate 95 was designed to upgrade the highway system for quicker travel. It would be an upgrade from Route 1 (The Boston Post Road). The Interstate Higway System was actually the brainchild of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower had been the Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.  He knew how important it was to the defense of the country to be able to move military forces quickly to any location. It was opened on August 8, 1958.  Part of the 1,925 mile road - which stretches form Maine to Florida - was composed of various constructed or planned toll roads, which were taken over by the Federal Government as part of the Interstate system.  Surprisingly, a section between Pennsylvania and New Jersey has never been finished due to taxpayer revolts!  The Connecticut Turnpike - as it was called - was renamed The Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike in 1986.

The highway has had a very storied past. To prevent relocation of the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, the road was "bent" to the east over Cos Cob Harbor and the Mianus River.  The Weigh Station was a sore point for many years due to noise and pollution.  Anyone who is driving in town knows that traffic backs up from Stamford at about 2 o'clock every afternoon due to congestion.  Before Stamford could open it's mall, lanes and exits had to be added to the highway.  In 1983, the Mianus River Bridge collapsed.  This was attributed to obsolete design and lack of proper inspection. After a terrible accident at the toll booth in Madison, the tolls were taken out in 1986.  The Town of Greenwich had to repay a seafood company after town firefighters were caught stealing lobsters from a burning truck near the Mianus River bridge!

To the best of my knowledge, there have been no scandals associated with the construction of I-95. It's hard to imagine that there were no unscrupulous contractors or property owners involved.    There were a lot of complaints, however.  Turnpike trucks were accused of ruining local roads.  Officials were worried about the effect on Horseneck Brook.  Belle Haven residents protested against an exit ramp in their neighborhood.  The Kent House was demolished.  One woman complained about sinking in a big mudhole. Powerlines were pulled down by highway construction equipment.  Many residents along the road complained about the blasting of rock, which launched rocks and cracked windows.  The town had to determine the value of park land taken for the road. 

Today, the biggest problem seems to be keeping the infrastructure serviceable.  Bridges are being rebuilt and roads are being repaved.  Route I-95 is one of the busiest highways in the United States. And one of the most dangerous!  When it opened in 1958, it was designed to handle a certain volume of traffic.  Sixty years later, it appears to be reaching its limit.


Gulliver's Fire


One of the biggest tragedies in the local area was the fire at Gulliver's on June 30, 1974.

Straddling the New York - Connecticut border, it was a popular discotheque spot for young residents who wanted to dance and have a beer. (Today, an office building occupies the spot at 777 West Putnam Avenue where Gulliver's used to stand.) Connecticut residents liked to take advantage of its proximity to the state. Liquor stores closed earlier in Connecticut due to the Blue Laws.

As usual, a large crowd was there that night, enjoying the music and camaraderie. Some people I have met told me they were either there earlier that night, had thought about going or had been there at some other time. Unfortunately, a 25-year-old junior high school dropout - Peter Leonard - had broken into an adjacent bowling alley (Carol Lanes) to steal money and cigarettes. (Leonard was a junior high school dropout who had a long history of arrests, juvenile offences, motor vehicle violations, larceny and breaking and entering.) In the process, a fire started, which spread to the adjacent discotheque.

The band sounded the alarm around 1 am. They asked the crowd to quietly but quickly exit the building. As fate would have it, the crowd all tried to exit through one door. Suddenly, thick, black smoke overcame many in the crowd. People began to panic and some were even trampled.  Twenty-four young people lost their lives.


                                   View Image


Peter Leonard was arrested on July 12, 1974 and was charged with homicide by Westchester County. At first, Leonard claimed that a cigarette had fallen out of his mouth into a toy hamper. An arson expert testified that a fire of the intensity which burned down Gulliver's would have to have been started with an accelerant. Leonard changed his story, and admitted to setting the blaze to cover up the theft. He claimed he was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.  In June 1975, Leonard plead guilty the day before his trial was to begin.

In the first of many appeals, Leonard's guilty verdict was thrown out in 1977 on the grounds that Leonard's confession had been coerced.  He was retried and once again found guilty.  Then this guilty plea was thrown out in 1978 because no lawyer had been present during his interrogation. Prosecutors charged him with larceny, breaking and entering and 24 counts of murder.   In 1978, Leonard was found guilty of arson and murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life.  He served out his time at the Auburn Correctional Facility near Syracuse, and was released in April 1986.   Leonard expressed his regret that anyone had died;  he blamed Gulliver's for having furniture that gave off toxic fumes during the fire.    After fullfilling some parole time, he moved to an undisclosed location.

Several lawsuits were filed against Gulliver's and the City of Port Chester and Town of Greenwich.  Survivors claimed neither the establishment nor the towns were up to code. Neither municipality had performed routine safety inspections.   Smoke detectors and fire sprinklers were not installed. A grand jury found that the owners were not negligent, but added that the laws were too weak and should be strengthened.  In 1979 Port Chester and the owners of Gulliver's agreed to pay $1.7 million in damages to the survivors.

At the very least, this tragedy forced Greenwich and Port Chester to review and stringently enforce their fire codes.  Hopefully, it will prevent the loss of life in future fires. 

Interesting Programs !

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October 19 - James McPherson

On Tuesday, October 19, at 7 pm, in the Greenwich Library Cole Auditorium, author and historian James McPherson will give a presentation on Abraham Lincoln.  He builds the case that Lincoln's "hands-on" style and decisions as commander-in-chief during the civil war effectively combined political policy and military strategy to ensure the nation's survival. A perspective on presidential power is as relevant today as it was during the Civil War.


November 1, 2020 - Kate Kelly

Author Kate Kelly discusses how women got the the right to vote through adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment.  She will cover efforts by Susan B. Anthony and others who fought for women's  rights.  Ms. Kelly is a very interesting and entertaining person.  Join us in the Greenwich Library second floor meeting room on Monday, November 1, 2010, at 7pm.


Ernest Thompson Seton

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Greenwich residents are familiar with historical fiction author Anya Seton.  Ms. Seton, who died in 1990, wrote such famous historical novels as "The Winthrop Woman", "Foxfire" and "Dragonwyck". Some people, however, may not readily make the connection with Ernest Thompson Seton. Anya - nee "Ann" - was Mr. Seton's daughter from his first marriage. People traveling along Riversville Road have no doubt seen the sign for the Ernest Thompson Seton Scout Reservation. This is because Mr. Seton  was instrumental in establishing the Boy Scouts of America. Suffice it to say, Mr. Seton's life was anything but dull!

Mr. Seton was born on August 14, 1860, in Durham, England, to Joseph Logan and Alice (Snowdon) Thompson. He was the twelfth of fourteen children. His father was a strict Calvinist. Although he was christened Ernest Evan Logan, he later used Ernest E. Thompson and Ernest Seton-Thompson as his pen names. (Seton was a name believed to be derived from British royalty.) Nonetheless, he had his name officially changed in 1901.

In 1866, the family shipping business went bankrupt. His family immigrated to Canada. Although his father bought a farm in Lindsay, Ontario, his father soon decided he had no interest in farming. His father sold the farm, and they moved to Toronto where his father took a job as an accountant.

Having spent four years in the country, Ernest decided he wanted to become a naturalist. His father, however, decided Ernest should become an artist. Ernest studied at the Ontario School of Art and The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. At this point, he contracted the first of a series of illnesses and it was necessary for him to travel to his brother's farm in the country to recuperate, where he was able to explore, hunt, sketch and collect natural specimens. One might say he "overdid it" as he ended up with sever arthritis in his right knee.


In the late 1800s, he published his first scientific articles. Seton was able to combine his love of nature and art ability to produce many illustrated works.  These included "Mammals of Manitoba", "Birds of Manitoba", "Wild Animals I have Known" and bird articles for The Auk. He was contracted to submit 1000 drawings for "The Century Dictionary". In 1884 he went to the Art Students League in New York City, and in 1890 traveled to Paris for further training in anatomical study. He is credited with authoring over 40 books on nature and wildlife.

Ernest had to return to the United States since he got ill in Paris. On a return trip to Paris in 1894, he met Grace Gallatin. She was a writer, feminist and social leader from San Francisco. They married, but were often apart as Ernest travelled all over Canada and the United States. He even traveled to Norway and nearly the North Pole! (In his travels, Ernest met such celebrities as Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain and John Burroughs.) The couple eventually had dwellings in New York, New Jersey and Greenwich. They were residents of Greenwich for 34-years. Their first residence was "Windygoul", a house they purchased in Cos Cob in 1900. Later they purchased "Little Pequot" on Lake Avenue.

In 1902, Mr. Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians. He wanted young boys to learn about camping, woodcraft and Indian lore. This would make them self-resilient. This group eventually changed into the Woodcraft League. Several years later, he met William Baden Powell, who started the Boy Scouts in England. Initially he had wanted to talk Powell into adopting his organization. Instead, Seton co-founded the Boy Scouts in 1910. He became Chief Scout Executive and wrote the first Boy Scout Manual. Unfortunately, he resigned in 1915 in protest because Teddy Roosevelt wanted Scouts to learn how to use firearms.

In 1930, Seton moved to Santa Fe where he bought 2,300 acres. He founded the Seton College of Indian Wisdom (later known as The Seton Institute of Indian Lore). He married his second wife - Julia Moss Buttree. They taught summer courses in arts and crafts, outdoor activities and leadership. Ernest Thompson Seton died on October 23, 1946.

Some critics considered his drawings of nature more artistic than realistic. Seton insisted his renderings were accurate. It's hard to imagine a world without his artwork. I went back to see if he was a contemporary of either John Audubon or Roger Tory Peterson. To my amazement, I discovered that John Audubon lived from 1785 to 1851, Ernest Thompson Seton lived from 1866 to 1946, and Roger Tory Peterson lived from 1931 to 1996!  I'd like to think that each writer built on the work of his predecessor.  Certainly, each contributed something important to our knowledge of natural history.

Trolley Service


 Over the years, the idea of re-instituting trolley service on Greenwich Avenue has been suggested to calm traffic in our central business district.  I say "re-instituting" because Greenwich actually had trolley service in the early Twentieth Century!   In fact, one could catch a trolley in Port Chester and get off on Atlantic Street in Stamford. Residents took the trolley to see movies and shop in the stores in Stamford.

 According to the Saturday, August 7, 1897, issue of the Greenwich Graphic, the first trolley was built by Henry Van Hoevenbergh. It was a 6-passenger, horseless electric trolley - without rails - which travelled one-quarter mile form the Greenwich Railroad Station to Silleck House (a summer hotel), which still stands on Steamboat Road. The trolley ran from 3 pm to 5 pm every afternoon, at no charge. Plans to build a 12-passenger trolley never materialized.

There was opposition to expanding trolley service in Greenwich. People used such questionable arguments as their horses would be frightened; riders might fall off the trolleys; businesses would suffer as people would be afraid to cross the tracks; summer residents would be scared away by the noise of trolley bells; and the view of overhead wires would ruin the town's image!  Once again, Greenwich was demonstrating a reluctance to embrace change.

In 1900, despite opposition, the Greenwich Tramway Company was given permission to install overhead wires and track for an electrified trolley system. New track was installed from Mill Street in Byram (East Port Chester) to the Greenwich Railroad Station. On August 14, 1901, regular service was established between Greenwich and Port Chester.




In the summer of 1902, tracks were installed north up Greenwich Avenue, then east along the Boston Post Road to the Mianus River. Regular service began on September 14, 1902 on a twenty-minute schedule. Since the Mianus River Bridge was not strong enough, passengers had to walk across the bridge to connect with the Stamford trolley, which ran east of the Mianus. Some riders were incensed that it cost 5-cents from Port Chester to the Mianus River, and another 5-cents to Stamford! It wasn't until 1906 that a stronger steel bridge was constructed that could support the trolley and allow "through" service.

Around 1906 workers began to install double tracks along portions of East Putnam Avenue and Greenwich Avenue. Passbys had to be built where Greenwich Avenue was too narrow for double tracks. This must have been necessary for the increase in trolley traffic.

About the same time, a secondary line from Stamford evolved. This trolley ran from Stamford Square via Fairfield Avenue to Shore Road up Sound Beach Avenue through Old Greenwich (Sound Beach) to Adam's Corner. A short spur line was also constructed west at the southern end of Sound Beach Avenue along Shore Road toward Greenwich Point. The trolley looped around a house across the street from the Harbor House and Inn. You can see where the trolley looped around the house today. Since this area had become something of a summer resort over the years, vacationers used the trolley to travel back and forth between Port Chester, central Greenwich and Stamford.

The future of the trolley appeared very bright in 1912 as the first trolley car to travel from Boston to New York passed through Greenwich. However, ridership began to decline with the invention of the automobile. Automobiles and buses took over the roads. These vehicles offered great flexibility since they required neither electric lines or track. And they could be driven just about anywhere at anytime. Trucks took  over a lot of the shipping business.  In 1922 service along Shore Road in Old Greenwich ceased as buses replaced trolleys. Other lines in town soon followed suit. Eventually, the track was removed and the trolleys disappeared.

Interestingly enough, in recent years the idea of using trolleys to alleviate parking congestion on Greenwich Avenue has been proposed. Imagine a trolley running up and down Greenwich Avenue, like the one in San Francisco. People could park their cars in the Island Beach parking lot and catch a trolley up the Avenue. Not only would this add some charm to the Avenue, but it could be a potential source of revenue.


Photo: Electric trolley and horse and buggy on Greenwich Avenue - 1906. 

 Greenwich Library Photo Collection






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This page is an archive of entries from October 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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