You don’t have to live in a place for very long before you start associating certain names with it – names that are often deeply rooted in the town’s history, like Silliman and Mead in New Canaan, Mather and Selleck in Darien, Raymond and Putnam in Rowayton. We hear them in passing, or see them on buildings and park signs, but usually never go beyond that. We don’t know the stories behind the history.
Several months ago we set out to discover just that: the backstories, if you will, of New Canaan, Darien and Rowayton. It took a lot of digging, but we think we’ve come up with a representative sample of people, places and events that are the bedrock of our three favorite communities.
The list is by no means conclusive, nor is it meant to be; but we think the tales told here are interesting, eye-opening and, in some cases, amusing. Chances are you’ll learn something you never knew before – and isn’t that the mark of a good story?
Natives of Fairfield County
Rowayton, Noroton, Ponus, Wahackme, Toquam – did you ever wonder where these names came from? The answer is from the Siwanoys or “south people,” who lived in southwestern Connecticut long before white men arrived on its shore.
A peaceful people, the Siwanoys spent the summer along the Sound fishing, gathering oysters and crabs, and cultivating corn and tobacco. Upland caves were sought out for protection during the winter.
Land treaties with the English began in 1640. And in April of that year, Captain Daniel Patrick negotiated for a section between the Norwalk and Five Mile Rivers extending inland “as far as a man can go in a day” (about twelve miles). The Siwanoys eventually moved on to Kent. Their burial ground near the water tower off Witch Lane in Rowayton was destroyed to make way for a twentieth-century housing development.
Jonathan Selleck (1640-1713)
John Selleck (1643-ca. 1689)
Seafaring merchants and Friends of Pirates
The Selleck brothers, Jonathan and John, arrived in Stamford around 1660. Sons of a Boston shipper, they pursued their own adventurous life at sea as merchants and sea captains. Jonathan was known as “Major,” John as “Captain.”
The young men married well, capturing the hands of the well-to-do Law sisters, Abigail and Sarah. The Laws were among the first settlers of Stamford, and the patriarch, Richard, was highly placed in society. As dowry, he gave each couple a house and a lot across from each other on what is now Atlantic Street.
The brothers established a fleet of ships and dealt with dangers on the high seas, including fickle weather and capture by Spanish, Dutch or French ships, depending on the war of the moment. But the greatest peril came at the hands of marauding pirates who infested the coastal waters of the Atlantic and the mouth of the Hudson River during what became known as the Golden Age of Piracy.
Jonathan Selleck established a warehouse on Long Island Sound that became a favorite hangout for merchants doing business with the Madagascar buccaneers. Their bootlegging activities did not go unnoticed by the authorities. Then-governor of New York the Earl of Bellomont accused the Sellecks of receiving at least 10,000 British pounds sterling worth of treasure and East India goods from the notorious Captain Kidd, a prominent figure of the day.
Looking to diversify, the brothers invested heavily in land in both Stamford and Darien. Vast swatches of property at Long Neck Point, Five Mile River, Noroton and Tokeneke made their way into the Selleck portfolio. The Tokeneke property became known as Selleck Farms, and present-day Tokeneke Road runs through Selleck Woods. While it’s doubtful that the brothers ever lived in Darien, their descendants did.
The brothers prospered for almost thirty years. Then, in 1689, John and his ship were captured by the French during a voyage to England. He never returned, leaving the shipping business to his brother. Jonathan outlived all of his immediate family, many of whom fell victim to an epidemic in 1711, and left his considerable estate to his grandchildren.
Reverend Moses Mather
Darien clergyman (1719-1806)
Son of a sea captain from Lyme, Moses Mather was a recent Yale grad when he was hired in 1739 as the first pastor of the Middlesex Society (today’s First Congregational Church of Darien). His two-year probationary period eventually stretched to sixty-four years – talk about job security!
Historians tell us that Mather was of medium height and slender, “distinguished for learning, piety, free and easy conversation, with a good business sense,” and tended to stand out in a crowd because of the long Quaker coat he always wore. A family man who married three times and fathered ten children, he received a doctor of divinity degree from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1791.
Like most of his fellow ministers in western Connecticut, Mather was an “Old Light” preacher who shied away from the more emotional style of worship practiced by “New Light” counterparts on the eastern side of the state. An intellectually inclined and public-spirited patriot, he was interested in Enlightenment principles as they applied to politics and published several controversial tracts.
During the Revolutionary War, Reverend Mather was imprisoned numerous times because of his patriotic leanings. On one occasion, when he was in his sixties, a band of local Tories disrupted services at the meeting house, capturing the minister and two dozen parishioners. They spent five months in foul British prisons in New York City before the survivors were exchanged and returned to their homes.
After Mather’s death at age eighty-seven, Yale College President Timothy Dwight praised Mather for his exemplary life. “His natural temper was grave and unbending,” he said during a visit to town. “His candor was that of the Gospel.”
Mather’s remains are buried in Rowayton Cemetery under a headstone carved with his chosen epitaph: “Death is a debt to nature due / Which I have payed and so must you.”
Thaddeus Bell Jr.
Father of Darien (1759-1851)
Revolutionary War hero Sergeant Thaddeus Bell was among the patriots who, in 1777, forced the redcoats to retreat from a burned-out Danbury to their ships anchored off Saugatuck (present-day Westport). Bell was also among the reinforcements at the burning of Norwalk two years later.
Seized along with Reverend Moses Mather and other Congregationalists from a worship service in what was then Middlesex Parish, Bell languished for months in a British prison in New York City and had to be carried home on a stretcher.
After the war, Bell went on to serve his hometown in the state legislature, leading the charge for independence from Stamford in 1820. Rejecting calls to change the town’s name to Bellville, he is credited with proposing the name Darien instead.
The Shakers & Stephen Fitch (1810-1812)
Noted Shaker historian Gerard C. Wertkin has long maintained that the story of the “little family of Believers who sought to establish Zion on the rocky soil of Clapboard Hill” makes for a fascinating chapter in the history of both New Canaan and Shaker Society. At the very least, it makes for intriguing storytelling.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing arrived in North America from England in 1774. Known for their ecstatic forms of worship, they practiced celibacy and the sharing of community goods.
Their New Canaan association began in late 1809 when Stephen Fitch, a prosperous landowner from a prominent local family, visited the Shaker Village at New Lebanon, New York. Fitch, on the heels of a marriage that had recently ended after a torrent of domestic abuse allegations from his wife, presented himself “as a kind of Joseph to lead us to great improvement,” according to one first-person account.
Trusting souls that they were, the Shakers cast aside doubts as to his true motives and accepted Fitch, his aged mother and three sons into their community. Within months they agreed to care for his family, execute a note to purchase 130 acres of land he owned in New Canaan, and pick up his alimony payments to his ex-wife.
By March 1810 a contingent of Shakers rolled into town and set about putting the Clapboard Hill property in order. They purchased a small adjoining parcel of land from Isaac and Elizabeth Keeler, and they frequently played host to visitors from other Shaker villages, which now numbered more than a dozen.
Meanwhile, the unencumbered Fitch was free to travel at will, tending to his business interests. He may have led the Shakers to believe that he would eventually turn his private property over to the common fund, but he never delivered.
The bright new beginning soon fizzled. In January 1811 Fitch demanded and received payment in full of his $7,000 note, but by then the Shakers had thrown in the towel. They returned the Fitch boys to their father, sold the farm to Jacob Selleck for a $2,000 profit, and returned to New York State by the following year.
Wertkin notes that the New Canaan venture was one of the few unsuccessful Shaker attempts to establish their religion in a new area, speculating that “the imposing figure of Stephen Fitch may have doomed it from the beginning.”
Had the community remained and prospered, it certainly would have shaped the town’s history. As Elder Calvin Green wrote, “I have no doubt it would have been quite a gathering place had it been continued.”
Morals crusader (1844-1925)
As a young Union infantryman during the Civil War, Anthony Comstock strenuously objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers. No surprise, then, that the New Canaan native would go on to devote his career to the promotion of public morality on a grand scale.
After the war Comstock moved to New York City where he worked as a salesman. A devout Christian and Victorian moralist, he was inspired by the YMCA’s campaign against obscene literature and began slipping police information for raids on sextrade merchants.
In 1873 he created the Society for the Suppression of Vice and successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Comstock Law, making illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material, including contraceptives, the root of lust and lewdness as far as he was concerned.
After Comstock tipped off New York police to the content of George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the playwright coined the term comstockery, meaning “censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality.”
“Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States,” Shaw wrote. “It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”
Comstock’s intense support from church-based groups was countered by equally intense loathing from early civil liberties groups. The savvy New York political insider parlayed both into an appointment as a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service, which included police powers.
His twin obsessions were the distribution of pornography and commercial fraud, and he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either. The criteria for the former were quite broad; as a result, some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students through the mail.
Comstock’s health declined during his later years after he suffered a severe blow to the head from an anonymous attacker. To sustain his cause, he wrote newspaper articles and lectured to college audiences, attracting the interest of a young law student named J. Edgar Hoover, who later conducted his own surreptitious brand of scandalmongering during his half century as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
By at least one account, Comstock caused the arrest of more than 3,000 people, and the destruction of fifteen tons of books, hundreds of thousands of pounds of printing plates, and nearly four million pictures he deemed objectionable.
New Canaan’s Church Hill
New Canaan residents lovingly refer to their town as the “Next Station to Heaven,” so it’s only appropriate that they’ve also carved out their very own God’s Acre, also known as Church Hill.
Tucked away in the historic district, the half-acre, triangle-shaped plot sits on a steep hillside delineated by Park Street, Oenoke Lane and St. John’s Place. It was named for its three churches: Congregational, Lutheran and Christian Science. The white steeple of the 1843 Congregational Church is one of New Canaan’s most recognizable landmarks. Another – the Wayside Cross, a soldiers and sailors monument – was erected in 1923.
The hill has been the focal point of the community since it was established in 1731 by the Society of Canaan, whose main purpose was to provide a Congregational meetinghouse that would eliminate the need to travel to Stamford or Norwalk for services. The land was given to Canaan Parish by the Proprietors of Norwalk and has, in effect, taken the place of the traditional New England town green. It has been the site of New Canaan’s annual community Christmas Eve carol sing since 1916.
The hillside area opposite the Congregational Church was an early colonial burial ground that was used until it filled in 1857. Gravestones were moved to the Parade Hill and Lakeview Cemeteries.
Heart of old Rowayton (ca. 1820)
The brown-shingled walls of the Seeley-Dibble-Pinkney House at 117 Rowayton Avenue have many tales to tell of a family that lived there continuously for a century and a half.
Alfred Seeley and his New Canaan bride, Hannah Hoyt, were the property’s third owners when they bought it in 1820. Seeley owned and operated the sloop-rigged packet Enterprise, which sailed regularly to New York; Hannah kept an oil lamp shining downstream from the south window of the sitting room to welcome the men home.
The Seeleys passed the homestead from generation to generation through their youngest daughter, also named Hannah. She and her husband, Alfonso Dibble, endeared themselves to neighborhood youngsters when they removed a section of their stone wall, giving sledders a clear shot down Pennoyer Street hill, across Rowayton Avenue and through the property onto the frozen river.
Their daughter, Gertrude, was born in 1870 and lived in the home with her husband, William Pinkney. Her childhood was spent watching oystermen run sloops up and down the river. “Immaculate little vessels, each with a mains’l and a jib, with the hulls painted in rainbow stripes,” she recalled for a United Church of Rowayton publication back in the 1950s.
William Pinkney Jr. wed Dorothy Cowles, and was the last of the line to live in Pinkney House – and the last to confirm hearing the footsteps of its resident (friendly) ghost. Dorothy speculated that it was the spirit of Lydia, the only child of Samuel Richards, the original owner of the house. But some believe it is Emily Seeley, Hannah’s sister, who was born in the house and died in childbirth a year into her marriage.
In 1966, just one step ahead of the developers, the Sixth Taxing District purchased Pinkney House and the surrounding four acres from Dorothy Cowles Pinkney. The house is now home to the Rowayton Historical Society, and the park is the setting for numerous community events, including the annual Shakespeare on the Sound performances.
Rock Ledge, the impressive fieldstone and granite manor at 40 Highland Avenue in Rowayton, has a long and diverse history. It’s been a private family home, an exclusive girls’ prep school, and the offices of at least three corporations, most recently Hewitt Associates.
Its tale begins in 1910, when James A. Farrell, president of U.S. Steel and founder of the Farrell Steamship Lines, chose Rowayton as his permanent residence. His association with the area dated back to the 1890s, when he and his family were “summer people” on Bell Island and in Hickory Bluff.
Farrell snapped up two large tracts of land from the Raymond family on either side of Highland Avenue. On the east side, he constructed an elegant, half-timbered Elizabethan-style country estate and gatehouse; across the street he put in gardens, a horse barn/carriage house, and other outbuildings in the same architectural style. Construction was completed in 1912, in plenty of time for his daughter Theresa’s wedding to J. Bradley Murray the following June.
During the reception, however, a fire broke out. Some reports claim that the Rowayton Hose Company and the Norwalk Fire Department argued over jurisdiction while flames consumed the mansion (along with the groom’s getaway pants and the $1,000 in honeymoon money tucked into a pocket).
The Farrells built a new home on the same site. The second-largest estate in Norwalk after the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, it was large enough to require eight full-time employees to keep it running smoothly. The couple lived there until their deaths in the early 1940s.
Boylston Carriage Works
Employment opportunities in Rowayton immediately following the Civil War were pretty sparse, unless you were an oysterman. In fact, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the only manufacturer in town was the Boylston Carriage Works. Its three-story, mansard-roofed factory dominated 293-299 Rowayton Avenue along the railroad tracks.
The first to incorporate steel springs for mounting carriage bodies to the wheels, Boylston turned out fashionable, high-quality baby and doll carriages, invalid chairs and velocipedes – early bicycles that were propelled by pushing the feet along the ground. The carriages, which featured basketlike bodies of woven reed, were sold directly to the public from a company-owned outlet in Brooklyn. At its peak Boylston employed about thirty people locally.
The company ceased operation around the time of World War I. The building was occupied by a number of smaller operations, including a dye works that released dyes directly into the Five Mile River, coloring it as far downstream as the White Bridge. The building was destroyed by fire in February 1944.
Walter Stewart’s Market
Centennial of service
The fourth generation of Stewarts is ushering in its second century in business in New Canaan this year – a milestone that would make the family patriarch proud.
Irish immigrant Walter Stewart established the town institution in 1907 by buying out the George Wilser grocery on Main Street, opposite Town Hall. He offered both “charge” and “cash-and-carry” operations in what would eventually become the first of eight stores, and he was the first merchant in town catering to the growing summer trade. Home deliveries were made by horse-drawn wagon and a 1915 Model T Ford, a replica of which is regularly on display at town events.
Carrying customers on credit during the Depression took its toll, forcing Stewart to sell off all but the original store. His son, Walter Sr., eventually paid off creditors and led the business into a new era. In 1957 Stewart’s moved to its present location on Elm Street, into a futuristic (for the time) building featuring a concrete domed roof and massive expanses of glass.
Third-generation proprietor Robert Bailey Stewart added a spirits shop and expanded the supermarket before handing it off to nephews Alex and Doug Stewart, who manage the operation today. Amenities like online shopping and popular programs like Donation Days, which have raised an estimated $100,000 for local and national charities over the years, are part of their commitment to their customers and their community.
New Canaan Nurseries
Historically, family names often become synonymous with a service or business. In New Canaan examples include Stewart (grocers) and Mead (mercantilist, politician and philanthropist). Then there were the Hoyts, who for four generations owned New Canaan Nurseries, the town’s longest-lived business.
In 1838 wealthy storekeeper Stephen Hoyt Jr. purchased the Fitch-Shaker-Selleck land on the west side of Upper Clapboard Hill. Rocky and depleted, these 160 acres of farmland included two run-down dwellings and a dilapidated barn.
Hoyt had no agricultural experience, but the farm soon became his focus. The gentleman farmer first raised onions, grain and cattle, all marketable in New York City. His cows supplied enough milk for Hoyt to establish New Canaan’s first commercial dairy route.
In 1848 Hoyt partnered with David C. Scofield with a notion of starting a tree nursery. In less than three years, the pair had turned over fifteen acres of the farm to the cultivation of fruit and ornamental trees, grapevines, raspberry bushes and strawberry plants. By the 1850s the nursery was one of only three in Connecticut and business was good.
Within eight years, however, the Stephen Hoyt & Company partnership was dissolved when Hoyt abruptly paid off Scofield. Records show that Hoyt possessed a Yankee resoluteness that would fly in the face of a more contemporary “the customer is always right” business philosophy. When asked about a guarantee on his wares, Hoyt’s response was, “It’s a good tree I have sold you. If it lives, it’s yours; if it dies, it’s yours.”
Months after Hoyt’s death in 1879, his sons Edwin and James changed the company name to Stephen Hoyt’s Sons and started buying more land. The original fifteen acres ultimately grew to almost 700, and a few thousand seedlings had sprouted into millions of trees, vines, bushes and plants.
In time, Hoyt’s Farms became one of the largest nurseries in the Northeast and the largest in Connecticut, employing as many as eighty men. Main Street and South Avenue are still lined with large maple trees that Edwin Hoyt gave to residents to beautify the town.
Following a name change to Hoyt Nursery in 1925, business began to slow down and the family sold off small plots of land. The Depression, fires, freakish weather and insect infestations took their toll over subsequent decades. A 1963 proposal by the State Department of Aeronautics to turn the nursery into an all-weather airport didn’t fly, but the family finally sold out in 1970 to RCA. Its proposed executive campus never made it off the drawing board, and the business giant sold the land for the residential development now known as Hoyt Farms.
Birthplace of the computer
Shortly after the deaths of the Farrells, the original owners of Rock Ledge in Rowayton, the fifteen-acre estate was purchased by James Rand of Darien, chairman of the board of the Remington Rand Corporation, for his company headquarters. Executive offices were in the main building, while researchers were consigned to the stables, nicknamed the Barn.
At the time Remington Rand manufactured office furniture, machines and systems, but it soon turned its attention to the nascent business- computer field. To stay ahead of the competition (IBM), 185 employees worked practically around the clock on the secret project that would become the Remington Rand 409.
“We had no clue of the significance of our work,” recalls Bill Wenning, who was a twenty-year-old technical engineering graduate when he joined the project in 1949. “For $45 a week, you don’t think about those things!”
Ultimately, the hulking behemoth stood five feet high, seven feet long and two feet deep, with an equally large punch card unit that fed it information. It was sold as the UNIVAC 60 and the UNIVAC 120, with the model numbers referring to the number of decimal digits the then state-of-the-art vacuum-tube memory storage provided for data. The first prototype was unveiled for potential customers in 1951, and the second was installed at the IRS center in Baltimore that same year.
Purchased by the Sixth Taxing District of Norwalk in the mid-1960s, the Barn is now the Rowayton Community Center and Library, and the reading room is located where the computer labs once were.
Hugh W. Collender
When Irish-born Hugh W. Collender established his billiard company in 1873 in a five-story building at the head of Pacific Street in Stamford, the Darien resident was already the heir apparent to the industry in this country. After all, he was married to the daughter of Michael Phelan, a fellow immigrant from the Old Sod and widely recognized as the Father of American Billiards for his skill at the game.
In less than a decade, the H.W. Collender Company employed 200 workers, making it the leading billiard manufacturer in the country. Even after fire destroyed the factory one winter night in 1883, its owner had enough assets to cover the $200,000 loss, rebuild and open as the Collender Wood Working Company. Within a year the company merged with its main rival to become the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, the largest billiard equipment operation in the world.
Oystering on the Sound
By the late 1800s, thirty-five oyster companies operated out of the Five Mile River. The big names were Oliver Cook, Craw & L’Hommedieu, Captain William “Ike” Stevens and the Lowndes Brothers.
As oystermen began building homes in Rowayton in the 1830s, a hierarchy emerged: captains along “Oysterman’s Row” on Rowayton Avenue, mates and crewmen on back streets like Crockett Street and Craw Avenue.
Even in a poor harvest year, like 1879, the fleet dredged 50,000 barrels of oysters, enough to earn Rowayton and South Norwalk the title “Oyster Capital of the World.” The mollusks were shipped to New York City in wooden barrels covered with burlap to allow them to breathe. Some traveled as far as England, where Queen Victoria reportedly preferred the smaller bivalves, dubbed “London Stock” by her loyal subjects.
Although the industry continues to this day in South Norwalk, Rowayton’s heyday ended by World War II due to overfishing, storms that destroyed the beds and pollution. But it’s celebrated each September at the renowned Oyster Festival sponsored by the Norwalk Seaport Association.
“Lone Wolf” of Darien (1900-1959)
He was known as “Famous Amos” and the “Lone Wolf of the Post Road,” and the New York Daily Mirror paid tribute to him in one of its “Above the Crowd” features. By all accounts, Lieutenant Amos Roosevelt Anderson was the most renowned police officer the town of Darien has ever produced. But despite his highly publicized one-man war on crime, this decorated cop’s cop left the force under a cloud of accusations and innuendo.
Prior to joining the Darien Police Department in 1925, the Cos Cob native served as a machine gunner and motor-cycle dispatch rider in France during World War I. Back home, he parlayed those skills into chasing down Prohibition-era bootleggers and car thieves along the Boston Post Road on his Indian motor-cycle. And he teamed up with fellow officers in numerous raids for illegal hooch, including one at the Yellow Astor Tearoom on Gardiner Street.
But it was gun battles with fugitives that splashed Anderson’s name across the media of the day, both local and national. As a rookie, he single-handedly captured four armed murder suspects from Brooklyn; three ended up in the chair at Sing Sing, and Anderson was eventually awarded a Silver Star, the department’s highest honor.
His reputation as a daredevil grew. “He fights alone,” trumpeted the Daily Mirror in its inimitable style in 1933. “He’s been in 5 gun fights on his machine at 70 miles an hour. He carries 14 gun wounds and has had 21 bones broken!”
Anderson’s glory lasted two decades, until he was abruptly suspended from the force in August 1945 for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Specifics were never revealed, but he was reportedly linked to a New York mob-run bawdy house on Noroton’s swanky Ring’s End Road that had been raided the previous April. Gossip ran rampant in town as Anderson’s defenders claimed an envious police chief and police commission had framed him.
A judge committed Anderson to a mental hospital for ninety days; once released he threw himself on the mercy of the court and received a three-year suspended sentence.
The Lone Wolf died thirteen years later and is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, within sight of the Darien Police Department.
The Leather Man
Itinerant wanderer (?-1889)
One of the most intriguing stories of New England folklore revolves around the Leather Man, a peripatetic vagabond and fixture in numerous Connecticut communities (including Darien and New Canaan) for more than thirty years.
Although recently under dispute, Legend has it that the Leather Man was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman whose great romance was broken up by his future father-in-law after Bourglay caused the family’s leather business to fail in 1855. The distraught young man was placed under the care of a physician and disappeared two years later.
Skip ahead to 1858, when residents in Litchfield County noticed a newcomer to the area. The man, wearing a sixty-pound suit of leather patches, stayed just one day and left, only to return a month later. Direct inquiries as to whom he was were met with silence, so he was dubbed “The Leather Man” for his attire.
Eventually the curious learned that the stranger traveled a circuit of 365 miles, covering 10 miles a day and allowing plenty of time for rest and refreshment. He reportedly always walked in a clockwise direction along a route that encompassed a broad area between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River in New York.
In time the Leather Man was accepted for what he was – an itinerant who wished to be left alone. Relying on the generosity of others for food, tobacco and matches only, he slept in caves, moving on every morning only to return exactly thirty-four days later. It has been said that his routine was so regular that housewives, dozens of whom fed him, set their clocks by him.
The Blizzard of 1888 was the Leather Man’s undoing. The rigors of that March storm caused him to fall four days behind schedule. A year later he died in a shelter on the Dell family farm in Briarcliff, New York.
He was buried as a public charge in an unmarked grave. The Westchester County Historical Society found the site and placed a modest headstone on it in the 1930s, identifying it as “the final resting place of Jules Bourglay, The Leather Man.”
The Merritt Parkway
Completed in 1940
By the end of World War I, the Post Road through coastal Fairfield County had become a major debacle (much as its neighbor, I-95, is today). It carried cars and trucks far beyond its capacity, resulting in serious accidents, massive traffic jams and deteriorating road surfaces. The first alternative attempted by the state was the Merritt Parkway, originally proposed in 1923 and named after nine-term Stamford Republican Congressman Schuyler Merritt.
Early plans were for a four-lane superhighway linking up with the Hutchinson River Parkway at the New York State line and running through to New Haven, with a total projected cost of $4.5 million. Delayed by land acquisitions (including thirty-three acres from the Lapham family in New Canaan), the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that ensued, plus squabbles over its route (at one time no less than six alternatives were proposed), the first shovel of dirt was turned over at Greenwich in 1934. By then the Merritt had been designated truck-free and extended to Stratford.
Former New Canaan First Selectman Charles P. Morton, who was around during construction, has noted that the parkway was “truly a story of beauty and the beast.” Beauty because the state was determined the roadway would be scenic as well as functional, and beast because of the corruption involved in any project of this magnitude. Numerous investigations into malfeasance were conducted, and at least one felony conviction for dubious land schemes resulted against Darien real estate broker and former Republican Assemblyman G. Leroy Kemp.
In the end, however, the revitalization that the Merritt brought to the region overshadowed the negatives associated with the project, whose final price tag had ballooned to $22.7 million. When it opened, it won praise from the Bridgeport Post that is more than slightly ironic today: “It shows what the highway of the future should look like: a highway where the eye is filled with beauty and the mind with peace as the car purrs safely along.”
I-95 to the Rescue
Unclogging the bottleneck
The Boston Post Road (a.k.a. U.S. 1) had been the main north-south artery through New England since colonial times. But by the early 1920s, the two-lane road had become woefully inadequate to handle the 25,000 vehicles – twice its design capacity – that used it each day in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
Construction of the Merritt Parkway during the thirties would bring some relief for motorists, but a new express route that could handle commercial traffic was needed. In 1947 the Connecticut state legislature got the ball rolling with a study of potential routes along Long Island Sound.
In anticipation, U.S. 1 Expressway bypasses were built in a number of towns – including Darien in 1954 – and later incorporated into I-95. Simultaneously, the legislature authorized construction of the “Greenwich- Killingly Expressway,” 129 miles of toll superhighway connecting the New York metropolitan area with Rhode Island. When construction began in January 1955, the highway had a catchier new name: the Connecticut Turnpike.
Running the show was Darien’s own Assemblyman Gennaro W. Frate, then chairman of the Highway and Bridge Committee. A son of Italian immigrants, he and wife Lottie owned the Darien News Store on Tokeneke Road. Gennaro was also the assistant golf pro at the original Wee Burn Golf Club and a member of a founding family of the Piedmont Club. His contributions are recognized in the flagpole plaque at Goodwives Shopping Center.
The most significant public works project of the postwar era, the Connecticut Turnpike was built in more than 100 sections, involved designers from twenty-six engineering firms, cost $464 million and opened to traffic less than three years after construction began.
New Canaan Rail Road Company
By the mid-1850s, people in New Canaan were well aware that they lived “on the wrong side of the tracks.” No direct rail service meant the town had trouble attracting new, job-creating manufacturers, and farmers were forced to drive their produce to market by horse and wagon.
Long-discussed plans for a railroad connection to the south came to fruition in 1866 when the First National Bank opened subscription lists to raise $150,000 for the proposed New Canaan Rail Road Company. Potential shippers like shoe manufacturer Benedict, Webb & Co., lumber and coal purveyors Comstock Rogers & Co. and Watts Comstock & Son, and nurserymen at Stephen Hoyt & Sons all bought in, fully expecting that investors in Stamford would go halves with them.
They didn’t, despite great fanfare promoting the venture. When the railroad opened on July 4, 1868, New Canaan investors (including the town itself) were left holding the bag on a project whose cost had escalated to close to $250,000.
Some good did come of the situation, though. The mail came and left by train; a produce car on the early morning run enabled farmers to consign their crops for resale in New York; and 11,000 passengers had used the service by the end of the year to travel to Stamford and beyond. Elm Street was even renamed Rail Road and then Railroad Avenue, an appellation that stuck until 1936.
But new businesses that would employ local people were, for the most part, not forthcoming. The railroad itself created only two new jobs: a stationmaster/freight agent and a night watchman.
By 1878 the NCRR was mortgaged by its board of directors to three trustees who, even with concessions from creditors, could not pull off a miracle. They foreclosed in 1882, and the company ceased operation on February 1, 1883. It was succeeded by the new Stamford & New Canaan Railroad Co., which was soon leased to the New York, New Haven & Hartford line. It completely merged into the New Haven line in 1890.
Rails to Rowayton
What’s in a name?
With the advent of rail service between New York and New Haven in 1848, it was only a matter of another twenty years before Rowayton got its own depot. But it wasn’t too early to start planning …
Charles L. Raymond got the ball rolling by constructing a four-story hotel catering to seasonal visitors on the corner of Main and North Streets (now Rowayton and Wilson Avenues). He was gambling that a new crop of summer people could be lured in, just as the first wave of wealthy denizens from Danbury and New York had been drawn to Hickory Bluff, Bell Island and Pine Point earlier in the century.
Additionally, trains were emerging as the preferred transport for coal, which was be-coming popular for home heating, as well as lumber and the U.S. Mail – all commodities the community’s residents needed.
But what to call the depot? Five Mile River was the designation from the railroad company, to which the locals proposed adding either Landing, Crossing or Depot. Postal authorities, however, shot down all three suggestions because there were too many characters to fit on a postmark.
Locally, debate centered on Five Mile River, Rowayton and Grantville, in honor of Jacob Grant, who had donated a large parcel of land for the station’s platform and buildings.
Grantville prevailed at a village meeting vote in December 1868, but the railroad continued to use Five Mile River, and the post office stuck with Rowayton. Some twenty-five years later, the railroad acquiesced, changing its sign to Rowayton – and Grantville was lost to posterity.
To read the remainder of this story, see the January 2007 issue of New Canaan Darien Magazine.