Historical Perspectives / Ed Chrostowski
Highway 'death trap' claims more victims
Published 1:09 am, Friday, August 6, 2010
Three young men were critically injured when their car veered off a curve on Route 123 and crashed into a roadside tree on a Saturday night during this week in 1962.
The injuries were not life-threatening, but treatment and rehabilitation required long hospital stays for the 19-year-old accident victims, one from Laurel Road in New Canaan and the others from Stamford.
The accident occurred only about 100 yards from the site of a similar crash in which two youths were killed five nights earlier. Just two weeks previously, the State Highway Department reported that it was working on plans to widen and straighten the road that one-mile stretch of Route 123 between Michigan Road and the Vista, N.Y., line.
In fact, State Highway Commissioner Howard Ives had announced during the week that he would hold a public hearing in New Canaan on the proposed $250,000 road improvement to promote traffic safety there.
Meanwhile, efforts by Connecticut and New Canaan police to stem the highway carnage came under fire. An FBI agent and the attorney-general of New Jersey claimed that roadside blocks in towns bordering New York State were illegal. The roadside blocks were set up on weekends to check on whether young drivers coming from New York State had been drinking. The legal drinking age in New York was 18 while it was 21 in Connecticut and New Jersey and bars in those states closed earlier.
In New Canaan, Police Chief Henry "Red" Keller said he would ignore the legal challenges and the local department would continue to use "unmarked cars, sneaky tactics and anything else to stop the highway heartbreaks."
State Police Commissioner Leo Mulcahy echoed Keller's position and Gov. John Dempsey pleaded with parents to "step up" and emphasize to their teens that driving after drinking can be "extremely dangerous."
Highway mayhem wasn't the only headache for local police that week 48 years ago.
An unoccupied house on Stonehenge Road, just built by Robert Gilroy and on the market for $95,000, burned to the ground and police and fire officials suspected arson. Just seven months earlier, a similar pre-dawn blaze destroyed a new $85,000 house on Cross Ridge Road, built by John Cretella and still vacant. Police were trying to determine if there was any link between the two cases.
In more mundane activity during that week in 1962, a town meeting approved an appropriation of $50,000 for planning a new elementary school on a tract of land recently purchased from the Hoyt Nurseries at the corner of Silvermine Road and Route 123.
There were three votes against the proposal, including one by Bill Zucker of the Board of Education who said he agreed the town needed a fourth grammar school, but he felt it could be provided more economically than the million-plus dollars anticipated for this one.
Others at the town meeting asked for an explanation of Civil Defense Director Charles Morton's position on the $120,000 nuclear fall-out shelter than had been proposed and then eliminated from the plan for the new school. Morton said his request for the shelter hinged on if and when federal funds became available for it. Currently, he said, there was no federal commitment and so he agreed with dropping the idea.
As the "dog days" of August dawned, a report by Jim Eddy, New Canaan's amateur meteorologist, offered little consolation. Readings from his backyard weather station on Mariomi Road showed the area had experienced one of the "driest and coolest" Julys on record. Temperatures averaged in the 70s and hit 90 on only one day in the whole month. Rainfall totaled less than 2 inches.
So the weather was ideal for the New Canaan Fire Company's annual clambake attended by more than 100 men on the campus of St. Luke's School. North Wilton Road. Firehouse cooks manned the charcoal grills and the iced kegs.
New Canaan drivers who had struggled for decades with the huge hump in the roadway where Mead Street met South Avenue were relieved to see Cerretani Construction crews at work there. They flattened the pavement in a $4,500 project that promised a smoother ride for everybody.
Judy Perron, president of the Town Players, also gave the community something to look forward to. She announced that a production of "The Music Man" would be staged in the New Canaan High School auditorium this fall with Jack Sterling, a local resident and noted radio and television personality, in the lead role made famous by Robert Preston on Broadway.
Sterling's wife, Jan, and one of their five daughters would also be in the cast, she said, and Walter Schalk had been recruited to direct the choreography. In addition, Peter Van Steeden of New Canaan, leader of the orchestra on comedian Fred Allen's weekly network radio program, was the volunteer music director for the local production. All that was missing was Fred Allen's traditional directive, "Play, Peter."
It was all enough to make New Canaan anxious for autumn after a summer marred by highway tragedies and mysterious, destructive fires.
Ed Chrostowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.