A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who was Major Deegan of N.Y. expressway fame?

November 3, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Who was Major Deegan, after whom the expressway in New York is named? I've looked everywhere (via my PC)--the Encyclopedia of New York City, the New York Public Library Desk Reference, the Library of Congress web site, almanacs, MS Encarta, and every search engine I could think of. I've asked my attorney. He's lived in New York all his life and knows EVERYTHING. His answer "I used to know that."

Not important - just driving me nuts. 

Woo. You weren't kidding, Stevie boy. I pounded the virtual pavement myself, thumbed through dozens of books in the local Barnes and Noble without buying anything, all seemingly for naught. But then you find out it's not the size of your search engine, it's how you use it. Forget all the big name engines--I finally found paydirt at All the Web (www.alltheweb.com). One of the first results to pop up was an article from www.bronx.com, and thus the truth was revealed. Here 'tis, culled from an article by Lloyd Ultan, Bronx borough historian:

William Francis Deegan was born in what is now the Bronx in 1882. Educated as an architect at Cooper Union, he was commissioned as a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he served under the command of General George Goethals, the builder of the Panama Canal. During World War I Deegan spent no time in the trenches; instead he oversaw the construction of army bases in and around New York, rising to the rank of major before war's end. After the war, he helped organize the returning veterans into the American Legion and in 1921 was named New York State Commander.

Deegan was a devoted Democrat, a political leader, and a personal friend of Mayor Jimmy Walker--maybe now you start to see why he had a highway named after him. In 1928 Walker appointed him the Tenement House Commissioner, what would today be called the Buildings Commissioner. In 1930 Deegan was given the chairmanship of the Mayor's Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests--he became the city's official greeter. Today, he'd have had to eat cake with Hillary.

Deegan was also elected President of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. He felt obliged to resign when the chamber criticized Jimmy Walker, but otherwise the mayor's problems didn't hurt Bill, the original Teflon Man. He even stayed on as Tenement House Commissioner after Mayor Walker was removed from office for corruption by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Every year, Deegan's friend's would host a party in his honor at the Concourse Plaza Hotel.

Then Bill had to go and ruin everything by dying during an operation for appendicitis in 1932. His many friends launched a campaign to have the approach road leading from the new Triborough Bridge to the Grand Concourse named in his honor. After World War II, when Robert Moses pushed the original highway north along the Harlem River and through Van Cortland Park to connect with the New York State Thruway and upstate New York, "Deegan Boulevard" became the Major Deegan Expressway.

There was some talk, recently, of renaming the expressway for the then-ailing Joe DiMaggio. Given Deegan's contributions, let them give Joltin' Joe the West Side Highway instead.

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