Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Origin and Impact of the Adirondack Northway

i87When my parents came to the Adirondacks in 1956, they believed they were moving to a place far removed – culturally and politically as well as geographically – from the cities in which they had worked as left-wing journalists.

Beyond the Adirondacks lay “the big world,” as our neighbor Peggy Hamilton called it. (It was a world she was familiar with, having been the companion of Vida Mulholland and, like Vida and her more famous sister Inez, an early advocate of women’s rights.)

The 175 mile-long Northway between Albany and Montreal, which Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially declared completed ten years later, brought that world much closer.

For practical as well as political reasons, the last stretch to be completed was the piece that crossed the Forest Preserve between Ausable Chasm and Lake George, an accomplishment possible only after the passage of a constitutional referendum allowing the condemnation of 254 acres.

As a newspaper editor, my father supported the constitutional amendment, arguing “We need trunk line highways connecting our communities with the great population areas to the north and south.”

Roger Tubby, the publisher of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, led a committee organized to secure passage of the proposition.

“I was accused of being on both sides of the fence, because on one hand, I wanted to keep suburban sprawl from entering the Adirondacks, and, on the other, I felt that the Northway would fulfill our industries’ need for better roads and open the area to year-round tourism,” Tubby told me in an interview conducted before his death in 1991.

The amendment passed by 400,000 votes state-wide and by far larger margins in Essex and Warren Counties.

Tubby, who had been President Harry Truman’s press secretary, my parents, and many of their mutual friends, were part of a generation whose attitudes had been shaped by the urban experience but who chose to make lives in the country.

Their stories were captured and at least to some extent, perhaps, inspired by many books published in the 1940s and 50s, including Granville Hicks’ Small Town, Henry Beetle Hough’s Country Editor, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm and Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life. Eric Hodgins’ Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was the comic equivalent of those books.

I’ve often wondered if people like my father, Roger Tubby and Dick Lawrence, a former New Yorker who was the Adirondack Park Agency’s first chairman, were troubled by the tension between their pursuit of a rural life on the one hand and their support for the Northway on the other.

The Northway can be blamed for eviscerating the Main Street economies of towns like Warrensburg and Elizabethtown, encouraging travelers to hurry past them and the residents to do their shopping at the plazas being constructed on the margins of Glens Falls and Plattsburgh.

(Prior to the construction of the Northway, a visit to one of those cities merited a mention in the columns of the weekly newspaper.)

i87But the Northway can also be credited for increasing the size of a constituency supporting the protection of the Adirondacks, one that included those who now had access to the largest wilderness in the northeast.

Even before the Northway was completed, conservationists warned that the new highway, when added to increasing demands for second homes and recreational opportunities, would place an unprecedented stress upon the Adirondacks.

So it’s not surprising that within two years of opening the highway, Governor Rockefeller appointed his Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks to recommend measures to protect the Park.

I find it interesting that the Commission included Lawrence, my father and Roger Tubby’s partner at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Jim Loeb; and that the founders of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy included people like Wayne Byrne, a Yale Forestry School graduate who had taken over his wife’s family’s hardware business in Plattsburgh.

Perhaps because they chose to re-locate themselves to the country, they were more sensitive to its value than others may have been.

It can be argued that the Northway destroyed whatever space remained between the cities that people like my parents had fled and the refuge they sought in the Adirondacks.

To do so, however, is to overlook the fact that the country, as an intellectual construct at least, had been undermined long before the Northway was completed, not only by the influence of mass culture but also by equally ubiquitous corrosives such as pesticides, acid rain and even radiation from nuclear tests.

Fifty years after the completion of the Northway, we still live with its consequences, both good and ill: a wealthier economy but one less self-sufficient and one increasingly dependent upon tourists and second home owners; a protected Adirondack Park, but sometimes a crowded one, so much so that every so often New York State considers introducing limits to the numbers who can hike the High Peaks on any given day. Three cheers for the Northway? How about two?

A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror Magazine.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

25 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    What is also to be noted is that the Adirondacks have had a long relationship with those cities. Long before the automobile and highways pushed into the region, the railroads had already connected them to the rest of the world.

    That may have been starting to pass in 1956 as the reign of Detroit reshaped the country, but Saranac Lake used to see several dozen trains daily I believe, thanks to the Sanatorium, and both logging and mining provided traffic on the lines. Indeed, tourism for the rich was one of the reasons the Adirondacks were opened up in the first place – so they could get to their Great Camps.

    Only the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Saratoga & North Creek Railway still bring people up into the mountains, while Amtrak runs the former D&H route to Montreal. They all help keep the local economies going; logging and mining has seen its day, but people still want to come to the region, and not all want to have to drive. The living history of the region is under attack; save the rails, save the history – and the Adirondack communities.

    • Tim says:

      The train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake does not “bring people up into the mountains.” It’s a short, one-time experience. A bike trail, on the other hand, will be used over and over again by thousands, me included.

      • Larry Roth says:

        And how much new money will you bring into the area on a ‘Free’ trail? Why do you think it has to be one or the other?

        • NoTrace says:

          @ Larry: For a given rail – abandoned or not, it has to be one way or the other, obviously. Tim’s point is that a bike trail gets used over and over again, just like a hiking trail. People come for that experience, probably over and over, unlike, say, a tourist train that you might do once (one and done). When you get visitors who return again and again, you help the economy more than something that doesn’t augur a return visit. If that is true, then the answer to “how much new money will you bring into the area on a ‘Free’ trail” is: Lots.

    • alex says:

      If the ASR & Saratoga & North Creek Railways do such a bang up job at bringing people into the Adirondacks, why then does Iowa Pacific the owner of the Saratoga/North Creek Railway keep reporting over a million dollar loss every year; why did they NOT run the snow trains this year? Why does the ASR barely survive year after year.

      • NoTrace says:

        The answer is – although they will deny it – they are sabotaging their own operation so they can justify off-loading it when their contractual obligation to the State to run (I think) 50 trains/year on those tracks expires.

        They are doing this insidiously by not marketing the train, and getting rid of the amenities that once made it such an enjoyable experience – like the wonderful breakfast they served on board, and otherwise making it an unpleasant experience. Ultimately, that leads to a decline in ridership and the ability to go to the powers-that-be and say, ‘See’?

    • Dick Carlson says:

      I’ll let you know when I see someone with a suitcase depart the SNCRR in North Creek – not happening. As for logging and mining – day in and day out I pass log trucks coming and going down Rt. 28. Many thousands of acres are still in the forest products industry. Barton Mines is also doing quite well – and remains the oldest continuous run family mining operation in the country. I remember the pre-Thurway and pre-Northway drives – 9 hours from Long Island to Schroon Lake.

    • M Carew says:

      My sister and her husband have been logging since 1971 in Clinton and Essex Counties. Their son also has his own logging business.

  2. Angel Marvin says:

    Five generations of my family grew up on route 9 (Court St) in Elizabethtown and my dad told us that before the Northway it was difficult to cross the street for all the cars and especially trucks driving through. The day after it opened, one business owner took his chair, sat down in the middle of the street, and read his entire newspaper.

  3. Boreas says:

    Time and technology march on. I am sure similar laments were heard when rail transportation altered and killed certain stagecoach routes. When flying cars and teleportation are perfected, look out!

    But on a serious note, it is very sad to see the charming, now defunct and decrepit roadside motels/cabins, filling stations, and diners around the country. They had a good run over several decades, but the Interstate system changed America in profound ways. People and families that catered to Roadside America with the invention of the automobile and reasonable roads, had a choice of moving to different locations and starting anew, or trying to make do with past clientele and alternate sources of income. Those who moved found themselves up against slick, cookie-cutter national chains and corporations, and likely failed.

    But it seems ultimately it is now about the destination, not the route. There are certainly many places in the country not serviced by the Interstate system. Scenic Routes and Byways help pull some of the traffic from the Interstates. America’s aging Baby Boomers who remember these quaint roadside stops from their childhood now have more time on their hands and don’t necessarily want to travel Interstates exclusively.

    But now, these arteries and old state/national highways are crumbling and becoming unsafe at a faster rate than our Interstate system. But take note – BOTH are indeed crumbling. Should we invest in this alternate infrastructure in addition to Interstate infrastructure, or focus on just one? These are decisions younger generations who will pay for and build this infrastructure need to make. They grew up with the technology in place and do not likely understand fully how it’s degradation and loss would affect the country. Us old folks need to educate the young’uns so they can make good decisions in the future.

    • Boreas says:

      I just noticed – 3 paragraphs started with a “But”. That can’t be a good thing…

    • M Carew says:

      States collect a lot of property taxes and income taxes. If they would use it to support the infrastructure those taxes were put in place for and not give-a-way programs and social welfare all the roads, bridges etc. would be renewed! If you have bad infrastructure look at the trend of the political party put in office. They possibly promised but didn’t deliver and still want more taxes!

  4. Charlie S says:

    “Time and technology march on.”

    We have progressed technologically but we have stood still spiritually.

  5. Ellen Apperson Brown says:

    Nice to get this perspective! Thanks.

  6. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    An interesting and informative article. The focus is on people who came from elsewhere to live in the Adirondacks, and then took part in the issues leading to the Northway construction. In addition, many local people in the North Country participated, and some had a strong influence. Assemblyman James A. Fitzpatrick of Plattsburgh introduced the first Northway bill in 1954. Richard J. Bartlett of Queensbury and Lake George introduced the bill (1958) placing the highway on the west side of the Schroon River/Lake valley. Grant Johnson of Ticonderoga worked for the highway construction, as did prominent citizens in Schroon Lake, Elizabethtown and elsewhere.
    Thanks for the good article, reminding us of an important part of Adirondack history. Ann Breen Metcalfe

    • Anthony Hall says:

      Point taken. I was amused by the following: Having made
      certain the highway passed through the Adirondack Park, our leaders
      also wanted to ensure that it benefited the area economically. Among
      other things, they sought to extract the maximum of amount of publicity
      from the highway, which included having it named “the Adirondack
      Northway.” That, however, presented some difficulties, since the
      highway is a federal one and federal highways receive no designations
      beyond the numbers attached to them. The Northway’s official name
      was, and remains, I-87. Thanks to Assemblyman Dick Bartlett,
      though, travelers on highways over which the federal government has
      no jurisdiction and which happen to intersect with the interstate are
      directed to “the Adirondack Northway.”

  7. scottvanlaer says:

    Grant Thatcher was the Forest Ranger in North Hudson at the time of construction. Personally he was opposed to the Northway, although later in life he said it was probably a good thing. He issued burning permits and inspected fires the crews were making as they cleared the land. I believe he told a story about one burn pile escaping and causing a 20 acre fire.

    • Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

      I remember seeing those fires in North Hudson! Once after driving down Route 9 near them I called a motel (can’t remember the name) to see if they were all right. They said yes, but the fire had gotten pretty close.

  8. Dave Mason says:

    I recall the construction in the early 1960s. One other small point is that, at the time, the blue line did not extend to Lake Champlain – it was between Keene and Elizabethtown, so much of the Northway route was not in the Park at the time.

    The amendment that allowed use of the Forest Preserve land was managed in the form of a land bank. As construction proceeded, each Forest Preserve area was surveyed and deducted from the land bank. Some of the land bank remained and was used for the recent construction of the two rest areas between exits 29 and 30.

    It made the drive north from Albany a lot faster than driving route 9 through all the towns. We used to get caught up in Memorial Day and Labor Day parades on route 9. And then, once in a while, we’d get stuck behind an Army National Guard convoy on their way to Fort Drum. They would camp on Marcy Field in Keene. Following them made for a long slow trip. While faster, it certainly did have a negative impact of lots of the towns that were bypassed.

    • Anthony Hall says:

      Elizabethtown to Warrensburg-Lake George were certainly within the Blue Line before 1956 and before 1972 , when the Blue Line was extended to include portions of the Champlain Valley – by the 1930s if not before.

      So I’m not certain what you mean when you say “at the time, the blue line did not extend to Lake Champlain – it was between Keene and Elizabethtown, so much of the Northway route was not in the Park at the time.”

      • Dave Mason says:

        I went to check and you’re right. I was confusing the 1931 and 1972 changes to the blue line. Oops.

  9. Terry says:

    Various Keeseville businesses were negatively affected as well – motels, restaurants, downtown stores – with I-87’s construction.
    It’s a fond memory of mine, growing up there in the 50s and 60s, counting the many cars and trucks passing by our Route 9/ North Sable Street home, and being able to identify the various makes, models, and years of those vehicles!
    We were used to hearing the shifting of the tractor-trailers, as they meandered through the Village.

  10. Gordon Howard says:

    I don’t recall a time when Northway traffic flow was reversed; vehicles driving on the left as they do in Great Britain and its former colonies (Canada excepted). So, I believe that the photo at the top of this article is reversed.

  11. Tom Barron says:

    Nice article about the Northway.

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