On a recent drive in Clinton County, I was reminded of a story told to me by my grandfather, James Lagree. Jim was a Churubusco farmer, but he also worked other jobs, including road construction. We both loved fishing, and in my pre-teen years, he took me to all his secret places, including Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain. As it turned out, he had worked on construction of the Bradley Pond Road.
The conversation that day drifted to other roads, and that’s when he told me the story of a truck losing its brakes on Dannemora Mountain. It was hilarious the way he told it (he was great with jokes and embellishments), but I recently learned just how true the story was.
If you’ve ever driven east over the mountain, you’re familiar with one of the steepest roads and most dramatic speed changes in the Adirondacks. For the sake of all the strictly law-abiding drivers out there, yes, the change is technically no different from many others: a main highway (in this case, Rt. 374) enters a village, where the speed limit drops immediately to 30 mph.
But the difference is this: after a couple of curves during the brisk, mile-and-a-half descent, a final, steep, straight incline ends abruptly at the village limits. The road suddenly flattens, and perhaps not everyone has decelerated to 30 mph by that point. Add snow or ice, and you’ve got hellish road conditions.
But weather wasn’t a factor in two of the most famous incidents linked to that section of highway. One of them occurred in September 1930, when nationally renowned driver Ralph Hepburn visited the region.
Inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Hepburn won motorcycling championships and set records during a superb career, and then turned to automobiles. Many more records fell to his skills, and fifteen times he competed in the Indianapolis 500, never winning, but finishing second twice.
As the automobile industry flourished, racing champions were hired to promote and demonstrate the capabilities of different brands. Hepburn was employed by Studebaker in that capacity, and while touring New York State in 1930, he briefly set up headquarters at the dealership in Plattsburgh.
His highest-profile publicity stunt locally was a speedy climb up Dannemora Mountain, accompanied by two newspapermen. Despite the curves, he reached the summit while maintaining the astonishing speed of 50 mph. That was more than eighty years ago, when cars were in their infancy, and I can guarantee, I’ve been stuck going up that grade behind cars that were going much slower.
And consider this: when Hepburn did it, the road surface was composed of dirt and gravel, hardly conducive to high speeds and good traction.
Hepburn made a second run that day, carrying six passengers (some of them on the running boards, which must have been quite the rush). Carrying nearly 1300 pounds, the Studebaker crested the mountain at 41 mph. It was typical of Hepburn’s flare for the dramatic.
After the Dannemora exhibition, he continued promoting and racing for many years. Hepburn died doing what he loved (he was killed during qualifying practice for the 1948 Indy 500, a race he is famed for having led in three different decades―1925, 1937, and 1946).
The second famous incident on that notorious section of Dannemora highway occurred in October 1939. It began when a produce truck, driven by William Coryea of Malone, suffered brake failure while heading down the mountain. The road had been rebuilt with concrete several years earlier, which meant better tire grip and a smoother ride. To a freewheeling vehicle without brakes, it also meant greater velocity.
When Coryea reached the base of the mountain road, his speed was estimated at 60 mph. With the weight of 150 bushels of carrots on board, the truck was sure to coast for some distance. Stopping it would not be easy.
Racing through the village could have been disastrous, and Coryea had little time to think. After about three-tenths of a mile, near the gates of Dannemora Prison, he solidly sideswiped a moving car, and then another, sending carrots flying into the streets.
But the truck slowed only a little, and people were in danger. Coryea then hit a bread truck and two more parked cars. Bread products and carrots scattered everywhere while vehicles bounced aside, but still the truck kept rolling.
Finally, it slowed enough for Coryea to whip sharply onto a side street, where he drove the truck into a brick wall at the back of Lafountain’s store. The reason, as he later told police, was to avoid hitting any more vehicles. It’s amazing that through it all, there were no injuries.
I don’t know if my grandfather actually witnessed the aftermath, and although he was quite the storyteller, it doesn’t seem like he embellished it much after all. The crushed cars, with food scattered everywhere, and nobody hurt, were actually elements of the true story. Unlike many other Dannemora accidents on that stretch of highway, it thankfully lacked tragedy, and has been looked back upon with at least some amusement.
Photos: Ralph Hepburn (courtesy wikipedia); the maps shows Rt. 374 entering at the upper right and plunging into the village on the far left. Clinton Prison is at the bottom left.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.