What follows is a guest commentary by John Danis of the organization YESeleven, a grass roots citizens group in favor of upgrading Route 11 to rural expressway standards as set forth in the 2002 “Northern Tier Transportation Study” and opposed to the “I-98” (Rooftop Highway) project. Copies of the 2002 and 2008 transportation studies are available at their website.
“I-98”. There is no plan, no route, no funding. According to Wikipedia there is no federal designation of it as a current or future interstate highway project. The name, ‘I-98’ is fiction except in the minds of its proponents who created it as an advertising and promotion gimmick. Yet, here we go again with the “I-98” crowd doubling down on yet another propaganda campaign of resolutions from towns and villages in St. Lawrence County to once again try to create the illusion that everyone is in favor of this really bad idea. » Continue Reading.
As has happened for so many, many years now, the Rooftop Highway is in the news again, with plenty of pros and cons presented and a whole lot hanging in the balance. While listening to some of the arguments, it struck me that the idea is perhaps a little older than some of us think. Paul Sands of WPTZ recently commented that the Rooftop Highway idea hasn’t moved for 20 years, but at the very least, I’m old enough to recall the intense discussions during the 1970s, and that takes us back 40 years.
Of course, the record shows that the concept was legitimized a half-century ago when, in early 1961, the New York State legislature passed a bill that included the proposed road as part of the federal interstate highway system. In the 1960s, the idea was pushed by State Senator Robert McEwen (an Ogdensburg native) and Clinton County Assemblyman Robert Feinberg (Malone native and Plattsburgh resident). In fact, Feinberg said it would happen “sooner or later,” even if Governor Nelson Rockefeller vetoed the bill (which he did, after both houses passed it).
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Feinberg’s father, New York State Senator Benjamin Feinberg, was highly critical of the condition of the state’s highways in the late 1930s. At that time, he called for the construction of four-lane highways to help make travel safer. Decades later, Robert followed up on his father’s ideas.
Unnoticed in the mix was New York State Assemblyman Leslie G. Ryan (of Rouses Point), who presented serious arguments for the establishment of a main highway north to the Canadian border, and another running east from Clinton County to Watertown, the same concept known today as the Rooftop Highway.
Ryan’s ideas may well have been adopted by Congress when the interstate highway system later became reality. In 1940, when he proposed the idea of a multi-lane route across northern New York, his motivation came from several sources. Some of those same reasons were cited years later in the battle over the Rooftop Highway.
At the time, the United States was still fifteen months away from entering World War II. England and Canada, however, were at war with Germany. It occurred to Ryan and many others that a German victory could suddenly place the Nazis on our northern border, which was basically undefended.
(From the days of the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, the northern border had been a constant security concern. Since that time, the level of worry had waned, but it was still an issue.) By mid-1940, the Germans had won many victories, and Canada and Britain (among others) had already been at war with them for a year.
With German dominance a real possibility, Assemblyman Ryan addressed the problem eloquently in a letter to Congressman Clarence Kilburn, who in turn presented it at the federal level to the War Department. Ryan’s arguments were compelling.
“It seems to me that a weakness in our national defense, and one that would seriously hamper our cooperation with Canada, is our present system of main highways in northern New York. Over our narrow roads, it would be practically impossible to move large numbers of troops and military equipment, including heavy guns and tanks, with the speed necessary for effective operation in modern mechanized warfare.
“Because our Northern border is completely undefended, our inability to speedily concentrate forces in this section might well prove disastrous to our national defense, more particularly if Germany should defeat England and attempt an invasion of this country through Canada.
“It is my belief that the main highway from Glens Falls to the Canadian boundary at Rouses Point should be widened to provide three or four lanes, and the U. S. Highway No. 11 from Rouses Point through Champlain, Mooers, Ellenburg, Chateaugay, and Malone to Watertown and south to Syracuse, should likewise be widened, and much of it resurfaced with concrete.
“Such improvements would provide broad military highways from Albany, Syracuse, and then south to and along the Canadian boundary over which troops and military equipment could be moved speedily to the northern frontier if it should become necessary.
“They would also give direct connection between Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, and the three United States Army posts at Plattsburgh, Madison Barracks [Sackets Harbor], and Fort Ethan Allen, the latter by way of the Rouses Point bridge.”
Looking to the future, Ryan added, “In ordinary times, these three or four lane highways would be no more than adequate to care for our constantly increasing local and tourist automobile traffic.” In other words, the changes wouldn’t be overkill, even in peacetime.
In the 1960s, twenty years later, McEwen’s plan cited a top priority that was remarkably similar to Ryan’s: “From a defense standpoint, this Rooftop Highway could be very important. Such installations as Rome Air Force Base, Camp Drum, Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Atlas missile sites in the Plattsburgh area, and the Burlington dispersal area would be served by this Rooftop Highway.”
Most, if not all, media refer to the “original” plan floated in the early 1960s for a Rooftop Highway, but the concept was promoted by Assemblyman Leslie Ryan of Rouses Point two decades earlier. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, part of the blame or credit goes to Mr. Ryan.
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.
A tornado in the northeastern states, as happened recently in Massachusetts, is a comparatively rare event, but it’s by no means anything new. Many similar storms in the past have wreaked devastation in New York and New England, but few have had the incredible impact of the tornado that struck northern Franklin County on June 30, 1856.
The storm system caused chaos across the North Country, and in lower Quebec and northern Vermont as well, but the villages of Burke and Chateaugay bore the brunt of the damage when a tornado touched down, causing destruction of historic proportions. In the 1850s, northern Franklin County was mostly a vast, wooded wilderness. The arrival of the railroad had led to accelerated growth and the development of several population centers, including Burke and Chateaugay, just five miles apart in the county’s northeast corner.
Farming and lumbering were the chief occupations, and until sections of forest were cleared, most of the farms were located near the villages and along the Old Military Turnpike (modern-day Route 11). About the only way a storm’s effect could be truly devastating was for it to strike the population centers—and that’s exactly what happened.
Not that it would have made much difference, but this storm also had an extra element of surprise—it struck shortly before mid-morning. The great majority of tornadoes strike in the late afternoon after the sun has had plenty of time to heat things up.
Farmer Lucas Wyman of Constable watched as two dark, threatening cloud systems moved towards each other, one from the southwest and one from the northwest. He described their meeting as a thunderous collision, after which the storm began devouring everything in its path. Taking a northeastern track, it flattened trees and fences as it sped ominously towards Burke.
Arriving at the village, it tore the roofs off several buildings, sending their contents high in the air to parts unknown. As the storm raged, only pieces of some homes were left standing, and all barns, less sturdily built by nature, were leveled.
At the hamlet of Thayer’s Corners, the store of Daniel Mitchell was completely destroyed. Thirty-six-year-old Jeremiah Thomas, father of two young children, had recently sold his farm and gone to work for Mitchell. Thomas became the storm’s only fatality.
The storm’s route from Burke to Chateaugay suffered near-universal destruction, with reports indicating that “… one hundred and eighty-five buildings, either unroofed, blown down, or moved from the foundations can be counted as you ride along the road.”
At Chateaugay, the twister still had more than enough energy to lay nearly the entire community to waste. One reporter stated it plainly: “The village of Chateaugay is a complete desolation. Not a building escaped injury, and a great number—we do not know how many—are completely destroyed. The scene is one which baffles description. Stores, churches, dwellings, barns, sheds, outbuildings, all present a sad spectacle —they are awfully shattered and broken to pieces.”
Perhaps as important were other losses—gardens and fruit trees destroyed; farm crops flattened; cows, pigs, horses, sheep, and chickens killed. With all fencing destroyed, any animals that did survive were left wandering the countryside.
Though only one person died, many suffered serious injuries. Dozens were struck by flying roof shingles and shards of glass. One survivor was said to have lost his scalp to airborne debris.
The power of the storm yielded the usual stories of extreme occurrences. Entire sections of forest were flattened. A stone schoolhouse, one of the more solid buildings, was demolished. A lumber yard was completely devoid of lumber, all of which had been lifted high in the air and strewn across nearby fields.
A railroad handcar, weighing about a ton, was destroyed when it was carried aloft and dropped into the nearby woods. The tornado’s power was such that rubble from Mitchell’s Store at Thayer’s Corners was later found ten miles east in the town of Clinton.
In the days following the catastrophe, a traveler from Springfield, Massachusetts (coincidentally the site of recent tornadic destruction in 2011) rode the train across northern New York. After encountering the Chateaugay area, his report on the damage was published in the Springfield Daily Journal, including the following excerpts.
“The railroad track for some thirty or forty miles lies directly in the path of the tornado, and I never saw such a scene of destruction before. … it is in fact quite impossible to picture the scene on paper as it really appears. The villages of Chateaugay and Burke have sustained such serious damage that long years will come and go before its traces can be effaced.
“… Acres of forest trees are upturned, broken, twisted, and shattered; fences are torn to pieces, and the fencing timber scattered miles away from whence it was taken; piles of lumber, with which that section abounds, are nowhere to be found; barns are entirely blown to pieces; dwelling houses blown down, unroofed, and shattered. The eye rests on nothing else but such sights as these for miles and miles.”
The storm system caused considerable damage elsewhere, but the extent of destruction along the eight-mile path through the towns of Burke and Chateaugay was of near-biblical proportions. In the final tally, 364 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Few North Country disasters can compare in scope and intensity with the tornado of 1856. For decades into the future it was used as a reference point for comparing other tragic events.
Photo Top: Tornado headlines, 1856.
Photo Middle: St. Lawrence County opportunistic ad after a tornado, 1914.
Photo Bottom: Hammond Insurance ad for routine needs, 1935.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
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