The Adirondack Northway (I-87) made Lake George more accessible than any other resort area in the Northeast. So, it’s appropriate that the birth of the modern interstate highway system can be traced to Lake George; specifically, to the 46th Annual National Governor’s Conference, held July 11th to 13th, 1954, at the Sagamore Hotel in Bolton Landing.
To be precise, the Conference was the site not so much of the birth of the interstate highway system, but of the announcement of its birth.
President Dwight Eisenhower was slated to be the conference’s keynote speaker, and as late as two days before its start, the Lake George Mirror was anticipating his arrival, publishing the presidential photo on the cover, breathily noting that he might not only fly in Monday night but stay at the hotel overnight.
Because of the death of a sister-in-law, Eisenhower was forced to cancel his appearance and Vice-President Richard Nixon attended in his place, delivering the President’s remarks. It was assumed that he would speak in a general way about world affairs. The speech Eisenhower planned to deliver was a far more significant one.
Through his Vice-President, Eisenhower stated for the first time that the federal government was prepared to spend vast sums of money on highways. “Probably,” the Vice-President said, (according to the Lake George Mirror) “the federal government should take the lead in planning and building a modern highway system.”
The conference was not, of course, limited to discussions of policy. The Bolton Central School Band played for Nixon in front of the hotel’s lakeside porches.
Sidney Rossoff of Merkel and Gelman conducted a fashion show. Actor George Murphy, who would later become a U.S. Senator from California, flew in from Hollywood to be the Master of Ceremonies for the nightly entertainment. Murphy was a former four-star general who had known President Eisenhower in the army. Connecticut Governor John Lodge and his family went fishing with former Bolton Supervisor Frank Dagles in one of F.R. Smith’s electric boats.
According to the Mirror, “The governor landed a five-and-a-half-pound trout. It was noteworthy that Mrs. Lodge and the girls all wore identical leopard skin bathing suits. And all three were dressed alike in at the women’s fashion show.”
Planning the Interstate Highway System
In September of that year, Eisenhower appointed a committee led by General Lucius Clay to make a study of a federally funded interstate highway system.
“It was very evident that we needed better highways,” Clay recalled. “We needed them to accommodate more automobiles safely. We needed them for defense purposes, should that ever be necessary. And we needed them for the economy.” It was also assumed that a public works project of that scale might forestall a recession.
Two years after Nixon’s speech at the Sagamore, Congress passed the Federal Interstate Highway Act, which committed Washington to paying 90% of the costs of a national system of superhighways. It remains the largest federal public works project in the nation’s history.
Interstate 87: the Adirondack Northway
Construction of the 175-mile-long Northway between Albany and Montreal began in 1957. For practical as well as political reasons, the last stretch to be completed was the piece that crossed the Adirondack 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.
The amendment passed by 400,000 votes state-wide and by far larger margins in Essex and Warren Counties.
Having made certain the highway passed through the Adirondack Park, local officials sought to extract the maximum amount of publicity for the region, including having the road named “the Adirondack Northway.” That was not as easy as it sounds, however. 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.”
Construction was completed in 1967. In March of that year, Parade magazine (a weekly supplement to Hearst newspapers) announced that a 23-mile stretch of the highway, from Lake George to Pottersville, was that year’s winner of its Scenic Highway Award. “The award…. designates the new highway which best embodies the principles of good design, beauty and utility,” the magazine stated. The Northway between Lake George and Pottersville, the magazine added, “traverses the Adirondack Park and takes full advantage of the area’s natural beauty through the utilization of fine design concepts.”
Two cheers for the Northway?
The Northway not only made it easier to for visitors to reach Lake George; it made it easier for residents of small Adirondack communities to shop at the plazas being constructed on the margins of Glens Falls, Plattsburgh and Albany – and eviscerated the Main Street economies of small towns like Warrensburg and Elizabethtown in the process.
It also gave people access to the largest wilderness in the Northeast.
The Adirondack Mountain Club opposed the constitutional amendment that permitted the construction of a four-lane highway through the Forest Preserve, but the Northway can be credited for increasing the size of a constituency supporting the protection of the Adirondacks.
Even those who favored the construction of the Northway knew that its legacy would be an ambiguous one, which is one reason why Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed his Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks only two years after the highway was completed.
With the Adirondack Park more widely known and more accessible than ever, it was also likely to become more vulnerable to over-development than ever. Even before it 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.
Rockefeller’s commission developed recommendations to protect the park, most notably, the creation of a regional agency regulating both public and private lands within the park – the Adirondack Park Agency (APA).
Fifty-five 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 homeowners; a protected Adirondack Park, but sometimes a crowded one, so much so that New York State has started trying to limit the numbers who can hike the High Peaks on any given day.
It all started in Bolton Landing nearly seventy years ago this month.
Illustrations, from above: The July 9, 1954 issue of the Lake George Mirror, heralding the expected arrival of President Dwight Eisenhower to the Governor’s Conference at the Sagamore; Governor Thomas Dewey and Vice-President Richard Nixon at the Sagamore; a constitutional amendment was required to route the Northway through the Adirondack Forest Preserve; the Northway above Lake George, as portrayed by the Lake George Mirror; Governor Nelson Rockefeller announces the completion of the Northway at a 1967 press conference; in 1967, Parade magazine named the Northway between Lake George and Pottersville America’s “Most Scenic New Highway.” The photos of the Northway Exit 25 at Route 8, Chestertown; the Lake George overlook were taken by New York State’s Department of Commerce; the Northway made the new shopping centers more accessible to Adirondack residents, with unintended consequences for the Main Street economies of small towns by Richard Dean courtesy of Chapman Historical Museum.