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How the Northway Came to the Adirondacks

By Anthony F. Hall

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When 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 travellers 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.)

But 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?

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Adirondack Explorer.

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