There’s only one way to travel in New York State…for better or worse.
As a native Long Islander, I always despised the traffic that seemingly enveloped every road that criss-crosses the “Island.” My one saving grace however, was that at least the exits weren’t very far apart. Therefore if we were ensnarled in a traffic jam on the Southern State Parkway, or the Cross-Island Parkway, but I knew I only had two exists to go before I could get off the highway, I had the solace of knowing that the exits were usually only a mere mile or so apart. (Or as we say on Long Island, about another 20 minutes.)
As a child, one has little regard for the intricacies of traffic and distance, all rides unless they are to the dentist or school seem too far. Plus, if you take a nap in the car, the rule has always been that as soon as you wake up, you find that you are usually arriving at your destination. (This doesn’t work nearly as well if you are the driver.) As one ages however and becomes more aware, all of the issues regarding automobile travel begin to reveal themselves. By the time I went to college in far off Oswego, New York, I came to the realization that not only are upstate highways boring, but their exists are really far apart. Lord help anybody who misses a turn, you might as well find a motel for the night, it’s simply too far to get off at the next exit which could be 10 or 15 miles away. (A word to the wise, if you see an establishment that doesn’t have a name, and it just says “Motel,” best keep driving.)
Now that I’ve gotten to call the Capital Region home for the past 26 years, I’ve become all too familiar with the travails of upstate driving, and while it is superior to driving in the Metropolitan area, those exits haven’t exactly gotten any closer. There are two main interstate highways that we in the Capital Region are completely dependent upon for all travels great and small. They are of course in numerical order, I-87 and I-90. They are part of the American interstate highway system set up under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, or “Ike” as he was known to all who loved interstate travel. In New York, it is known as the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, and for good reason.
If you think about it, (And there’s literally no reason to do this.) Thomas E. Dewey’s political career actually matches the New York State Thruway system. I would think it would be rare for a structure that is named after somebody to actually embody or remind one of the person the structure is actually named after. However, the only better fit for a structure named after a politician would probably be the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. Like the “father of our country,” it’s tall and smooth and always erect. Dewey like is namesake highway demonstrated great promise, but in the end turned out to be a source of consternation and disappointment.
As any real resident of New York state is well aware, particularly those with a lot of time on their hands, Thomas Dewey famously took one for the team so to speak in 1944 when he ran as his party’s sacrificial lamb against FDR. Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented fourth term. Dewey had made a name for himself as a prosecutor taking down some of New York State’s most hardened criminals including many infamous Mafia figures. He rode this notoriety to the Governor’s mansion in Albany, and while he most likely knew he was going to get slaughtered by the uber-popular Franklin D. Roosevelt, he knew that by being a party loyalist, he would be rewarded with another shot in a much more inviting year, 1948.
Well, rewarded he was, and Dewey was seen as the heavy favorite to upend the sitting president Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Most polls had Dewey way ahead going into the final few weeks. In fact Dewey was such a heavy favorite that he decided he didn’t really have to go out and campaign very much. (Fans of HIllary Clinton as well as Donald Trump haters may want to skip this part since Dewey’s tragic miscalculation is going to remind them of 2016 in a rather negative way.) Dewey basically sat out the last few weeks, or in other words, like his namesake highway system, he found himself stalled and then delayed, and then eventually on a road to nowhere…a.k.a. Buffalo. Truman outworked Dewey over the last few weeks of the campaign and successfully blamed the nation’s woes on Congress just the way people who are stuck in traffic on the Thruway blame everybody else for the delays due to their lousy driving instead of blaming themselves, and in the end, to everybody’s surprise, Truman won. It was the equivalent of taking the Taconic down from the Capital Region on a trip to New York City, spotting your competition an hour on the Thruway, and still arriving first. An upset for all times.
The first section of the New York State Thruway opened officially on June 24th, 1954. (It was my father’s 26th birthday, and for a man who loved driving and figuring out ways to beat traffic as well as traffic cops, it’s a fitting tribute.) The section that first opened on this overlooked historical date was on the I-90 spur between Utica and Rochester, an area so devoid of anything interesting that the destinations of Utica and/or Rochester must have seemed like the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas when these weary travelers arrived in either of these somewhat mundane destinations. Much of the remaining sections of what came to be known as the New York State Thruway was finished by 1957 which included I-90, I-87, and I-95.
Before this thorofare was completed, if one wished to travel from Albany to Buffalo for example, then the fastest route that was available for one to travel was along State Route 20, or as it’s known here in Albany, Western Avenue. (Route 5 which is known as Central Avenue here in Albany can also take you across the state, but it’s an even more ponderous road to travel.) How arduous was this trek across the state? Think about how long it can take to go from downtown Albany to let’s say Stuyvesant Plaza, and then consider how long it must have taken to travel the other 289 miles until you reached Buffalo. This voyage was not for the faint of heart. If you wished to make the trek from New York City to Canada previous to the completion of I-87, one had to travel along U.S. State Route 9, or as it’s known here in Clifton Park, the majestic Halfmoon Parkway. If this was your journey, then no need for the “bread of haste.” You can let the whole loaf rise, this journey is going to take some time.
Who would be crazy enough to take Route 9 from New York City to Canada previous to the completion of I-87? The trip by the way consists of a little over 300 miles. Well my father back in 1948 and two of his friends took this jaunt from the Bronx and traveled along U.S. 9 all the way to Canada and eventually Montreal. The trip took several days due to the sluggishness of the roadway, and was further hampered by his beat up old Hudson, a car that was more tank than automobile. Despite the distance and slow pace of the trip, traveling along Route 9 did offer one advantage over the soon to be completed I-87. When you travel local roads, not only is there more to look at, but you can appreciate the local scenery and flavor which is far more compelling than the endless trees that line the Thruway.
Most of the drama that involves either I-90 or I-87 involves snow in the winter time. Every so often sections of the highways have to be closed due to weather, however, more often than not, those who travel both of these roads in the dead of winter know the deal, and are experienced enough drivers to stick up their nose at the thought of the Thruway closing during a snowstorm.
(The New York State Thruway was built for cruising, and paramount for this cruising to be successful involves classic open road tunes, you know because sometimes the scenery isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. You Tube)
There was one time however when the Thruway, particularly I-87 encountered such a glut of humanity that the New York State Department of Transportation had to close the whole thing down. This was during the summer of 1969 when the famed Woodstock Music Festival (Which was in Bethel and not in Woodstock) attracted so many attendees, 300,000 by some estimates, that the Thruway became unusable, and was forced to close. Folk-rocker Arlo Guthrie, son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie famously announced, “The New York State Thruway is closed man….far out!” There’s nothing like sticking it to the man and shutting down his fascist highway that he had the nerve to build in order to make travel more convenient. Attica! Attica!
As travelers we are all dependent upon our Thruway system. We complain when it falls into disrepair, and then we complain when it’s under construction. We complain about the crowds at the rest areas, but then complain about the tolls that help support them. We are bored by the endless trees and mountains that make up the sights along the highway, but then complain when anything is cut down due to progress. In many ways I-87 and I-90 are a little bit like the Rodney Dangerfield of highways. No respect. I’ll tell you what, drive on I-95 through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and other points south and let me know what a party that is. Maybe you’ll treat your hometown highways with a little more respect.