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The Building of Whiteface Mountain – Gabrielle Hedges

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The Building of Whiteface Mountain Scenic Memorial Highway.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Governor of the State of New York, proposed the building of a scenic highway to the top of Whiteface Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, as a memorial to the veterans of World War I. It was authorized by the legislature and bids were taken for the contract to build the highway. The Hagedorn Construction Company got the contract. My father, W.R. Ross, part owner of the company and its general superintendant, was responsible for the majority of the planning and the execution of the contract to create this highway through nearly impenetrable virgin forests at the base upward; changing from white birch to evergreen, on upward more steeply to slopes of pure granite, finally to scraggly stunted evergreens at 4,500 feet to bleak, rough, bare granite at the top. It was a daunting

challenge for heretofore there was only a hikers trail for the
physically fit leading after several hours of climbing to the open granite at the top.

The road was routed from Wilmington, a small village, with some farms and grazing land where the right of way and later the entrance toll house were to be placed. Beyond this were the temporary construction buildings. Trees were felled, stumps removed and earth was removed with steam shovels, draglines and trucks. Gasoline power shovels had been developed and were added to the equipment. When the upward progress led to granite under the thinning topsoil, pneumatic drills and boxcars of dynamite were utilized to create the roadway. The drill bits dulled so quickly in the hard granite a blacksmith shop had to be set up in Wilmington and in a sub-station half-way up the

mountain to sharpen the bits, temper the steel in the forge and send the re-cycled bits back up the mountain to the drilling crews. Wooden staging had to be built on the steepest slopes to give the drill operators a platform from which to work. The first bulldozers invented were purchased and utilized in rock removal and dirt movement in this project. They were a great advance over previously available equipment. Italian-speaking stone masons were employed in building some huge retaining walls where the road bed was held against the mountain slope. The granite blasted away through cuts in solid rock provided the material used for the walls. Snow fell on the mountain top every month of one of the years during construction and of course deep winter snows halted all work for months each winter. Foot by foot, yard by yard upward progress was

made until at last the turn-around terminus was blasted out and the road bed was completed. All that remained was the laying of the asphalt surface, a separate contract. Also contracts for the building of the toll house, the terminal building at the top, stairways, an observation area, railings and even an elevator shaft through solid granite for those unable to negotiate stairs and the Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway Project would be complete.

From the peak nearly Mt. Marcy, Lake Placid with its three islands, and on a clear day far away Lake Champlain, and beyond it the Green Mountains of Vermont were all to be seen.

This project undertaken at the height of the Great Depression brought jobs and money to the area. It was the most expensive and most difficult project ever undertaken

by my Dad and his company and one of which he could forever be proud.

I was but a lad of thirteen years age at the time of the completion of their contract, and to me Dad was the hero in this monumental achievement. The obstacles were many to be overcome; dynamite beyond their wildest expectations was required, failure of a sub-contractor threatened to cause the contract not to be completed on time, equipment breakdowns, truck axles and
springs breaking due to severe conditions, complete and long winter shut-downs of all operations, the hardness of the granite dulling drill bits so rapidly. W.R. Ross, who had but seven years formal education in a rural Alabama one-room school had learned civil engineering by working at every level as he rose to the top, worked through these obstacles and succeeded where college trained civil engineers failed.

Addendum to the construction account of the Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway on Whiteface Mountain:

During the summer of 1980 I had my first opportunity to revisit it forty-six years after I was last there. The view was as magnificent as before but sadly the road surface, the right of way and even the buildings at the top all showed signs of neglect. Hardly what I would have expected of a New York State Veterans memorial. I hope that some funds have been made available to restore it to the pristine condition worthy of a memorial.

Thomas E. Ross 1997



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