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The Northway hits 50

The Northway hits 50

Capital Region's interstate still going strong at half a century
The Northway hits 50
Traffic passes over the Twin Bridges in the north- and southbound lanes of Interstate 87 in Latham.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

Sooner or later, everyone in the Capital Region hops on the Northway.

Some enter the wide, long highway at Exit 2, Central Avenue in Colonie, and drive 51.9 miles north to Exit 21 and Lake George.

Others start a little higher, hitting the gas at Exit 9 in Clifton Park Center and driving 11 1/2 miles to Exit 13, Route 9 and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

People with more distance in mind - and more gasoline in their tanks - leave Schroon Lake at Exit 27 and drive 88.2 miles to the top of the Northway, Exit 44/45 and the Canadian border.

The Adirondack Northway, part of 333.5-mile federal Interstate 87, has provided paths north and south and connected Albany to Montreal for 50 years now. The final section of the 176-mile highway, a 30-mile stretch between Underwood and Keesville in Essex and Clinton counties, opened Aug. 31, 1967.

The 50-year anniversary will come later this summer, but drivers actually have been on the road since the early 1960s; the Northway was completed in segments.


Now, with summer officially open and school officially closed, more people will be using the Northway for trips to lakes, campgrounds, amusement parks and other vacation destinations.

Before the highway was built, travel on roads such as Route 9 and Route 22 took much longer. Lower speed limits, traffic lights and single driving lanes all prompted kids in the back seat to ask, "Are we there yet?"

Mark Eagan, chief executive officer of the Capital Region Chamber, said the Northway provides ease of access for people who live and work in the Capital Region. For companies based in Albany and Schenectady, Eagan said, the Northway has always provided a fast way to reach customers. And, from south-to-north, open up markets.

"When they talk about their service area, often times it will encompass the North Country with the Capital Region," Eagan said. "They're not going to have an office up there, but they're going to service it from down here."

Eagan also believes the success scenario works the other way - north to south.

"We have to remember we're the Capital Region," Eagan said. "People come here because we're the state capital. For people who are coming here, whether it's to conduct business with the state or other issues, they're coming probably more frequently because of the ease of access, which means they're staying in our hotels and they're eating in our restaurants."

The Northway's history - and the histories of other U.S. interstates - began during World War II.


According to the federal Highway Administration, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized a 40,000-mile national system of interstate highways, although legislation did not authorize a program to start construction.

In many ways, it did what the railroads did in the 19th century, only on steroids.

The spark came in 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the revitalization of the nation's highways a goal for his first term. As a young military man in 1919, he had seen the poor conditions of America's roads. Later, as commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, he saw Germany's well-regarded Autobahn highway network.

As president, Eisenhower formed committees, consulted governors and met congressmen to push for new roads. But legislation did not pass in 1955.

Money had been a stumbling block. Governors did not want to increase state taxes to pay their shares for the national program.

Eisenhower continued his campaign, made compromises and legislation eventually was approved. The Highway Act of 1956 was signed on June 29, 1956, appropriating $25 billion for fiscal years 1957 through 1969. The money would fund 41,000 miles in new roads.

By 1956, monetary figures had changed. The federal-state ratio had became 90-10, with the federal government paying the majority of the cost.

The first project became U.S. 40 (later designated the I-70 Mark Twain Expressway) in Missouri. Construction began Aug. 13, 1956.

"The interstate highway system really is the most important social program of the Eisenhower administration, and one I felt and came to really appreciate had an effect upon the economy of the country," said Tom Lewis, a retired Skidmore College English professor who published the book "Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life" in 1997. "We still feel it today. In many ways, it did what the railroads did in the 19th century, only on steroids."

The railroads, Lewis said, pushed east to west. Every railroad stop became a center for commerce. The same thing happened with the interstate system.

"In creating the interstate highway system, they created basically 16,000 centers - plus or minus 100 or so - for commerce across the country," Lewis said.

That number can be multiplied by four. At each interstate exit, Lewis said, people can drive north, south, east and west and reach commercial destinations.

The Highway Administration said construction of the $208 million Northway began in 1957. Installation of pavement continued for 10 years.

Not everyone wanted the path north. People living in the Adirondack Park wanted to keep the wooded areas free of steel and cement.

"Because of the legislation of the Adirondack Park, it can't have the incursion," Lewis said. "That had to have a constitutional amendment to change that."

Traffic heads north on the Northway near Exit 22, Lake George. (Warren County Tourism Department)

The amendment appeared on voting ballots when New York residents went to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 3, 1959. At stake was permission for builders to use a maximum of 300 acres of Adirondack forest preserve for sections of the Northway.

The Citizens Northway Committee represented the chief opposition. Members urged voters to vote against the amendment, and listed their reasons in pamphlets they distributed throughout the area.

"What will happen if the Northway slashes through the Preserve?" read one entry. "Industry and commerce will gobble up the private lands abutting the Northway, just as they are doing on the New York State Thruway, where land values have jumped from $500 to $20,000 an acre."

"Don't surrender the priceless forest preserve to the commercial sharks," read another part of the pamphlet. Another section cautioned if the Northway was allowed, the Adirondacks would change forever. 

"Man can always build a road," it read. "But he can never rebuild a wilderness."

The amendment passed, with 1,621,438 people voting for the measure and 1,261,769 voting against. Passage allowed construction from Glens Falls north into Lake George, Warrensburg, South Horicon, Pottersville, continuing north on the west side of Schroon Lake, into Schroon Falls, Schroon River and North Hudson.

Construction also was allowed near New Russia and Elizabethtown. Towers Forge, Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain, Keeseville and Plattsburgh also were named in the construction plan.

The Northway was not popular in Schenectady County. Residents cast 21,364 votes against the proposition, 16,952 in favor.

Had state voters defeated the amendment, a very different road would have been built.

It was a terrible mess before they got the road opened.

"Interstate 87 would have basically taken a right turn at about where Glens Falls is and gone up the other side of Lake George into Vermont and up the Vermont side of Lake Champlain," Lewis said. "It would have spelled real doom for the Adirondacks not to have that."

Marilyn Van Dyke remembers days when happy motoring did not describe trips north.

"Before we had it [the Northway], people would come up as far as Saratoga Springs and it was just god-awful every summer to get through South Glens Falls," said Van Dyke, currently a volunteer for the Warren County Historical Society and former Queensbury Town Historian. "I lived over there and the traffic was lined up for miles. It was a terrible mess before they got the road opened."

Van Dyke believes even people opposed to the Northway came around, once they saw the completed project. "Nevertheless, whenever you want to change something, people get all upset," she said.

Judy Martialay remembers family trips to Lake George during her childhood. In the days before the Northway, she said, the trip from her home in Mount Vernon to Warren County took two days.

"We would go every year, it was a big, big family occasion and as kids we were so excited," said Martialay, who now lies in Sea Cliff, Long Island. "Part of the fun was the journey."

The family traveled Route 22. The car would stop in Albany, for a visit with Martialay's grandparents. "Sometimes we spent the night," she said.

With I-87 and the Northway, Martialay said, the trip would have taken just one day.

[How busy is the Northway? See an interactive map of traffic data]

According to the state Department of Transportation, the section of the Northway from the Twin Bridges to Clifton Park was "accepted" - deemed completed - in December 1959. Clifton Park to Malta was accepted in November 1961, Malta to Saratoga Springs in 1963. As soon as sections opened, there was impact.

"Not only did the Northway reduce the commute into Albany from 30 to 40 minutes to less than 10, it placed Colonie along what would become the primary route from New York City to Montreal," wrote Samuel G. Freedman in his 1996 book "The Inheritance: How Three Families and American Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond."

Each segment presented its own challenges.

"I think they were relatively minor and they were solved very beautifully in some ways," Lewis said. "I think the 'Twin Bridges' [the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge that spans the Mohawk River and connects Albany County's Colonie and Saratoga County's Halfmoon] would be one example of a challenge but they did it quite well."

Lewis said an experienced workforce benefited the Northway project.

"It was 12 years out from winning World War II," Lewis said. "A lot of that war was won by the Army Corps of Engineers, putting in the vast mechanization of ground troops and the delivery system for that was mostly through roads. So these guys who were building, any of whom were veterans, knew exactly what they were doing. They could do it very fast."

An autumn view from the Northway. (Warren County Tourism Department)

In 1963, Lewis said, the road was open to Saratoga Springs.

"All of a sudden, the Northway puts enormous numbers of people with disposable income, people from Delmar, people from Albany, in touch with Saratoga Springs," he said. "The first inkling of the change is actually the opening of SPAC [Saratoga Performing Arts Center]  in 1966. Now people can get from the Capital District to SPAC."

Lewis said the three Northway exits that lead to Saratoga Springs - Exits 13N, 14 and 15 - have always given motorists easy and quick access to the center of downtown, and to places like Saratoga Race Course and the Yaddo artists retreat.

In 1959, some believed the future of Saratoga Race Course depended on the Northway. In a Schenectady Gazette article published Dec. 11, reporter Charles W. Andrews wrote the New York Racing Association had promised to build a bigger grandstand at Saratoga.

Andrews said the promise had been broken, with NYRA spending money at Aqueduct and Belmont instead.

"NYRA figures a million dollars is a better investment at Aqueduct surrounded by millions of potential customers than in Saratoga, where attendance is limited because of a highway bottleneck," Andrews wrote. "Route 9, old established highway from New York City to Montreal, has become more and more congested each summer."

All of a sudden, the Northway puts enormous numbers of people with disposable income, people from Delmar, people from Albany, in touch with Saratoga Springs

Consulting engineer Albert F. Stine told the newspaper that even a widened Route 9 would not be able to deliver more than 1,000 cars per hour to the track.

"There is every good chance," said Arthur J. Kearney, chairman of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce's racing committee, "we could lose first-class racing in Saratoga."

Racing survived, and has prospered. So have other businesses in Saratoga Springs.

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said the Northway has attracted more and more construction, more and more business. People come with the businesses, so Saratoga's population has expanded.

"You look at the development pattern and it emanated from each of the exits," Shimkus said. "Global Foundries wouldn't be in Malta if it wasn't a short drive from the Northway. Look at where the hotels are all being built, their being built at the different exits along the Northway."

The new hotels include the new Homewood Suites in Saratoga Springs, the Home2 Suites in Malta and the Hilton Garden Inn in Clifton Park.

Shimkus also said Saratoga Hospital and YMCA are investing in the Northway and the community. A $7 million, 55,000 square-foot health and wellness center in Malta is being constructed off the Northway on 140 acres of hospital-owned land.

Lewis believes the city of Glens Falls, just 15 miles farther north, did not fare as well with Northway planners. He believes exits were not strategically located to benefit the city.

"Glens Falls' closest exit is 18," Lewis said. "It's about 3 1/2 miles from the center of the city, which is basically Crandall Park. It's an awful drive in to that center of the city."

Lewis believes Exit 19, to Aviation Road in Queensbury, is too far north of Glens Falls to have any traffic impact on the city.

"And Exit 17 is basically for South Glens Falls," Lewis said. "So Glens Falls got screwed in the process. In a way, Saratoga, for reasons that are almost by default, lucked out really well."

Edward Batholomew, president of Economic Development Corp. Warren County and a former Glens Falls mayor, said Lewis' assessment of Glens Falls' exits was correct — for the 1960s.

"There was very little development at 17, 18, 19 and 20, but if you look at the exits now, there is a great burst of economic development along Route 9 in the town of Moreau," Bartholomew said. "Exit 18, you can't get any busier, right in Queensbury going into the city with a new Holiday Inn, a new Fairfield Inn that's scheduled to get under construction later this year, Sky Zone is opening very shortly from a recreation point of view."

Bartholomew added when prospective business owners call the EDC, they want to know about parcels close to the Northway around the six Warren County exits, from Exits 18 to 26. "The exits are the hottest properties in Warren County," he said.

Pictured: Motorists protesting an Adirondack Park study around 1990 brought a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty along for a ride on the Adirondack Northway. (Gazette file photo)

While the highway has helped in business development, Batholomew says it has helped everyone. He remembers hanging around Crandall Park in downtown Glens Falls as a kid, counting the number of out-of-state license plates traveling Route 9.

"Without the Northway, traffic would be jammed at all times," he said. "It would be like living in downtown Saratoga in August. You wouldn't be able to travel anywhere."

The Northway opened at the right time. It helped motorists reach Montreal and Expo 67 during the late summer of 1967. The Schenectady Gazette, in an editorial published on Aug. 30, said the road had already affected the way people drove in the Capital Region.

"As an example, in years gone by, a family would hesitate to drive from Schenectady to the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake area and back in one day because it would be too tiring," the editorial read. "With the Northway, people are driving more often to distant or 'out of the way' places."

The newspaper also said more Canadian drivers appeared to be using the highway to visit New York and other nearby states. The editorial came with a warning, of sorts. Editors reminded drivers they could kill themselves in a variety of ways on I-87. Driving the speed limit, driving alert and driving sober were three ways the paper suggested motorists could keep safe.

The interstates of the 1960s were popular because people just liked driving.

"There was a big car culture at the time," said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan. "Part of it was because fuel was so cheap at the time. They weren't worried about it the way they might worry about it today, or certainly not the way they did 10 years ago."

Anderson said people turned onto the Northway and other interstates because they were new, novelties.

With the Northway, people are driving more often to distant or 'out of the way' places.

"And there was a great deal of affluence in the country at the time," Anderson said. "People were making good livings, so there was a lot of interest in driving and seeing the country."

Chevrolet built an entire advertising campaign with that idea: "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" became one of well-known advertising jingles of the day, first used during the late 1940s.

Anderson said driving was more of an adventure during the 1960s. The roads were filled with big cars with roomy seating - Ford Thunderbirds, Mercury Comets and Buick Rivieras among them.

"Cars came in one size fits all, if you were buying an American car," Anderson said. "It could be whatever trim level you wanted, fancy or plain, but it was going to be big. You weren't cramped in the back unless you were driving in a foreign car, and they were still fairly rare at that time."

The love affair eventually ended. High gas prices of the mid-1970s convinced some people to keep their cars in garages. Mini-vans and small Japanese-made cars were choices for the 1980s, sports utility vehicles became popular during the 1990s.

Anderson believes driving is not as exciting as it used to be. "Cars have sort of become appliances," he said. And global positioning systems have taken away the adventure of finding a place - even if fewer people are lost on the roads in 2017.

Passengers, especially kids who invented their own road entertainment in 1967, also have changed.


"They're not watching the scenery," Anderson said. "The kids in the back seat aren't playing the license plate game. Now they're watching DVDs or Blu-rays."

Lewis believes if the Northway was under construction today, the road would be different from the 1960s model. More attention would be paid to ecology.

"Roads are much cleaner now, the way runoff is handled today," Lewis said. "And they're constantly upgrading the roads. The Northway is safer today than it was when it was built simply because they've made the guardrails better."

And while the road provided quicker access to destinations and safer travel, Lewis said it also contributed to a social problem. Criminal elements in New York and Canada now had direct routes for drug trafficking.

"The Northway enabled, as all transportation does, more crime," Lewis said.

It also enabled people to keep more of their money. Unlike the 496-mile state Thruway - a toll road since it opened in 1954 - drivers have never paid a dime to drive the Northway.

"If you think about it, the Adirondack Northway isn't free," Lewis said. "We are paying a price, we're paying it through the gasoline tax, which by the way, is too low. We should be paying probably in the area of about $1 for federal taxes on our gasoline - I'm not talking about state - in order to pay for the roads and to pay for their maintenance."

Federal taxes for gasoline currently are 18.4 cents per gallon. The tax for diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon. The rates have been in place since 1993.

"We haven't kept up with inflation and it's just appalling we're not paying more gas tax," Lewis said. "We think we're getting something for nothing, but we're paying for it in a lot of other ways. We're paying for it in roads that are falling into disrepair. some of us pay for it with our lives when bridges collapse. So we're paying for it."

5 facts about the federal interstate system

  1. New York has the most interstate routes - 29. Texas has the most interstate mileage, 3,233.45 miles over 17 highways.
  2. The longest interstate highway is I-90, which runs 3,020.54 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington. The shortest is I-97, Annapolis to Baltimore, Maryland - 17.62 miles.
  3. During the early 1960s, detonation of 22 nuclear devices was considered for the I-40 project in California. The bombs would have blown up part of the Bristol Mountain range; the plan later was abandoned.
  4. Some people believed one of every five miles of the interstate system was built straight, so airplanes could land in an emergency. While airplanes have landed on interstates in the past, the Federal Highway Administration said the "one-mile" design is a myth.
  5. Another myth: President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported the interstate system for quick evacuations in the event of nuclear attack. The FHA said that while Eisenhower understood the new roads' value for evacuation, he was more interested in economic development, improved highway safety and solutions for traffic congestion.

Information from the Federal Highway Administration.

The Northway by the numbers

The state Department of Transportation's average daily traffic map shows the number of drivers on northbound sections of the Adirondack Northway, I-87. Figures last were compiled in 2015. Here are some locations, with the traffic number:

  • For the access road to the Northway on Western Avenue in Albany, just past Stuyvesant Plaza: 6,845.
  • On the section leading to exit 2E and Central Avenue: 116,349.
  • On the section past Central just before Albany-Shaker Road: 96,874.
  • On the section leading to exit 6 and Route 7 and in Latham, 117,514.
  • On the section crossing the "Twin Bridges" between exits 7 and 8, 103,562.
  • On the section leading to Exit 14 in Saratoga Springs: 47,658.
  • On the section crossing the Hudson River between exits 17S and 18, outside of Glens Falls: 39,583.
  • On the section between exit 18 (Glens Falls) and exit 19 (Aviation Road): 45,587.
  • On the section leading to exit 21, the southern-most entrance to Lake George Village via Route 9N: 40,394
  • On sections past Lake George Village, traffic drops to 22,978, 18,434 and 12,095.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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