Did the Northway kill the Champlain Valley?

No exit? Did the routing of the I-87 corridor cripple Champlain Valley towns? Photo:MitchazeniaCreative Commons, some rights reserved

No exit? Did the routing of the I-87 corridor cripple Champlain Valley towns? Photo:Mitchazenia, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The other day I drove from our camp in Westport down to Ticonderoga to pick up gardening supplies, some groceries, and some parts for a chainsaw.

What I saw along the way was dismaying.  More closed businesses.  More buildings in once-proud downtowns boarded-up, their front yards gone to weed, their brick facades covered with plywood.

Here’s the weird thing.  Port Henry, Crown Point and Ticonderoga are some of the most beautiful villages in the North Country, far more accessible than many hamlets in the region, with relatively easy access to Albany and Vermont.

They lie in what appears to be a sweet spot for discovery, nestled between the shores of Lake Champlain and Lake George and the foothills of the Adirondacks — with sweeping views of the Green Mountains.

So what gives?  Why the malaise?

Port Henry, NY (Photo:  Brian Mann, NCPR file photo)

Port Henry, NY (Photo: Brian Mann, NCPR file photo)

I wonder if one lingering body blow to this long stretch of towns — from Ticonderoga in the south to Willsboro in the North — was the decision in the 1950s and 1960s to route the Northway through the middle of nowhere.

Check the map and you’ll see that for the most part, the I-87 artery avoids populated areas between Lake George and Plattsburgh.

To reach most of the places where local North Country residents live, you have to take significant spur roads.

In other words, the interstate seems to deliberately take people through the Champlain Valley, rather than bringing people to the region.

Yes, it’s a great — and scenic — way to reach Montreal.  But if you want to get to, say, Port Henry or Moriah, it’s pretty darned inconvenient.

There was a time, of course, when people traveling north were forced to follow Route 9n or 22.

Much slower, but it took you right through these little towns, with their local attractions, their beaches, their bustling downtowns.

Now the vast majority of traffic hums past.  Because the Adirondack Park’s rules sharply limit road signs, there aren’t even many indications along I-87 that there’s cool stuff to see or do with a slight detour.

Obviously, there have been other big factors side-swiping these economies.  Rural America has struggled for decades.  A lot of traditional industries — mines, factories, logging operations — have gone bust.

But it’s hard not to imagine that a gorgeous “coastal” village like Ticonderoga or Port Henry would look very different right now if it were a short, direct, no-hassle interstate hop from Albany.

I-87 might even have served the North Country of New York in the way that the Pacific Coast Highway served rural California, introducing travelers to amazing scenery and amazing destinations.

The bottom line is that a lot of these communities have incredible assets.  Great beaches, amazing bed and breakfast joints, world-class attractions like Fort Ticonderoga.

But at present, too many people are encouraged — physically, by the structure of our biggest travel corridor — to bypass all of that, unaware that most of it even exists.

Some of this might be fixable — or at least mitigated — through clever marketing.  Perhaps we could package “New York’s Lake Coast Highway” as a sort of blue highway experience that runs from Lake George all the way to Quebec.

So what do you think?  Did I-87 bypass your town and how do you think that affected the community, the business district, the quality of life?  Or are you glad the Northway doesn’t buzz too close to your little village?

Comments and ideas welcome, as always.

32 Comments on “Did the Northway kill the Champlain Valley?”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Just two comments in one sentence. Faster is better and you have a camp?

  2. Two Cents says:

    we often use interstates to get quickly out of metro-areas. once away, my wife and I will travel the back roads as a rule. it’s all about the trip, as well as the destination for us.
    the interstate is good in the middle of “nowhere” as long as it provides the exits to “somewhere”.
    its exactly what the railroad should do.
    interstates should not run through downtown, but it can’t (shouldn’t) isolate it either.

  3. Jim Bullard says:

    I don’t know if it contributed to the economic problems you observe (I suspect it did) but I-87 should never have been built where it was. Aside from being a violation of the Forever Wild clause it was a dumb idea that has lead to even more intrusion. Fast forward to the incident where the car went off the road in winter and the driver died because his wife couldn’t get a cell phone signal leading to a campaign to make the entire Northway cell phone accessible. Had they routed it along the lake shore it would have served those communities as well as avoiding unneeded intrusion on wild areas. This is how we lose wilderness, one step at a time, bit by bit, all so that motorists dashing through at 75-80 mph can have “scenery”.

  4. Martha Foley says:

    I was a kid when the Northway route was designed, so I don’t have a good memory of the politics surrounding the decisions. Someone else can chime in with that history; I’m curious.

    But living near Wilton, with grandparents in Glens Falls, cousins in Saranac Lake, dancing lessons in Saratoga, and doctors in Albany, we were up and down Rt. 9 constantly. It was slow, torturous in spots. I well remember waiting an hour or more to get across the Hudson River from South Glens Falls to Glens Falls — before the Northway. The bottleneck over the old bridge was a killer. I also remember the construction project, truly massive in scale, particularly the Moreau exit/entrance, and the new bridge, which we boated to and under from our camp just downriver. I know the new bridge was considered vital; the Rt. 9 bridge and the traffic in downtown Glens Falls were, to use an over-used word, unsustainable. Dangerous if you were in a hurry to reach the only hospital in the region.

    But I also remember, vividly, the near-immediate death of Glens Falls’ lovely bustling downtown. Truly, it was just a perfectly lovely tiny city. Old department stores, Merkel’s and Fowler’s, didn’t last long. Trendy stores my teenage friends and I shopped at moved ASAP to the new (now old!) shopping center at the Aviation Rd. exit. After football games, we drove to the cool new McDonald’s there.
    As I remember, the downtown was already declining in my Mom’s view. She described the Glens Falls of, say, the 30s and 40s as the shopping hub of a much-bigger region, stretching into Vermont. (Sort of like the factory outlet strip south of Lake George?)
    I could go on and on. I moved away from the Glens Falls area in 1970, but was a regular visitor there for the next 30 years. I can say, from what I’ve seen, it’s a tough slog to thrive in a by-passed world.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    The answer cant simply be the Northway. I grew up on the Pacific Coast Highway. There are other two major highways between San Francisco and Los Angeles, yet the traffic on Highway 1 is bumper to bumper now on the weekends. It can take an hour to get past the first traffic light on the north of Big Sur.

  6. Martha’s comment is the issue in a nutshell. The Northway makes it easy to bypass places. That’s its advantage and its disadvantage. You take the good with the bad.

    I don’t remember downtown Glens Falls in the 50s and 60s – before I was born – but I remember it in the 80s and early 90s. It was basically dead. The Northway, along with the suburban mall and shopping plazas in Queensbury it enabled, killed downtown Glens Falls. Of course, now those places are mostly dead too, having been largely supplanted by online. Or, ironically, by people’s increasing willingness to drive down THE NORTHWAY to Wilton or Colonie for better selection. Fortunately, downtown GF has been somewhat revived by improving arts and restaurant scenes. Not the same as the heyday but certainly better than the depressing state of 20-30 years ago.

    Basically, the Northway has been good for final destination points (Lake Placid and Lake George in particular) and bad for everywhere else that no longer gets the traffic going by their businesses.

  7. Though ironically the photo shows Exit 24 which (on the Northway at least) is Bolton, not in the Champlain Valley. =)

  8. Paul says:

    A road does not make or break a place. If this interstate were weaved near these towns you actually think that people would be getting off to do business on their way to somewhere else?

  9. JB says:

    Brian mentioned the Pacific Coast Highway and it’s worth looking at when considering all this.

    Keep in mind that the PCH is a rural, two-lane road (that often has ocean views). I-5 is the flat, straight and boring highway (running through the middle, agricultural part of the state). Between the two, there’s the 101, which is a lot like the Northway. Drivers on a tight schedule will use I-5 or the 101. The PCH is more like a resort and reaching it requires having a lot of time and money.

    Californians think of the Pacific Coast as an unspoiled, endless expanse that is a birthright. Yes, there are plenty of towns on the coast, but the PCH also runs through long, undeveloped stretches like we have here.

    For lots of Californians, the Pacific Coast is the destination. They try to protect it from emissions, “development” and anything else. And they’re adamant about the public having access to it. This is their formula. And if you’re lucky enough to make the drive from Point Reyes Station to southern Mendocino County, you’ll see that their formula works.

    Whether it would work here is the question.

  10. Tony Goodwin says:

    The book “Two Hamlets in History” about Keene and Keene Valley and published by the Keene Valley Library has a chapter on transportation, which includes an interesting review of the debate over the route of the Northway. There was a strong lobby for a Champlain route based on the population and industries to be served. The “Adirondack” lobby won, in part because Forest Preserve was cheaper to acquire than farmland, and one argument was that the Adirondack route wouldn’t destroy as much farmland. There was also concern that the Champlain route would make it easier to reach Vermont ski areas and thus hurt NY ski areas. There was also a national defense argument involved, but I’d have to reread the chapter to remember how that went.

    Brian didn’t mention Ausable Forks, but that town would have been on the most direct route to Lake Placid whether coming from the south or north, and that would have certainly had an effect on that town’s economy.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    To expand a little on Tony’s post (and I don’t have direct knowledge of this , just lore from people who were around and worked on the project), if you look at Route 4 in VT you will see that Vermont thought the route was to be though the Champlain Valley and an interstate spur would connect to Rutland. Lore is that monied interests of various sorts including property owners on Lake George’s west shore along with some people (one of whom was Charley Wood) who made surprisingly prescient property purchases exactly where exits 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 ended up pushed the current route. I believe the Glens Falls Assemblyman at the time was Dick Bartlett who is still around and may have some insight.

  12. Hank says:

    Reading this post and the comments made makes me ask: Is there a lesson in this for places like Canton, Governeur and Malone if the much-discussed Rooftop Highway were ever to be built?

  13. Kathy says:

    I had the same thought as “Hank” as I read along. I can’t help but think we’d all be by-passed if the Rooftop is built. Do you ever stop in Pulaski on your way to Syracuse? How’s Pierrepont Center these days?

  14. Paul says:

    “Do you ever stop in Pulaski on your way to Syracuse?” Not if I can help it. But that town has one of those annoying exits that requires you to drive all the way through town to get back on the HW.

    But I will say that I do a lot of business in North Country towns because 81 exists and can get me from down here to up there rather quickly. If I had to drive on a secondary roads all the way I doubt I would get there very much.

  15. Brian Mann says:

    I’m not suggesting that EVERYONE would stop in Ticonderoga if the interstate ran within a mile of the town. But I do think that A) it would make it a much easier place to visit, B) it would make it a much easier place to live and C) it would make it a much easier place to do business.

    It does seem a little weird that this major travel corridor seems to have been designed – for whatever reason – to bypass as many of the places where people actually live as possible…

    –Brian, NCPR

  16. laurie says:

    Look at places like Brant Lake, Chestertown and Schroon Lake… places with easy access to the Northway. Have they benefited from it? You could make the argument that convenient access to shopping Queensbury and Glens Falls has been more detrimental to businesses in those places than any perceived benefit they may have received from easy access to the Northway. Being close to the Northway doesn’t make a place a destination. It needs to BE the destination in order to benefit from proximity to the Northway. And if its a good enough destination, marketed well, it’ll thrive even in the relative middle of nowhere (Lake Placid).

  17. AdkJack says:

    Sprawl and Malls killed downtowns like Glens Falls. The demise of the smaller communities is more complex. My guess is that the Northway played a role but the loss of industry and shopping patterns (willingness to travel to malls) played larger roles.

  18. Will Doolittle says:

    The sprawl and malls of Queensbury were either fostered by or nurtured by the Northway. Of course roads can create or kill a place, just as rivers can, or railroads did. If the traffic doesn’t go by any more, the place dies, or at least withers, unless it’s somewhere like Lake Placid that has the special features (Olympic venues) that will draw people off the main road.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In North Creek they “improved” Rt 28 by-passing downtown by only a couple hundred yards and I know people who drive by that way regularly but didn’t know for years that there was anything to stop for in town. Everybody gets to see Indian Lake, Blue Mt, Long Lake…

  20. Deb says:

    Like Martha, I remember pre -northway and it was as she described. In my view-the northway did give easier/faster access to people from the hudson valley, nyc and the eastern states- to the adks as a whole. I know people that wkend here from NYC and further. That was not the case back then.
    Pretty good roads (better than they were in the 60’s) other factors(grocery and gas prices, traditional industry decline) have been a 2 edge sword. People can’t get or can’t afford to get the basics in their town so they drive 30-50 miles/1way a couple times a month. In Hamilton Cnty – there is only 1 yr round grocery store.
    There are a lot of other factors that have lead to the reality that we are an aging population w/ an unsustainable tourist economy.

  21. Dave says:

    When the Northway was planned and built, the Lake Champlain shore north of Crown Point was not part of the Park. Not even Elizabethtown, for example, was in inside the Blue Line. The addition of the Lake Champlain shore from Crown Point to Valcour happened in 1973. (This info is from Jerry Jenkins Atlas).

    I would imagine some of the routing decision making had to do with avoiding the Forest Preserve.

  22. oa says:

    Perhaps it’s time to explore whether better rail service along the lake would help revive those towns.

  23. Peter Hahn says:

    The big problem is population decline and economic decline in upstate New York in general rather than the Northway. Turning those lakeside villages into artist colonies might help.

  24. The Original Larry says:

    Gas at about 7.50 a gallon will revive a lot of small towns, even Port Henry.

  25. Avon says:

    I agree with Brian (6/19 AM not PM) and Martha – you have to take the good with the bad. There will be both.

    The Northway would never have been built at all, but for long-haul travelers and truckers between Albany and Montreal clogging Route 9. And, of course, there was the 1950s-60s sentiment – and federal money – for full-speed access to everywhere for national-defense preparedness.

    Laurie could’ve said a lot more about “Look at Schroon Lake” … Have you ever been anywhere on either side of that lake at night? It’s constant dull-roar of traffic, plus even after 40 years the hillside scar is ugly. If the entire length of Lake Champlain from Willsboro to Ticonderoga looked and sounded like that, nobody would want to live or vacation anywhere near the Lake. Such an Interstate would gain those classic villages nothing.

    That is, if they could build it at all. In Schroon it could be done; elsewhere it might have been impossible, even if you condemned part of every waterview farm, bulldozed half of each hamlet, and blasted apart any lakeside cliff in the way of a route with gentle enough slopes and curves for highway speeds.

    So, no sense rueing I-87. But, I’d say, take heart: None of those factors are a problem with the “rooftop” concept. There, you can pick and choose flat or gentle land, drivers can see what they’re bypassing (and get off the road if they want a scenic or homey town), and sound wouldn’t echo for miles around the route.

  26. Albert J. Haberle, DVM says:

    First I say, ‘Thank you Brian Mann for your review of the current North Country problem(s).’

    However, the location of the transportation corredors, the highways especially I-87, and even the railroad, is having less and less of an effect on the quality and (re)developement of the towns like the Port Henreys of the North Country — it will be, and is already, the use of the internet / computer. More and more business, especially office work, is being done in places where one might like to live rather than in proxmity to some office building.

    A working person no longer needs live in, or near, New York City, to do business in New York City, and the need to ‘be there’, at some meeting, at least frequently, is becoming less and less necessary. While there is the desire of most people to enjoy modestly frequent ‘cultural events’ and while the North Country’s climate is a bit of a challange, the cultural climate is improving every year.

    This does not even begin to compare a lovely home for $250,000 one can have in the North Country compared to a similar $780,000 home of the same dimensions adjacent to a busy street in Southern New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.

    Bring on the internet, the North Country is the place for you.

  27. Beth says:

    I grew up in Moriah, my father worked in the mines. My uncle owned a dairy farm in Westport. I remember my family being very concerned that if the Northway went through the Champlain Valley it would cut my Uncle’s farm in two and make his life more difficult or take away his livelihood entirely. The Northway took the western route and the farm is still a functioning dairy farm.

    Westport has always been a pleasant farming community with a sprinkling of “monied people”. Moriah and Port Henry were communities based on industry. They drew people from all over the world, there were Polish, German, Italian, Spanish and African American people working side by side building a life. Then times changed, the mines closed. Many people left, but many stayed.

  28. Lee Keet says:

    I find this discussion a little weird. Do high speed trains kill local economies? Do new airline routes? People go where they want because of what is at their destination(s), and the time and cost of getting there is a major consideration.

    My grandparents needed two days to get from New York City to Lower Saranac Lake in the ’20’s. They took a night boat with a loaded car to Albany, then multiple stops along Route 9 to get replacement tires, as the eight – four on the running boards – they carried would not make the 150 mile trip. Lots of unhappy local spending that they would have rather spent at their destination.

    Making places the destination, not the detested clog to be bypassed by secret routes (remember those?), is the answer. Bad restaurants you have to stop at to avoid famine on a 12-hour journey are not the answer either. Repair shops for things that no longer break also. You have to make those hamlets I87 zips by desirable.

    Great attractions and amenities along the way become destinations. For example, in our many journeys from Connecticut where we once lived to the Adirondacks where we live now we would divert to Saratoga for Chez Sophie (who is sadly no longer with us) or to Friends Lake Inn for a fine meal on the way.

    We need master plans for the hamlets and villages in the Adirondacks. Plans that attract NEW visitors who want to get to that destination, quickly and safely. Places like the Wild Center that did not exist when the Northway was built and now attracts over 50,000 visitors each year.

    So, for my money, access is critical. We need new air routes from New York City to Adirondack Airport, for example (Cape Air is working on it). And to get people to want to use any convenient means they can to get here, we need more clean, green, recreational opportunities, such as more wilderness access by hikers, bikers, climbers, and bikers. And to support them, more good restaurants, outfitters, guide centers, etc..

  29. The Original Larry says:

    You can get to California faster now from most places in the North Country than you could get to NYC in pre-Northway days. When I was a kid, a trip down to Glens Falls was a rare event; a quick trip to NYC for a ball game, play or visit was mostly unheard of. All those things are easily possible now as are the weekend visits and vacation trips by the tourists and part-time residents who fuel the local economy. On the other hand, small town “downtowns” accross the region are dead or dying. Why shop locally when you get better variety and prices in Glens Falls or Plattsburgh and the trip there takes minutes instead of hours? We have to endure the hordes of day-trippers who drag their boats and sleds north every Saturday but leave without spending a dime, unless they run out of beer. So, from my perspective, the Northway has been a mixed blessing.

  30. Faith (Hathaway) Larsen says:

    I grew up two miles from the Northway, in Lewis, NY. It did not make our town better or bigger because we were right there beside it. The truck stop wasn’t even that busy, and it was right next to the exit. But the view from the Northway rest area at exit 32 is the best 180 degree panorama of the Adirondacks. Just saying. Could be it’s the best because it’s home, even when I’ve been gone so long.

  31. Romeyn Prescott says:

    Not to pick nits, but did you mean Route 9 when you said 9n (N?)? The former was the “main drag.” 9N, while scenic, isn’t exactly a direct route to anywhere but the hamlets and villages along its route.

    I think all rest areas and welcome centers should be removed from our interstates, forcing people to exit in order to get food and perhaps patronize a business or two.

  32. mervel says:

    Do people who live in these communities shop there? Before the Northway did they see tons of tourists? But then when the northway happened they all left? More likely they are suffering the same fate as the rest of the small villages in upstate NY and really most of rural America.

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