In the ’50s, super-highways were a concrete symbol of America’s new-found, post-war power. And they forever altered life everywhere they flowed, starting here.
In March of 1954, the citizens of Sleepy Hollow were especially sleepy. So sleepy, in fact, that a writer in the New York World Telegram suggested that “residents of this historic community think maybe the name will have to be changed to Insomnia Hollow.” The reason: construction of the “$600,000,000 State Thruway bridge across the three-mile Tappan Zee of the Hudson.”
Crews were operating pile drivers 24 hours a day to make up for time lost to bad weather, the article reported. Police switchboards were swamped with complaints. Some people claimed their beds shook. And no rest for the weary was in sight: “Burt Sanders, project manager, said he was very sorry but the nocturnal pounding will have to continue for the next eight weeks.”
Sleep loss may have been one of the earliest consequences of the New York State Thruway, but it was hardly the only one. The new road, dubbed “The Main Street of New York State” in early promotional material, changed how people in the Hudson Valley and throughout the state lived, worked, and played.
It also predicted similar changes across the United States, as it in large part inspired the nascent interstate highway system that transformed the country in the late 1950s and 1960s. That same promotional flyer even predicts that, because the Thruway was “arousing national interest,” it would inevitably become “one of America’s top tourist attractions.”
Okay, so no one would mistake the Thruway for Mount Rushmore. But you can forgive the enthusiasm. In the ’50s, super-highways were a concrete symbol, literally, of America’s new-found, post-war power. They signaled the triumph of the automobile as the country’s pre-eminent mode of transportation and mythological totem. And they forever altered life everywhere they flowed, starting here.
The Thruway Giveth
The Hudson River Valley has always been the Northeast’s center of transportation, from native trails through the shipping and railroad routes that connected the port of New York to the rest of America. “It was river transportation first, including the Erie Canal, then the railroads came in the 1840s, especially the east shore line,” says Tom Lewis, emeritus professor of English at Skidmore College and author of The Hudson: A History and Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life.
Though automobiles drove onto the scene in the early 1900s, the Hudson Valley had only one river-crossing bridge south of Albany: the Bear Mountain Bridge, which opened in 1924. The Valley’s disparate communities were connected by “ribbons of roads up the east and west side of the river,” Lewis says, Routes 9 and 9W for example. There was no easy way to get from the City to upstate New York and beyond.
Suburban towns had been built on the railroad model, near the stations, because “you can’t get more than a couple miles from there without horse and carriage. The Thruway gave the opportunity for the first time to move swiftly from the exits into the valley, to penetrate into the area as never before. People could drive up and down the river, cross at the new bridges, because it was easy to do.”
The most striking example was that sleep-shattering new bridge called the Tappan Zee. “It changed the culture of Rockland County,” Lewis says. The bridge opened in 1955, and in the next two decades Rockland’s population density nearly tripled, from 500 people per square mile to 1,300 per square mile, he says, “because now it was accessible to New York City. The Thruway gradually made it possible to link what were disparate communities.”
It also linked business. “The real catalyst for getting IBM to move to Kingston was the Thruway,” says Roger Panetta, visiting professor of history at Fordham University and author of The Tappan Zee Bridge and the Forging of the Rockland Suburb. The company had a large training center in Manhattan, and a “smattering” of centers throughout the state, he says.
They were planning to move at about the same time the Thruway was proposed. “Trucking networks were on their mind, and in their planning documents they talked about the Thruway, how they could move their heavy products to the city easily, and Kingston was right off the Thruway,” Panetta says. “I know their planners were thinking about that, it was very much on their mind.”
It was on the mind of many business executives. “Where it went brought lots of development, which Gov. Dewey anticipated,” says Bruce Dearstyne, author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History. “He said this would be ‘the new Erie Canal’ for New York State. The Thruway would boost development in the latter half of the 20th century, as the Erie Canal did in the 19th century. That’s hard to measure, but he was probably right. On the other hand …”
The Thruway Taketh Away
There is always another hand with all large-scale endeavors. The Thruway is no exception, and it brought with it unintended and sometimes deleterious consequences. The towns and cities that the Thruway bypassed did not fare well, Dearstyne says. Some disappeared. Others are stuck in time. “They were villages, as they are now, and many have not changed a lot since the ’50s. The people and development went elsewhere,” he says. Route 9W still goes where it always went, but with less traffic, “land values did not boom like they did near the Thruway.”
Towns on Route 17, like Sloatsburg, also lost out. Before the Thruway, Sloatsburg catered to frequent travelers with numerous grocery stores, department stores, gas stations and other stores, and even boasted several fine restaurants and hotels, such as the Glenwood Inn, Taylor’s Inn, and the Henry Inn. Not so today — although positive things are happening through the efforts of people like developer Michael Bruno of the Tuxedo Hudson Company.
Geoffrey Stein, senior historian emeritus with the New York State Museum, remembers the decline of restaurants, filling stations, and motels on the roads he was most familiar with before I-87. “The abandoned buildings were many,” he says. “The State Museum staff once talked about acquiring a tourist camp cabin for preservation at the museum, but it may be too late.”
The environment, of course, also took a hit. “So much of the Thruway cuts through quite lovely territory, but it divided the community from the land,” Lewis says. “Farms and small towns were often split by the roadway.” He says that an RPI-trained civil engineer once told him that building a highway through wetlands was considered a “two-fer. You didn’t have to pay for the land. You had complete control over the land. Aquatic life doesn’t talk back,” he says. “That was very much the thinking at the time.”
And yet, when the new bridge connecting Westchester and Rockland — the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge — opened its second span this past September, the Thruway once again gained positive spin. The nearly $4 billion project held “national significance,” according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who opened the bridge with a ceremonial drive over it in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s very own 1932 Packard with his mother, Matilda Cuomo.
“This bridge restores confidence in ourselves,” he said. Former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton seconded that, saying, “It is time for the United States of America to take another look at what’s getting done here in New York and follow this example.”
So, are highways like the Thruway to be praised or cursed? Nothing is good or bad, Shakespeare said; only thinking makes it so. For some, there are too many cars. Too many suburbs. Not enough mass transit. Not enough nature. For others, progress is the American Way. Things change, attitudes change. The Thruway has to be understood in context.
“The car was king in the 1950s,” Dearstyne says. And so was New York State. “This is an example of New York greatness. Having a big vision costs a lot but will help us stay number one, which we were in those days. I think New York is arguably the most significant state in the nation, maybe until the present. It is inclined to be on the leading edge, be bold about things like the Erie Canal, the Thruway. Where we went, other states followed. For the most part, this is a pretty positive story.”
Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.