Updated 07/20/2010 07:32 PM
Whiteface Mountain celebrates 75th anniversary of Memorial Highway
Some say it was just as important to the Adirondack region as the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid. It was 75 years ago today that a five-mile roadway was opened allowing people drive to the top of Whiteface Mountain. A project that saw its ups and downs and was helped pushed along by former president Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. Our Brian Dwyer takes a look back at the process and how it's helped the Lake Placid area become what it is.
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WILMINGTON, N.Y. -- Whiteface Mountain has long been the centerpiece of Lake Placid's scenic roots, but it wasn't until the 19th century that it became more than a sight to see.
"The first official survey was done in 1837 by Professor Ebenezer Evans. He indicated after climbing the mountain two things. Number one it would be a very interesting place for recreation and number two it had unusual plant species," Whiteface Mountain Atmospheric Sciences Research Center Operations Manager Doug Wolfe said. "The DNH Railroad looked into the possibility of a cog railway from Lake Placid up to the Summit, but financially it wasn't suitable because the summer is only three months of the year here."
In the early 1900s, as cars were becoming more available, the idea came to build a road to the top of Whiteface Mountain. In 1922, an official petition was made, but given that they were dealing with a state forest preserve it would take some creative efforts by lawmakers to pass the proposal.
"Al Smith was the Governor at the time and Al, very tactfully, included it in a bunch of New York City amendments and bills," Wolfe said. "While many of the state's counties voted against it, the New York City landslide carried it through."
Smith eventually gave way to the next Governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He played a big role in getting things started.
"He created the Whiteface Highway Commission," Wolfe said of Roosevelt. "It was three members, one of which, the chairman was disabled. The first shovel of dirt was officially taken September 11th, 1929. But the Stock Market crashed in October. So everything went on hold until 1931."
The goal was to have it done in two years, but reality hit.
"They had anywhere between 200 and 300 men at any one time on road construction itself. All sorts of events happened in the construction. Orthosite, which incidentally is the same rock that's found on the moon, is extremely hard stuff. The weather was completely against them all the time. 1933 was one of the coldest winters on record in the Adirondacks."
It cost about $1.25 million. Many of the workers made about 50 cents an hour. Because of the problems, two years took four. The first road traffic took the trip up on July 20th, 1935. The road was ceremoniously opened in September.
"The Whiteface dedication by President Roosevelt was a big deal at the time," Wolfe said. "Of course he couldn't make it up to the summit, so they drove to the end of the road. Plans were already in the works to make a tunnel and elevator to the summit. He was obviously in favor of that."
And people's interest has been sky high since. With nearly 70,000 visitors a year, it's seen millions upon millions of people in its 75 years.
"I may be partial, but I always recommend if someone is visiting here for the first time, they definitely should go to the top of Whiteface Mountain," Whiteface Mountain General Manager Bruce McCulley said. "It gives you a great feel of the Adirondacks. People that maybe can't climb physically due to age or any other reason, they can access the summit of the fifth highest peak. It really gives a great view. The high peak region, Lake Placid, the whole area, Saranac Lake area. You can see all the way to Vermont and Lake Champlain. When it's a good clear day, Montreal, Canada, 90 miles away."
And to continue the 75th anniversary celebration, people will once again meet here at the Memorial Highway in September to commemorate the day President Roosevelt was here for the original dedication.
"If you compare that project to the 1980 Olympics, I think that project had as much impact as the 1980 Olympics did for Lake Placid. All the infrastructure coming in. The bridges were upgraded."
Whiteface is the fifth highest peak in all of New York State, but the other four are open to foot traffic only. It's officially New York's highest roadway, highest tunnel and elevator and even the state's highest restaurant.