Historic U.S. Route 20
The Main Street of Upstate New York
This website is dedicated to my love of U.S. Route 20, to which I owe many fond memories of family outings and Sunday drives. I thank my Mom & Dad and my brothers for all of the memories of those exciting drives to places like "Petrified Creatures", "Herkimer Diamond Mines", "Cooperstown", "The Antique Auto Museum" and more, as well as my wife for all of the many modern trips we have taken down "20", that will all be remembered in my mind always.
- Daniel Houde "2002"
Route 20 - A Brief History
U.S. Route 20 is one of the oldest transcontinental highways. Stretching across eleven states, it crosses four time zones, beginning in the east near Boston, Massachusetts and ending in the west at Newport Oregon. Covering 3,365 miles, it is our nations longest continuous highway, and the only transcontinental highway which cuts through New York.
U.S. Route 20 can actually trace its early beginnings to animal paths, Indian trails, and early turnpikes. With westward expansion and the industrial age, over time it grew. What is now Route 20, was chartered as the "First Western Turnpike", and has also been called the "Cherry Valley Turnpike". It experienced it's biggest boom during the golden years of the automobile. When Henry Ford produced the Model T, a car that was affordable to the masses, people from almost all walks of life could now venture outside of their own towns and villages. This was the beginning of modern growth for Route 20, and from 1925 to 1955 Route 20 became the major means from going east to west and west to east and all points in between. It was now possible for Americans to start to explore God's great open spaces.
In the early days of motoring, their were no motels, and hotels only existed in the major cities, so when night fell upon tired and road weary travelers, most just pulled off the road and erected tents or slept within the car itself. Many towns and villages allowed travelers to set up camp in their town parks. Eventually fields near town were set aside specifically for this purpose, and thus the "auto camp" or "tourist camp" as they were also sometimes called was born. Lacking any and all amenities, these were basically just a clear and open field where motorists could set up a tent or two and spend the night or a few days before continuing on their journey. Auto camps however quickly became the choice spot for hiding criminal elements and also attracted hobo vagrants, in fact the famed Bonnie & Clyde were said to hide out in auto camps while on the run, so what started out as good thing quickly turned into a seedy not so desirable place to be for a family of traveling vacationers. In an effort to attract a more desirable element, and to provide a safer place for a typical traveling family to spend the night, auto camps soon evolved into small cabin colonies called "motor courts". These motor courts were the forerunner to the modern motel and had small hastily built cabins that provided a more home like appearance, and offered a safer place to stay than tenting or sleeping in the car out in the field of the auto camp. Many motor court entrepreneurs decorated and dressed up these cabins with shutters and even porches that made them look very pleasant, attractive and homey. Around the late 40's and early 50's the automobile had become a much more reliable machine than the earlier roadsters and touring cars of the 20's and 30's, and many more people were taking to the road and traveling greater distances, there was now a new competitiveness in the road travel host industry, and soon the motor court evolved into the motel, some even had added amenities such as small diners and restaurants, gift shops, miniature golf, and even pools.
Along with the motor courts and motels, travelers also needed places to fill up their fuel tanks, have their cars fixed when something broke, and places to fill their stomachs and quench their thirsts, and small filling stations, diners, eatery's, auto repair garages sprang up almost overnight. This marks what I consider to be the real golden years for Route 20.
In 1954 - 1956, the New York State Thruway was built, and the golden era for Route 20, and for motoring as a whole was lost and changed forever. Travelers heading to a destination were now less concerned with what was along the way, and more concerned with getting there, and getting there quicker. Motorists could drive faster on the Thruway, and did not have to slow down at every small town because the Thruway went around all the small towns. This spelled out some serious trouble for business owners that counted on those people "stopping along the way". Some businesses reported 30% losses the first year the Thruway opened, but it was not just the business that was lost, it was also part of our own past that was lost too. It seems to me that people, not just the highway changed at that point too, and things have never been the same since. People and life in general moved faster and faster. The simple gift shop or tourist attraction along the way was less important and no longer presented an interest to the traveler. Now bigger destinations such as the "theme park" were on the mind, and there was no time or desire to stop along the way anymore.
Route 20 Today
Remnants of the "Golden Years" times can still be seen all over a section of Route 20 in New York State that I like to call the "Route 20 Corridor", a small 100 mile stretch that runs east to Duanesburg and west to Cazenovia. Cabin colonies and motor courts that have long been abandoned and forgotten still can be seen along the roadsides. Many of the old motels can still be seen along the corridor, and some are still in business today. This is my favorite section of Route 20, and still captures my interest even today, I've traveled it hundreds of times, and I still never get bored driving it. This section of Route 20 is like the Main Street of Upstate New York, small quiet towns, rural farm lands, picturesque views, and most of all a slower pace that is truly enjoyable. As a child, I can remember riding in the family car down Route 20, on the way to something exciting like "Petrified Creatures", the "Herkimer Diamond Mines", the "Antique Auto Museum", the "Baseball Hall of Fame", "Howe Caverns", and more. I remember the "Tepee" in Cherry Valley, and having lunch at the "Gatesdale Dairy Bar" in Bridgewater. U.S. Route 20 was a busy highway back then, filled with travelers and vacationing families all doing the same.
The Thruway can get you to where you are going quicker, but travelers on U.S. Route 20 can experience so much more. There are no tolls to pay, the condition of the road is surprisingly very good and very well kept. Less traffic means that you can move along at a more enjoyable pace that just seems to be more peaceful and laid back. On the Thruway, everything looks the same, all of the service areas look alike and all offer the same things. Route 20 offers all kinds of diners and shops, antique stores, ice cream stands and more.
Urban sprawl and modern development threatens one of our last pieces of local Americana. Sections of the corridor have been widened, some sections have been made into divided highway. Lack of travel and tourism threatens small businesses. I urge you to help, by going out and recapturing the lost past time of motoring. Get out and enjoy the corridor, and all that it has to offer. Whether you are re-living old memories you remember experiencing as a child, or creating new ones with your kids for future generations to come. Take the "road less traveled by".
I have photographed some of these places, and invite you to browse my photos and be taken back. I have included a map of the Route 20 Corridor here. I have also described the sites to see along the Route 20 corridor, and mapped out the trip here. I encourage you to once again take a Sunday drive with the family, and tour and enjoy historic Route 20.
If you have any postcards, pictures, both past and present, or any stories, memories or recollections, local history, historic facts, etc. regarding U.S. Route 20 through New York State that you would like to share and contribute for possible inclusion in my book, "Historic U.S. Route 20 - The Main Street of Upstate New York", please send them to me or contact me! Thanks for visiting!
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This page was last updated on 01/11/14.