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November 2000


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William Ringle <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 26 Nov 2000 11:39:03 -0000
text/plain (109 lines)
As a reporter who covered many aspects of  the Thruway construction in
Central and Western New York from
1950 until its completion, I read, of course, others'  contemporARY
accounts. The best of these, on the construction and some of the logrolling
involved, were by David H. Beetle for the Gannett News Service (who covered
allaspects of the construction) and Joseph C. Ingraham  of The New York

 I'd be amazed if, after more than half century,  if there aren't many books
on the building of
the Thruway. It caused enormous social, political, economic and
auto-traffic-handling changes in the state, as well as altered techniques
of, and attitudes toward, roadbuilding. But I'd be less amazed to learn that
Beetle's and Ingraham's chronicles had been ignored, though they should be
primal sources. Beetle's account of the intricacies of the Tappan Zee bridge
construction was typical of his reports.

Another good source might be John Ten Hagen, a retired state Department of
Public Works engineer, who, I assume, is still alive and, I'd guess, in his
late 60s now. Not only did he, as a young engineer, work on the later
aspects  of the Thruway construction (and thus worked every day with the
older engineers -- Elmer G. H. Youngmann John Larsen, Robert Sweet, Normal
Krapf and Dominic Massucci -- who had done much of the regional grassroots
planning and execution of it) but his father, Henry Ten Hagen, an elegant
man, was chief engineer for the state during much of that period. I'd guess
that many or all of the principals in the DPW & its district engineers'
offices are now dead.

Each district engineer's office produced extensive published studies
of the anticipated economic, social and even geological  effects of the
Thruway  in its
region. Those should be available in the State Library or in the records of
the state agency (Department of Transportation, is it?) that is the DPW's
successor. I seem to recall that the reports pertinent to various
communities were deposited in local public libraries.

The DPW also conducted extensive public hearings in the late 1940s and early
1950s to drum up support and to allay public resistance and skepticism.
People had a difficult time, for example, accepting
the notion that they'd be able to drive non-stop at 55 or 60 mph for long
periods (for an article in The Rochester Times-Union, I recall soliciting
the opinions of leading Detroit auto designers on whether driving at a
mile-a-minute without letup would damage one's engine. They said, of course,
that it
wouldn't. And I recall at a 1950 or 1951 hearing on the Thruway's likely
impact on the Mohawk  Valley a spindly, aged resident of Fonda, one Erastus
Corning Davis, asking, "How do I know, if I drive 60 miles an hour, some
damned trooper won't arrest me?").

Though the Thruway idea was generally popular, it encountered sectors of
spirited resistance. It took or segmented valuable farmland. It bypassed
communities which valued the cross-state traffic that passed through them.
Because it did not enter many cities (Rochester, Rome, Syracuse) directly,
the placement of long connecting roads became controversial. It  ruined many
businesses along parallel conventional roads (like Routes  5 & 20).  It took
out the center of some villages (like Fultonville). It ignored entire
regions (the Southern Tier & the North Country), although politicians saw to
it that they, too, eventually got expressways. It offered what amounted to a
low-cost freightway that  competed with the tax-paying railroads.
Advertisers (and the farmers who rented space to them) didn't like the idea
of the restrictions on billboards.

And it proved to be a major contributor to the decline of downtowns in many
middle-sized cities ( why should a shopper settle for the higher prices and
limited selections in his home town when, in a few minutes. he could shop in
the nearest metropolis? Why should a traveling salesman stay overnight in
the local hotel when he could drive back home in an hour or two?).

The financing of the Thruway also caused some public concern. It was built,
of course, with borrowed money (the state issued bonds which, like any state
debt, had to be OK'd by the voters) which was to be paid off by the tolls
paid by drivers.  When the bondholders were paid off, the voters of that
time were assured, the Thruway would be absorbed into the state's free
highway system. But when the bonds were finally retired, that agreement was
abrogated and the Thruway continues as a  toll road and a source of money
for non-Thruway projects (some of it even going to the Barge Canal).

Originally, the Thruway was to have been a free limited-access road.  So
some early interchanges were designed "cloverleaf" style -- that is, with
four whorls, or access roads, connecting to intersecting highways.
But with the decision to support it with tolls, interchanges of that time
became impractical. For if the Thruway had four toll booths, operating round
the clock, at every interchange, the costs in toll-collectors' salaries,
heat and light would be prohibitive.

So, "trumpet-style" interchanges -- where all of the traffic to and from the
access road is channeled through one toll "island" -- were decreed. As a
result, at least one completed "cloverleaf" (at Victor) was dug up and
replaced by a "trumpet-style."

A great wellspring of information, I'd assume, would be the papers of
Bertram D. Tallamy, who was the mover & shaker in the construction (though,
of course, Gov. Dewey was the guy who really pushed it). During the
Eisenhower Administration he became the federal commissioner of public

If  R. Burdell Bixby is still alive he would be a great wellspring of
information. He was a counsel and young lieutenant  of Dewey's and later
became chairman of the Thruway Authority.

At the time it was under construction, the professional engineers' and
contractors'  magazines carried extensive articles on the problems the
Thruway builders were meeting and the methods they used to
solve them.

William Ringle.