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Avon Five Arch Bridge  

THE HISTORY OF ROUTES 5 & 20: ON FOOT, BY WAGON AND IN THE AUTOMOBILE




By Marjory Allen Perez

A drive down Routes 5 & 20 in New York State is a journey through American History on a truly authentic American highway!

Routes 5 & 20 had their start as narrow foot trails established by Native American who lived in the area for thousands of years before the American Revolution. In the late 1700s, pioneer settlers moving into central and western New York, simply widened the established footpaths to accommodate wagons and sleds. Land speculators and new residents began to clamor for improved roads – the first group to attract new settlers and the second to get their products to eastern markets. Beginning in the 1790s New York State decided that private enterprise would solve the problem of bad roads – enter the Era of the Turnpike.

The Great Western Turnpike (Route 20) connected Albany to the Cherry Valley and eventually linked up with the Seneca Turnpike to take travelers into the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. The Genesee Turnpike (Route 5) also was anchored in Albany but took a more northerly route through the Mohawk Valley, then into the Finger Lakes region, onto the Genesee River, and eventually to the Niagara Frontier. Between 1790 and 1820 these roads were the main east-west arteries of commerce for New York State.

The communities that grew up along this transportation corridor were well established by 1820, serving as market hubs for the surrounding region. Lafayette, Skaneateles, Auburn, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Geneva, Canandaigua, West Bloomfield, Lima, Avon, Caledonia, LeRoy, and Batavia are all linked in history - by the Era of the Turnpike. The turnpikes brought the world to their Main Streets!

Travel patterns shifted away from the east-west turnpike corridor with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the railroads in the 1850s. Between 1830 and 1890 the road system of New York State, for all intents and purposes, was ignored. The responsibility of maintenance fell to town governments. Landowners in rural areas of New York State paid their road tax with their labor, which appealed to cash-strapped farmers, but did little to insure good road conditions.

In the 1890s attention was again focused on the condition of the roads in New York State. This time the push for better roads came first from bicyclists! By far the biggest incentive for better roads was the dramatic entrance of the automobile in the early 1900s.

For the first time New York State took a lead in the construction of roads in an effort to turn the muddy and rutted paths, laid out one hundred years earlier during the Turnpike Era, into hard-surfaced roadways.

The communities linked east to west across the center of New York State by the turnpikes would once again welcome the world to their Main Streets, now via the new and improved Routes 5and 20. The route of the Great Western Turnpike (Rt. 20) was incorporated into one of the last great transcontinental Federal Highways – joining Boston, Mass to Newport, Oregon and passing through Yellowstone National Park – completed in 1940.

Between 1925 and 1955, Routes 5 & 20 were the most traveled east-west highways in the New York State. This would change dramatically with the completion of the New York State Thruway in 1954. Competition would shift traffic patterns away from Routes 5 & 20, but only temporarily.

As we enter the 21st century, New York's famous east-west corridor is once again getting the attention it deserves. It has been 200 years since the first turnpikes opened the wilderness of central and western New York to provide an avenue of travel for pioneers. Today those same routes take the traveler through beautiful rural vistas and charming historic villages – the very same sights seen by the travelers of the early 19th century!