Nostalgic Route 9: Abandoned Motels, Vintage Signs
Recently, I had my inaugural voyage to the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, an area I’ve became quite interested in. Lake Champlain, the massive body of freshwater roughly 500 square miles in size, forms the boundary between Vermont and New York, and with a limited amount of crossings to the next state, as well as a lack of reasons for your blogger to go visit, the state of New York was practically an unfamiliar exotic world to me, an undisputed disparity from the weird bubble that is Vermont. One of the most common things I hear flatlanders say about Vermont, is something like; “man, do you have any idea how weird Vermont is? Seriously, you guys are like a cult up here. It’s almost like you don’t belong in the rest of the United States”, and sometimes they eye me with momentary awe. And I’m immensely proud of that.
The Vermont side of the lake is gentler and up kept, while the New York side is wild and grungy, wallowing in its nostalgia. Boulders and forests slide into the lake, bordered by rural stretches of crumbling highways and tumbledown homes. The Adirondack experience is a multi-faceted one – a region that doesn’t give up all its secrets, but doesn’t hide its scars. A place that’s vast, desolate and intriguing.
Meeting up with a good friend who is familiar with the region, he agreed to show me around some of his favorite haunts on a rather pleasant November day. Crisscrossing the region’s roads in the most inefficient manor possible, we decided to dedicate our escapade to a particular hue; the scores of old motels, vacation cabins and awesomely unkempt vintage signage and their visage of deterioration.
Everything related to this goal can be found along U.S. Route 9, where much of the area’s notoriety once came from. The route cuts through this huge region in a north south direction between the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain. At one point, Route 9 was the original superhighway to the North Country before the Adirondack Northway, also known as Interstate 87, was built. In Route 9’s well traveled heyday, it was crawling with people tromping through its roadside attractions, curio, and motels which made lasting impressions in some tangible way. Today, a journey down Route 9 is more of a reflection of one of the more grimy truths of reality; impermanence. It’s now a desolate and forlorn drive through almost uninterrupted miles of forest, which is often sick and scraggily looking, as the Adirondack Northway carries most traffic now. But it’s a fascinating drive to me.
The landscape changes dramatically from the unanimated city of Plattsburgh and neighboring town of Keeseville as Route 9 heads south towards the tiny town of North Hudson and the ruins of Frontier Town, a frontier themed amusement park that was once the blood and pride of an otherwise easily missed town. The areas around Plattsburgh and Keeseville are lined by mid century motel establishments and their gimmicky retro signs complete with wondering arrows, neon lights and sharp angles; all designed to capture the travelers’ attention. Further south, unvarying one room wooden cabins are scattered in the midst of otherwise scraggly fir forests and increasingly long distances of highway with no signs of life for miles. Depressed hamlets like Lewis and New Russia spring out of the untamed forest like some sort of northern mirage, but are easily forgotten within minutes.
We decided the best route to New York would be The Grand Isle Ferry. From there, it would be a short drive down Route 314 to the destination Route 9 in Plattsburgh. The winds were incredibly fierce, the lake was choppy and full of whitecaps. Because of this, the ferry ride over was twice as long, as the captain attempted to navigate the rough waters safely, the boat viciously rocking back and forth and the waves spraying over onto the deck. For the fun of it, we got out of the car and attempted to get a few pictures of the rough conditions, but my, uh, sea legs had 25 years of inexperience working against me. The boat was rocking so badly that it was almost impossible to gain my balance. Admitting defeat, it was back in the car for me.
Out of the city limits now, Route 9 returns to stark wilderness. With the motels of Keeseville now gone, the desolation is now occasionally broken by crumbling roadside cabins shrouded in growth, with a decaying sign out front, their paint long faded and neon tubes hanging loosely around the sides.
Cabin Set #1
Cabin Set #2
Cabin Set #3
I found these to be interesting because of their unique hillside perch – and their remote location – there was nothing else around for several miles, making me think that these were sort of a “last chance” affair.
Now the landscape changed again from the cramped rustic abandoned cabins to abandoned motels.
Abandoned Motel #1
This abandoned motel seemed to be relativity up kept, its dated architecture looking almost as crisp as its heyday. The lawn was kept mowed, and the owners lived across the street in another former motel, which I suppose wasn’t very surprising.
Abandoned Motel #2
This motel was more desolate then the first one, done in a kitschy in a rustic log theme, which was inspired by the defunct amusement park, Frontier Town, which was just down the road. The crumbling parking lot had almost returned to a wild state overran with weeds, and the long front porch was becoming encroached with fir trees growing slowly inside it. This was the first place we noticed that hosted transient people. Some of the rooms had been broken into, and the obvious signs of human presence were everywhere, but thankfully none were around when we arrived.
Down the road is the uninteresting town of North Hudson, nothing more then a collection of ramshackle homes and trailers amidst the scraggly woods. But years ago, North Hudson was home to one of the most beloved tourist destinations in the Adirondacks; Frontier Town.
In 1951, an enterprising man named Art Benson chose the woods of North Hudson to be the home for his new vision; a theme park that would bring the wild west to upstate New York. He had no income, no background in construction or anything related to running a theme park, and yet, with ambition and bearing his charismatic personality, he managed to pull off one of the most beloved tourist traps in the Adirondacks. Decorated like a primitive frontier town of the 19th century and amusing it’s guests with interactive dioramas from folklore, popular culture and history, the park continued it’s role as a compelling spectacle until 1983, when Benson sold the park to another development firm, who closed the park in 1989, and reopened it shortly after with new attractions to try and lure more people to make up for the park’s dwindling audience. By 1998, Frontier Town closed for good, after being discombobulated by dropping finances and the latest victim of changing trends; the new notion that it was now dated and politically incorrect.
The vast property was seized in August 2004 by Essex County for past-due property taxes. Today, the park is a humble collection of ruins rotting in the woods, or along Route 9, which is where the main entrance was. The property is skirted by a collection of abandoned motels and restaurants that now look rather out of place in town.
There have been a few special interest groups organized with the goal to restore Frontier Town, and have it labeled as a historic landmark. But so far, none have been successful. Nearby the property is the seedy Gokey’s Trading Post, which has a few pieces of Frontier Town memorabilia for those looking for some nostalgia.
To read more about Frontier Town, you can click this link to be taken to my blog entry on that.
Side Note: There is a ghost town in the mountains behind Frontier Town. If you’re curious, click on here to read about it.
Frontier Town is such a large property that I would need to devote an entire day to see it, which I hope to plan.
Heading back up Route 9, we drove through a unique, bizarre intersection at Routes 9 and 73 in New Russia, a hamlet of Elizabethtown. When Route 73 hits Route 9, the lanes split off in separate directions, crossing each other in a crazed and seemingly random pattern before coming together again. Everytime I’ve driven through it, I’ve wondered: why does this intersection exist? And the first few times – Where do I go?
A chance find on a Google search provided me with some answers. The locals call this “Dysfunction Junction”. The intersection was built in 1958, using a design that has been instituted (with slightly variations) in other areas of the state. The design is a “bulb type-T intersection” that “favors the heavier right-turn movement from the upper to the lower left leg of the intersection. Sight distances are excellent and approach speeds are approximately 40 miles per hour.”
So why was this design chosen for this spot? We have to go back to Route 9’s heyday as the main artery from Plattsburgh and points South. Before the Northway was built, Route 9 suffered far worse traffic congestion as it does now. Before the construction, a simple stop sign was in place, which overtime was unable to handle the flow of moving traffic. The design allows Route 9 traffic to flow through without stopping, while anyone continuing on 73 would have to wait. Today, they’d probably build a roundabout instead. While this design may have made sense in the 1950s, today’s traffic patterns have changed. But not everything thinks it’s a bad design. “If you just follow the signs, you’ll be alright” says one indifferent local.
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