Who’s Ever Heard of Route 20?
By Bob Jaussaud
We had never heard of Route 20 when Sue and I traveled east on our “bucket list” trip to see the Fall colors in New England and, believe me, the colors were nothing short of spectacular. We landed in Boston, rented a car, and started a two week, 2000 plus mile long tour through seasonal beauty and American history. At our furthest point we even went into Canada to have “tea with Eleanor” at the Roosevelt’s summer home, Campobello. I hesitate to wax too eloquently about our adventure, but along the way we walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, strolled aboard the historic ship USS Constitution, boarded the WW2 destroyer USS Cassin Young and descended into the first U.S.atomic powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. We rode the trolley at Kennebunkport, the steam train at Boothbay and the wind at the top of the swaying Penobscot Narrows Bridge. We walked in the steps of Calvin Coolidge at his boyhood home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont and Norman Rockwell at his studio in Stockbridge. Other highlights along our way have to include Lake Champlain, the Trapp Family Inn, the snowplow museum in Bangor, riding Warner’s Ferry, the Bridge of Flowers at Shelburne Falls and the “OMG” Olympic ski jumps at Lake Placid. Our New England experience was all these wonderful things plus food “to die for” including lobster rolls, Acadia popovers, eggs Bigelow, fish chowder and sweet, delicious bay scallops. I didn’t think our trip could possibly get any better until we discovered a historic route across the United States that I had never heard of before! As I do my research for this article I am continuously amazed at what I am learning about U.S. Route 20.
We ended up on U.S. Route 20 on our way into Stockbridge, Massachusetts when we took a secondary road to check out something called “Jacob’s Ladder Trail.” As back roads often do, this secondary road opened a window into a history we had precious little knowledge of. We learned that in the 1630’s, New England colonists used this scenic Native American trail between the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys to travel westward. This same route later became the “Boston Post Road”, as laid out by Benjamin Franklin to serve as a mail route between Boston and New York. The route was even used by George Washington on his trip to assume command of the Continental Army. It was a tough, muddy wagon road over a steep pass, but in 1910 a bypass around the most difficult section, “Jacob’s Ladder”, was completed and the route became the first highway built specifically for the newfangled horseless carriages. Wow! We had stumbled upon the first U.S. automobile road! Within a few years the route had lengthened to include the “Yellowstone Trail” and quickly spanned the continent from Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts on the Atlantic Ocean to Newport, Oregon on the Pacific Ocean.
The history of U.S. Route 20 is as amazing as the road itself. In 1716, David Howe built an Inn named Howe’s Tavern along the “Boston Post Road” in Massachusetts. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the tavern in 1862 and wrote a series of poems published in 1863 as the “Tales of the Wayside Inn.” When Edward Lemon purchased the Inn in 1892 he renamed it Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. In 1923 Henry Ford bought the Inn, intending to create a living museum of Americana. To avoid truck noise and road vibrations, he paid to build a bypass for U.S. Route 20 around his property. Henry Ford sold the Inn in 1945 and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, but the bypass is still there and the Inn is now the oldest operating Inn in the United States.
In the state of New York, part of U.S. 20 follows the old “Cherry Valley Turnpike.” Early pioneers used this route to settle the “Western Country” which was then upstate New York. A toll road was constructed beginning in 1803 as the “Third Great Western Turnpike” and it ran westward from the old Revolutionary War settlement of Cherry Valley. The road proved its worth as hundreds of covered wagons often made use of it in a single day. Government troops used the route during the War of 1812 and stage coach travel was initiated on it in 1816.
Heavy freight followed the road until the Erie Canal was opened in 1825. The Cherry Valley Turnpike remained active until the New York Central Railroad was completed across the state in the early 1840’s. Automobile travel eventually made the route popular again, but construction of the New York State Thruway in the 1950’s reduced U.S. Route 20 to its current secondary status.
From Buffalo westward to Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. 20 follows the “Buffalo Stage Road.” In Cleveland this route followed Euclid Avenue, which was better known in the late 1800’s as “Millionaires’ Row.” The concentration of wealth here was unparalleled, far exceeding New York’s Fifth Avenue. John D. Rockefeller was just one of many obscenely wealthy industrialists who built their mansions on a ridge high above the avenue overlooking Lake Erie. By the 1920’s, though, “Millionaires’ Row” was in decline and during the Great Depression many mansions were converted into rooming houses. By the 1960s, the street that once rivaled Fifth Avenue was a two-mile long slum of commercial buildings and substandard housing.
Northwest of the Ohio River, U.S. Route 20 was known as the “Maumee and Western Reserve Road.” In the 1808 Treaty of Brownstone, Native American tribes ceded land along the right of way for this 46 mile long section. Financed by land sales, a crude roadway was cleared in 1827 but it was nearly impassable during wet weather and became known as “Mud Pike.” In 1838 the roadway was macadamized into a then modern gravel road. Milestones were placed along it in 1842 and one of the originals is still there today.
Through western Indiana, U.S. 20 was built as the “Dunes Relief Road” because it bypassed the dunes that are on the southern end of Lake Michigan. These dunes were once used by Octave Chanute to test his glider. Chanute’s discoveries were referenced by the Wright Brothers for their historic flight. The dunes are now part of Indiana Dunes National Park.
The “Yellowstone Trail” portion of U.S. Route 20 began in 1912 and was named for the park it passed through. The Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA) was a grassroots organization that wanted to improve roads and promote their towns. Their goal was, “A good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound” and they marked their route with arrow markings.
The YTA lost what funding they had for signs when the Great Depression started, but the US highway numbering system was started in 1926, so the trail was already evolving into
U.S. Route 20, which lives on today. It is an amazing 3365 miles long coast to coast.What a road trip it would be! ~Bob