WILMINGTON – “Mountains are Earth’s undecaying monuments,” reads a glowing Nathaniel Hawthorne quote in the walkway to the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway’s elevator to the summit.
That may be true, but the infrastructure to get you to the top of the mountain can most definitely decay.
Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston is worried about the state of the highway, which lets visitors drive close to the summit of Whiteface Mountain. He’s drawing some attention to it this fall in hopes that the state will include money in its budget to fix up the road and its facilities.
This isn’t the first time area politicians have called for the state to fix the highway, but Preston is seeing an opportunity right now, as the North Country Regional Economic Development Council highlighted it this week as a priority for the region.
“It’s entirely consistent with the content of the plan, the prioritization of tourism development in the Adirondacks,” NCREDC co-Chairman Garry Douglas told the Enterprise Thursday. “It obviously is one of the great attractions of the Adirondacks, but one that needs great attention. As a state-owned facility, that attention needs to come through the state budget process,” as opposed to the grants that most NCREDC projects are seeking.
The highway isn’t tied to any funding sources; it’s bounced between several state agencies. The state Department of Environmental Conservation owns it, the Olympic Regional Development Authority operates it, and the state Department of Transportation provides signs for it. Since none of those agencies have money to spare, the highway has fallen into severe disrepair over the years. There hasn’t been any significant work on it since the 1960s, Preston said.
“There’s just been patchwork done here and there since then,” Preston said. “Patchwork where the road has literally collapsed, I might add.”
Visitors who use the highway to reach the summit are charged a toll: $10 for a vehicle and driver and $7 for additional passengers. But Preston said that doesn’t bring in enough to do more than basic maintenance and patching of the road.
Having just returned from the Southwest U.S., Preston said the Whiteface summit’s beauty is comparable to the Grand Canyon (though the roads are better there). The peak is the only High Peak accessible to people in wheelchairs, it’s one of the most popular fall destinations in the Adirondacks, and about 70,000 people visit it every year, he said. But Preston is starting to worry about the safety of the people who visit the highway.
“It’s an absolute shame,” Preston said.
He’s also worried the highway might be wiped out in another storm, now that extreme weather events seem to be more common. Two significant stretches of the highway washed out when Tropical Storm Irene flooded the area, and large patches were needed to repair them.
“If something should happen to this highway, it’s really going to be devastating for everyone,” Preston said.
Preston said he hopes the state takes notice of Wimington’s plight and sets aside at least a few million dollars to overhaul it. He said a DOT study done a few years ago found that it would cost about $4.51 million to install proper drainage and repave the road, though he has been told that number would probably rise to $6 million or so now. He added that the whole site needs work in addition to that.
Preston took the Enterprise on a tour of the highway Wednesday afternoon to highlight the problems with it. Shortly after the toll booth at the beginning of the road, the bumps start, but they aren’t much worse than most unkempt backroads around the area.
As you drive higher up the mountain, though, they start to become a problem. The dips get deeper and the bumps get higher, until cars have to slow down almost to a stop to get past them safely. Yellow warning signs and “rough road” signs dot the side of the road, but they don’t catch each dip and bump.
The sides of the road are dropping out in a number of places, with some boulders and rock walls used as guiderails tumbling down the side of the slope. ORDA spent $125,000 to reinforce one shoulder, along what’s known as the Lake Placid Turn, but Preston said there’s plenty of other places that need it.
In some places, holes have opened up in the pavement. ORDA has pumped them full of cement, Preston said, but some have started to reopen.
“These holes are just everywhere,” he said.
At the top of the road, the side of the road is dropping down so badly that vehicles coming up to the parking area there drive on the other side of the road.
At the end of the parking lot, there’s a castle. Preston points out that arcs holding up the building had to be bolstered with pieces of wood to keep them from falling.
There’s a restaurant in the castle, and the drainage is bad there.
“They have a rain gutter in the building,” Preston said. “You don’t normally see that.”
Near the castle is the walkway to the elevator, and Preston said the superstructure around the elevator needs a lot of work. The state estimates that it would cost $1.5 million to sandblast the entire thing to get it into decent shape, Preston said.
The highway is dedicated to the veterans of all wars. Franklin D. Roosevelt started work on it as governor of New York, spending $1.25 million to build the 8-mile road, and by the time he opened it in 1935, he had become president. Roosevelt wanted to hold a ceremony to open the highway from the summit, but due to being paralyzed from the waste down by polio, he couldn’t. The elevator that takes people up 27 stories from the parking lot to the summit of the mountain went into service a year or two after the site’s opening.
The elevator carries guests up 276 feet, and there’s a building at the summit of the mountain as well. That building’s roof has severe leaks – Preston said it “pours” so badly that the wooden beams in the ceiling are rotting, though some have been patched up.
“It’s just everywhere,” Preston said. “Everything is just coming apart.”
On the sunny weekday afternoon, plenty of people are driving up and down the toll road, stopping for lunch or to take photos, and taking in the views from the sides of the road. But the most people are at the summit, looking out over the vast area that can be seen from there. On a clear day, you can sometimes see buildings in Montreal, but on Wednesday, viewers had to satisfy themselves with colorful fall foliage, lakes, mountains and valleys for miles and miles around Whiteface.
It’s clear why the site is so popular, despite the shape of the road and its other facilities.
Joanie Schuls, of Syracuse, was checking it out for the first time on Wednesday and said she was amazed.
“I think it’s a wonder of the world,” Schuls said. “This is unbelievable.”
She said she was grateful for the elevator, because she tried walking up the path to the summit, but she couldn’t.
“It was too much for me,” Schuls said.
The ride up is tough for a car or truck, but the road is even harder on a motorcycle. With two wheels instead of four, there’s less base to steady the vehicle on bumps and dips. Preston said some motorcycle groups that used to visit the site regularly have decided to stop coming.
Alex and Carol Anderson, New Jersey motorcyclists who were relaxing at the summit Wednesday, said the ride was much bumpier than it was two years ago. Carol Anderson said she had to stand up on each of the bumps, and Alex Anderson said he would probably stop coming to the site if it gets any worse.
As the Andersons are talking to the Enterprise, another man interjects, “It wasn’t so hot in a car, either.”
It’s costly and difficult to do work and maintain infrastructure at the top of a mountain, Preston acknowledged.
“Everything’s a challenge,” he said. “Doing work on the top of a mountain is a challenge to say the least.”
But it would be worth it, he says, to invest in it to keep the tourists coming.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.