Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Riding The Ridge (Road)

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Previous: The Natural Wonder Of Niagara Falls, Goat Island, And Lewiston

Western Portion of 1825 Erie Canal map showing Niagara Escarpment (upper shaded line) and Onondaga Escarpment (lower shaded line). If you look closely you’ll see Ridge Road just north of the Niagara Escarpment. Source: Laws of the State of New York, in relation to the Erie and Champlain canals / Published by authority, under the direction of the Secretary of State (E. and E. Hosford, printers, Albany, 1825)

Over the eons, what would become the North American continent heaved and hoed. Rock strata, once flat with the earth when created, now undulated in waves. Each layer born in a different geological epoch bore their own unique properties. Some too loose and soft to sustain the onslaught of wind, water, and ice; others stubbornly sturdy, able to withstand those same powerful forces.

As the most recent period of glaciation receded into Canada and further north, the melting ice revealed the natural formations known as cuestas. These landforms represent a gentle upward slope on one side and dramatic fall – often evidenced by a face of rock on the frontslope.

This precipitous cliff is called an escarpment. Western New York contains three such formations. The Portage Escarpment defines the southern tips of the Finger Lakes and runs along the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Thirty-five miles to the north, the Onondaga Escarpment traverses the northern tips of the Finger Lakes before heading into Lake Erie just south of Buffalo. Another twenty-five miles to the north you’ll find the Niagara Escarpment, which parallels the shore of Lake Ontario and goes through Niagara Falls (and well beyond).

These escarpments define long ridges in the landscape. These ridges make great paths for animals, trails for migrating Paleo-Indian hunters and their less itinerant descendants, and roads for modern times. The Portage Escarpment outlined the Indian trail that became the Main Road between Buffalo and Erie which in turn became Route 20. The Onondaga Escarpment once defined the Great Central Trail of the Iroquois Confederacy. Today Routes 5&20 align with it.

The Niagara Escarpment, the lowest in elevation and most northern of the three, comes into play in the next chapter. In the meantime, it is another rise (though not as tall), further north of the Niagara Escarpment, which drives our current interest. This ridge represents the ancient shoreline of the glacial Lake Iroquois, the predecessor of Lake Ontario.

What of this winding geological formation?

Once the old “Iroquois Trail,” you now know it as Ridge Road. Back in the early 1800s, it was simply known as “the Ridge road” (as in, “the road on the Ridge”). In case you missed it, it follows along the northern (lower) side of the ridge on the Niagara Escarpment.

Here’s the odd thing about escarpments: they have an upside (great ready-made travel corridor) and a downside (if you want to travel through them). Yep, if you think it’s hard for nature to erode that hard rock away, imagine what it’s like for civil engineers. Luckily, we have TNT today to blast our way through them. That wasn’t always the case.

In case you’re curious, when you’re riding along the Thruway you might notice driving through a rock faced cut just east of Batavia. On the Batavia (west) side of that cut, the land is higher and more level. On the LeRoy (east) side of the cut, the land drops down quite quickly (and faster than the elevated roadbed of the Thruway). That’s the Onondaga Escarpment.

Here’s the really exciting news: that dramatic drop in elevation isn’t just your run-of-the-mill cuesta. It’s due to the Clarendon-Linden Fault System. That’s right. The stuff that causes earthquakes. Right here in Western New York. We’ve known this since at least 1920. That’s when George H. Chadwick reported that the Niagara and Onondaga Escarpments both “jogged northward.”1

In 1806, William Howell didn’t care about any of that. In 1810, DeWitt Clinton did.

In an 1878 interview, William Howell’s daughter Harriet tells the story of her parents’ migration from New Jersey to the newly formed town of Cambria in the newly formed county of Niagara. She was born after her parents had settled, so her story represents a retelling of what her parents no doubt told her. They took four horses, bedding, clothing, and the necessary provisions over Indian trails through Painted Post to Batavia. From there, the Howells took the path to the Iroquois Trail past Lewiston and into Canada. They saw no home west of the Genesee River until they reached the Niagara River. After a short while, they returned to the American side.2

It wasn’t unusual for settlers coming from the east to head into Canada. That was the closest location for supplies and provisions.3 You could only travel with so much, so having a “convenience store” nearby was always good.

A series of land trades ultimately led William Howell to his homestead on what is today Route 104 (a.k.a. Ridge Road). It was a lonely, isolated place. Harriet’s mother told her “When on the mountain months would pass away without seeing a white man or woman.” Still, her father made use of the resources around him. He built a sawmill (the first in the area). More important, he built a tavern.4

We’ve already seen the importance of taverns during the pioneer days of Western New York. With very few dwellings over far distances on main “roads” (they were actually paths), these taverns offered a haven for weary travelers…

…and commissioners appointed by the New York State Legislature to explore possible canal routes. That’s where DeWitt Clinton enters the story. In 1810, the future governor, along with Guoverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Simeon DeWitt, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter (remember him?). Clinton traveled to Lewiston along “on the Ridge road without seeing but very few houses.” Clinton was aware of the condition of the road and its future development.5

As he traveled on the Ridge road, Clinton stopped at various taverns. Wouldn’t you know it, but one of those was Howell’s tavern. There he spoke to William Howell. The tavern keeper informed Clinton of what he found when he dug into the earth to build his sawmill. It gave Clinton a greater sense of the makeup of the soils.6

But it was the road on the Ridge that so greatly impressed Clinton. The following year, before the New York Historical Society, he would say of it:

“From the Genesee near Rochester to Lewiston on the Niagara, there is a remarkable ridge or elevation of land running almost the whole distance, which is seventy-eight miles, and in a direction from east to west. Its general altitude above the neighbouring land is thirty feet, and its width varies considerably; in some places it is not more than forty yards. Its elevation above the level of Lake Ontario is perhaps 160 feet, to which it descends with a gradual slope; and its distance from that water is between six and ten miles. This remarkable strip of land would appear as if intended by nature for the purpose of an easy communication. It is, in fact, a stupendous natural turnpike, descending gently on each side, and covered with gravel; and but little labour is requisite to make it the best road in the United States. When the forests between it and the lake are cleared, the prospect and scenery which will be afforded from a tour on this route to the Cataract of Niagara will surpass all competition for sublimity and beauty, variety and number.”7

Once leaving the inn, Clinton proceeded up to the “mountain” above the Ridge road. What he saw awed him. Here’s how he described the Niagara Escarpment in his journal:

“After leaving Howell’s Tavern we turned from Ridge road and ascended the great slope (mountain ridge) which approaches it here. The bottom of it is composed of a ledge of limestone, and its elevation is two hundred feet. On this hill we had a sublime view of immense forests towards the lake like on prodigious carpet of green and a distant glimpse of the great expanse of waters.”8

More than a decade later, Howell would entertain his most famous visitor. He would be awed by what engineers had done to that same Niagara Escarpment.

Next Week: Fort Niagara And The Man-Made Wonder Of Lockport

1 Chadwick, G. H., “Large fault in western New York,” Geological Society of America, Bulletin, Vol. 31, New York, 1920, p. 117-120
2 History of Niagara County, Sanford & Co, New York, 1878, p. 229
3 Turner, Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p.497
4 History of Niagara County, p. 229
5 “Tour through Niagara County in 1810,” Niagara Falls Gazette, Wednesday, January 5, 1859, p.1
6 Ibid.
7 Turner, p. 23
8 “Tour through Niagara County in 1810”


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