Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: The Great Central Trail Becomes The State Road

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The Cayuga Bridge helped improve travel times on the Great Genesee Road, which eventually became Routes 5 & 20. Source: Barber, John W., and Howe, Henry, Historical collections of the state of New York, S. Tuttle, New York 1842, p. 79

As General Dwight D. Eisenhower led the Allied effort into the heart of the Nazi regime, he couldn’t help but notice the transportation infrastructure that strengthened the defense of his opponent. Hitler began construction of his Reichautobahn in the 1930s. Although designed primarily for civilian use, war reports during the Eisenhower’s push into Germany in 1944 and 1945 repeatedly referenced the autobahn, “Hitler’s Superhighway.”1

Impressed by these autobahns, Eisenhower proposed an interstate highway system once he became President.2 It was quickly understood to have military value both in terms of transporting military vehicles and civilian defense.3,4

Eisenhower didn’t need to wage a world war to learn of the military advantage of roads. Of course, as his headquarters was stationed in England during the war, he would no doubt have traveled on what were once roadways of ancient Rome. Those were primarily military roads. Since Rome relied on its military, its roads were built for the purpose of making it easier for troops to move from one place to another as quickly as possible.5

While intended for military use, once that use dissipated, roads proved to offer another advantage. Like natural modes of transport (waterways like streams and rivers), these man-made transportation routes spawned settlements and all that followed.6

We often compare the Iroquois Confederacy to the Roman Empire and certainly the two have acclaimed themselves in their military prowess. While lacking the technology of the Romans, the Confederacy also relied on “roads.”7 They weren’t exactly autobahns, but they got the job done.

Of all the trails spread across the old Iroquois Confederacy, none was as important as the Great Central Trail. As referenced earlier, in the Greater Western New York Region this trail travels roughly along the Onondaga Escarpment. Barely a foot to a foot-and-a-half wide, centuries of use by man and animal wore it deeply into the ground. Depending on the nature of the soil it cut through, by the time of pioneer emigration, it had become a channel of anywhere from between three and six inches deep. Sometimes the depth could reach twelve inches.8

And don’t think it only looked that way after the Revolutionary War. When Jesuits saw this trail in the 1600s, they called it “The Beaten Road.” Still, it was smooth enough for Indian travelers to cover thirty to forty miles a day on it.9

But consider this: imagine walking on it in the midst of a torrential downpour. You’d be literally walking on (and in) water!

When New Englanders came to establish new lives in the Genesee Country, they had little choice but to take this path. Without the benefit of roads, the Central Trail represented the only route to the interior of the Greater Western New York region.10

That was about to change.

Dr. Peter Wilson (a.k.a., Wa-o-wa-wâ-na-onk, or They heard his voice) succinctly summed what happened as soon as the rush of emigration started. He told the New York Historical Society at its May 1847 meeting, “You have heard a history of the great Indian trails, the geography of the state of New York, before it was known to the Pale Faces. The land of Ga-nun-no, was once laced by these trails from Albany to Buffalo, trails that my people had trod for centuries—worn so deep by the feet of the Iroquois, that they became your own roads of travel, when my people no longer walked in them. Your highways still lie in those paths, the same lines of communication bind one part of the ‘Long House’ to another. My friend has told you that the Iroquois have no monuments. These are their monuments. The land of Ga-nun-no, the Empire State, is our monument.”11

Now, how did this “Iroquois monument” evolve from being the Great Central Trail to the State Road to Routes 5&20? As you might expect, what started as a simple exercise quickly became a complicated mess that took more than a century to clean up.

By 1789, Phelps and Gorham finally resolved the issues they had in formally acquiring the land between the Genesee River and Preemption Line whose rights they purchased from Massachusetts. Almost immediately, settlers began to trickle in. They had no choice but to take the Great Central Trail. Settlements began to grow along that path: Auburn, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Geneva, and Canandaigua. Phelps and Gorham set up their land office in Canandaigua.

Seeing a need for an improved road, the New York State legislature passed an Act on March 22, 1794, to build a road from “Old Fort Schuyler” (now Utica, NY) to the Genesee River. Legally known as the “Great Genesee Road” or the “Main Genesee Road” (until 1800 as we’ll soon find out), it was extended to Buffalo by law in 1798.12

The law required it to be “laid out 6 rods wide,” but allowed the Commissioners to open it four rods wide. They just had to build it “in a line as nearly straight as the situation of the country will admit.” Furthermore, as a State Road, towns and counties were forbidden from altering it in any way.13

In 1796, the State passed a law “mending the highway commonly called the Great Genesee Road and the bridges thereon.”14 And in 1797, another law was passed appropriating $2,200 “for opening and improving the road commonly called the Great Genesee road, in all its extent from Old Fort Schuyler in the county of Herkimer to Geneva in the county of Ontario.”15

Despite this, Charles Williamson, who was responsible for overseeing the road from Fort Schuyler to the Genesee River, reported that the road was “little better than an Indian trail.” Nonetheless, with the necessary work completed, the road opened on September 30, 1799. To commemorate the event, a stagecoach left Utica. It arrived at the Genesee River terminus three days later.16

Things changed on April 1, 1800 (was it a coincidence that this happened on April Fools’ Day?). The State passed a law that transformed the Genesee Road into a turnpike. Charles Williamson was named one of the Directors (so was Israel Chapin). For some unknown reason, the law gave the road the formal name “The President and Directors of the Seneca Road Company.” Seriously? That’s the official name. Apparently, everyone thought it too wordy and just referred to it as the “Seneca Turnpike.” 17

As a turnpike, the specs were more demanding. The law said, “The road was to ‘be six rods in width… cleared of all timber excepting trees of ornament, and to be improved in the manner following, to wit, in the middle of the said road there shall be formed a space not less than twenty four feet in breadth, the center of which shall be raised fifteen inches above the sides, rising towards the middle by gradual arch, twenty feet of which shall be covered with gravel or broken stone fifteen inches deep in the center and nine inches deep on the sides so as to form a firm and even surface.’ Tollgates were to be established when the road was in proper condition every ten miles; the rates of toll designated in this law will be of interest for comparative purposes:”18

One change for the positive occurred on September 4, 1800, when the mile-long Cayuga Bridge opened. It considerably straightened the road, avoiding the awkward bend of sharp turns around Cayuga Lake. Thought to be the longest bridge in America, the Manhattan Company of New York erected it for the cost of $150,000. Built on mud sills, it gave way in 1808.19

The members of the Cayuga Bridge Company sure took their time to replace the bridge. If the Company even remained in existence. One of the founders, the omnipresent Charles Williamson, may have never known of the Bridge Collapse. He died at sea the same year returning from Cuba where he was “on some government mission.”20, 21

Construction on a second bridge began in the winter of 1813. This one was built on piles. The pile driver sat on the ice and punch piles beginning from the east shore about a third of the way across before the ice went out. From there, the crew fashioned a scow which they anchored in. A solitary horse circled the pole to pull up the hammer. Worker received a dollar and a half per day and a dollar and a half for a week’s board.22

This was the bridge Lafayette would eventually travel on.

But not yet.

Unfortunately, with the opening of the Erie Canal, the Seneca Turnpike’s days were numbered. It failed to compete. The railroads only made it worse. On May 7, 1845, the New York State Assembly, by a vote of 95 in favor, 1 against and 32 absent, voted to accept the abandonment of the charter of the Seneca Turnpike Road Company.23 A week later, on Tuesday, May 13, 1845, the New York State Senate voted unanimously in favor on the same matter.24 The Great Genesee Road was a public road once again.

It eventually became Routes 5 & 20, a much-traveled route through the heart of Western New York. Motels, shops, and tourist attractions sprung up along its shoulders.

Then Dewey’s Folly – the New York State Thruway – appeared, the old Central Trail became an afterthought for long-distance travelers. It hasn’t returned to weeds, though, and remains a “Main” street in both a literal and figurative sense.

The Genesee Road had served its purpose, but how much did it really improve things? In 1803, it took Augustus Porter seven days to travel the road from Albany to Canandaigua.25 Contrast that to the three days it would normally take Iroquois runners to traverse the trail from Albany to Buffalo.26

Lafayette, in a rush to get to Boston by June 17, took a day to get from Canandaigua to Syracuse.

And you wouldn’t believe the festivities in between.

Next Week: Pomp, Circumstance, Before Lunch In Geneva

1 “Six Towns Captured in Drive to the Roer; Elas Rules Salonika,” Buffalo Evening News, Tuesday, December 12, 1944, p. 1
2 Moley, Raymond, “Fallacies in Highway Plan,” The Times Record, Monday, March 28, 1955, p. 12
3 “New Interstate Highway New to Aid CD Evacuation,” Brooklyn Daily, Friday, June 14, 1957, p. 4
4 Powell, Roland, “Repair Problems on Interstate,” The Buffalo News, Sunday, October 25, 1981, p. 67
5 Belloc, Hilaire, The Road, for The British Reinforced Concrete Engineering Co. Ltd., Charles W. Hobson, Manchester, 1923, p. 101
6 Ibid., p. 133
7 Morgan, Lewis H., League of the Ho-de-no sau-nee or Iroquois, Herbert Lloyd, Ed., Dodd, Mead and Company, 1904 [reprint, 1851], p. 206
8 Ibid, p. 94
9 Ibid., p. 205
10 Ibid., p., 103-104
11 Proceedings of the New-York Historical Society, January-May, 1847, William Van Norden, New York, 1847, p.65
12 Hulbert, Archer Butler, Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers (Volume II), by, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1904, p. 96-100
13 Ibid., p. 101
14 Ibid., p.106
15 Ibid., p. 107
16 Hotchkin, Rev. James H., A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, M.W.Dodd, Birck Church Chapel, New York, 1848, p. 19
17 Hulbert, p. 109-110
18 Ibid., p. 110-111
19 Barber, John W., and Howe, Henry, Historical collections of the state of New York, S. Tuttle, New York 1842, p. 79-80
20 History of Seneca County, Everts, Ensign & Everts, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1876, p. 12
21 Parker, Arthur C. Charles Williamson, Builder of Genesee Country, Rochester Historical Society, Volume VI, Rochester, New York. 1926., p.34
22 History of Seneca County, p. 43
23 Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York, Carroll and Cook, Albany, p. 1118
24 Journal of the Senate of the State of New York, E, Mack, Albany, p. 760
25 Turner, Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p. 494
26 Morgan, p. 105

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