The Old Military Turnpike

The Military Turnpike is one of the main roads to and from Plattsburgh, New York when traveling east- west across Northern New York. The road is long, winding, and dangerous. There have been numerous accidents on the road throughout its history. At the same time though, the road has a couple of interesting and historical road side attractions that can easily be missed.

The last time I was traveling along the route, I stopped and checked out the historical sites on the Military Turnpike. Prior to the trip, it seemed like a good idea to check out the sites. That was until I actually pulled over. There’s not a lot of shoulder on the road to pull over onto and cars were zooming along on the road at full speed (a legal speed I hope). But some days I like to live dangerously, so I got out of my car to check out an old cemetery and a historical marker located on the Turnpike.

But before I delve into the historical marker and the cemetery. Let’s look at the Military Turnpike, which has its own interesting story and has repeatedly been considered the most historic roadway in Northern New York. Using my favorite, trusty, historic resource- New York Historical Newspapers-I discovered a lot of information on the Turnpike and how the historical sites on the road intertwine with the Military Turnpike’s history.

View of the Military Turnpike and Cemetery
This is a view of both the Old Military Turnpike and the cemetery on that road. You can see that the shoulders on the highway are not that big.

The road, in some capacity, was in use prior to 1811. It probably wasn’t a road in the sense of what you’re use to driving on. Think more of a path traveled by farmers, their livestock, by foot, and by wagons. That path also would not have been level. It probably would have been overgrown with vegetation at certain times of the year. While at other times it would have been mud. Or impassable because of snow. This was not a road but more of a trail cutting through Northern New York.

In 1811, a law was passed to have the locals actually improve the Old Military Turnpike located between Plattsburgh and Chateaugay. The money to fund this improvement early improvement program was to come from a “lottery” for the purchase of a botanical garden….i

This would be a good time for an interjection.

This is some interesting stuff right here. I have NO IDEA what in blazes, this “lottery” or “botanical gardens” was. It is not clear. The source doesn’t even explain where the “botanical gardens” were located or even who was in charge of the “lottery”. Were people bidding to win a garden? I have no idea. I assume somewhere in Plattsburgh. I hope it was nice.

Now back to the history.

Unsurprisingly, nothing was done to the road to improve the path. Maybe no one actually put money into the lottery because they too were confused about what was going on…So, as you’ll soon see, a common theme in the history of the Old Military Turnpike, is the fact that good maintenance and much needed improvements were few and far between throughout the years.

Nothing was done on the road until after the War of 1812. In 1817, President Monroe, ordered that a good road be completed from Plattsburgh to Chateaugay. It’s possible that during the War, it was discovered how crappy the major “road” from Lake Champlain to the American forts along the St. Lawrence River, actually was. Thinking that a future war with England’s territories to the North (Canada) might be possible again, having a good road to get military supplies from Plattsburgh to the other side of Northern New York would have made logical sense. There might have been another reason too, which I’ll talk about later. Troops that were stationed in Plattsburgh from the 6th Regiment worked on the road every year from 1817 until roughly 1826 (some sources said work ended earlier in 1822/23). Whatever the actual date is the troops were able to clear roughly 24 miles of the road. The road at this time was the main route from Plattsburgh to Hopkinton via Ellenburg, Chateaugay, and Malone.ii

It seems that not much was done to maintain the road for the next 100 years. In 1926, the Plattsburgh Sentinel featured a large article entitled, “All Endorse Improved Old Military Turnpike.” The paper advocated for improving the road that, “…passes through a prosperous farming and dairy country.”iii This article marks the beginning of the paper’s and the resident’s attempts at petitioning to the local government for money to improve the Old Military Road, which was also called the Monroe Highway by some.

It would take about 10 years before any money would be available to do the much needed improvements to the route. It’s mind boggling, reading the news articles from the Plattsburgh Sentinel, which went through some name changes during that time; to “Daily Times” and then the “Daily Press.” The frustration of the paper is apparent in almost every article they wrote about this touchy subject.

1931-

It seems like delving into the dim recesses of the Stone Age since this paper began a campaign for the improvement of the “Old Military Turnpike” which would open up such a splendid area to convenient means of getting to and from the market, for shortening the route between this city and Ellenburgh, Chateaugay, Malone, and other points to the North.”iv

1935-

It seems strange that this, one of our oldest highways, should be allowed to become entirely neglected. It must be all of eight or nine years ago that we began an agitation for the improvement of this highway in keeping with what was being done for other highways. The best we could get was that the road would be placed “on the maps.” This is all very well, but people cannot travel on maps.”v

The sass from this newspaper is amazing.

One can only imagine the frustration of the road’s inhabitants during this time as- stories ran highlighting different proposed public work projects related to the roads in New York, yet it seemed like no one cared about this very important highway.

Examples include an article from 1932 where it was reported that there was an estimated $35,000,000 to be put aside for road improvements across the state. Three years later, in 1935, the state saw another estimated proposal for $200,000,000 to be put aside for road improvements.vi Each time a new amount was named for road improvements, the Plattsburgh Daily Press would write extensively about the Old Military Turnpike, the importance of the route, and how they hoped local officials would use State money to improve the road. It seemed that each time a new amount would be available for road improvements that the Monroe Highway would miss out on the opportunity for improvements.

That is until January 2, 1936!

The road was finally listed on the County Road Program. Improvement work was planned for 1936 and even 1937, if not possibly beyond that. The Plattsburgh Daily Press had a long article announcing the planned improvements, writing:

Improvement of this historic road has long been advocated by the Plattsburgh Press and the residents residing along its route from the Sunrise hotel corner to Ellenburg Corners, a distance of approximately 22 miles. Not only because of its historic value has construction of this road been advocated but because of its need to a large number of farmers and residents along its route who find it almost impassable during the spring freshets and after heavy rain storms.”vii

It was also during the 1930’s that the Military Turnpike, or the Monroe Highway, was given a new name- New York State Route 190, as part of the renumbering of the state highways.viii

My research into the history of the road ended around the late 1930’s but today on the road, you can see what those improvements in the 1930’s created for today’s route that is the Military Turnpike. The road itself isn’t the only historic feature between Plattsburgh and Ellenburgh, as I’ve already mentioned the road has at least one historic marker and an old cemetery both of which I checked out on my last drive on the road.

The historic marker is for a decaying house along the Monroe Highway, if you blink at just the right moment, you will miss the house. It’s also easy to miss the stone ruins because of the jungle of vines that have crept up the walls, helping the ruins blend in with the field the house stands in. The blue “Historic New York” marker by the side of the road indicates the property’s importance to the road’s history.

Robinson's Tavern

The stone ruins at one time was a very popular tavern used by travelers of the turnpike. The home was built in 1823 by Lewis Sage Robinson. His father, Daniel, had built a log tavern located just south of where the stone ruins stand today. Either way, the site’s claim to historic fame is that in 1817, President Monroe had travel plans to tour the Northern States. One of the his first stops was in Plattsburgh, New York. From there he traveled west to get to Sackets Harbor. President Monroe and his party traveled on the Turnpike and stopped on Daniel Robinson’s property, close to the structure that stands today, to enjoy a picnic catered by the townsfolk.

This is also why the Old Military Turnpike was also called the Monroe Highway in the 1930’s, to pay homage to the President who traveled through the area. If you remember from earlier I mentioned that in 1817, Monroe ordered that the road be improved by the troops at Plattsburgh. So while President Monroe may have ordered the road to be improved because of its possible military importance in moving supplies across the northern most territory of the country. He may have also ordered the improvements because of the hospitality he received from the local people on his trip, as a way to thank those living along the Old Military Turnpike.ix

The tavern ruins are connected to another historic site on the state highway. Down the road from the ruins is a small cemetery seen on the left when traveling eats to Plattsburgh. The cemetery is maintained well enough, yet the stones have obviously been affected by the elements of time- engravings are not easy to read and there are stones that have fallen down.

Military Turnpike Cemetery

Luckily the cemetery was inscribed in the 1930’s by Hugh McLellan, his son Charles, and daughter-in-law, Hulda.x It appears the 1930’s was a very busy time on the turnpike! Anyways, from looking at the online records from the inscription project, and I was able to make some connections to the Robinson family.

So here’s some quick genealogy of the Robinson family. Daniel Robinson, the man who built the log tavern, was an American Revolutionary War veteran when he moved from Middletown, Connecticut to Plattsburgh. In 1783, the year he moved, he married Thankful Sage, also of Middletown. They had 12 children, one of which was Lewis, who built the stone tavern! Records about Lewis list him as “Lewis Sage” or “Lewis Samuel,” I’m not sure which was his actual middle name. Anyways, Lewis married Hannah Eldred and they had 7 children. The tavern was passed down to their youngest daughter, Samantha and her family; they lived at the homestead and cared for the aging Lewis and Hannah.

Another one of their children, Rosetta, married Hiram Walker; Rosetta and Hiram had eight children. Hiram’s parents were Jeremiah (Jerry) and Harriet; they happen to be buried at the small cemetery. Their daughter, Hiram’s sister, Fidelia (or spelled as “Phidella”) is also buried at the cemetery near Jeremiah and Harriet. There is another Walker, and actually a Robinson family member, buried at the cemetery. The other relevant gravestone is for Samantha, who was the daughter of Hiram and Rosetta, which makes Samantha the great-granddaughter of Daniel Robinson and granddaughter to Lewis Robinson, Rosetta’s father. Neither Rosetta or Hiram are buried at the cemetery and there are no other connections I could make to the Robinson family.xi

The connections between the Military Turnpike, the Robinson Tavern, and the cemetery are pretty neat, in my opinion. Research took awhile on this project but I’m happy with the results. I’m sure there is a lot more that could be researched on the Military Turnpike in regards to it’s maintenance.

The tavern seems to have still been in “good shape” in the 1970’s; news articles indicated that the owners might have been in the process of remodeling the home. I could find nothing after 1975 about the house through the Historic New York Newspapers search engine to figure out why the remodeling ended. Obviously, the ruins are beyond repair unless someone is willing to put a fortune into rebuilding the home and recycling the stone that is currently there in the rebuilding.

As I have written before in previous posts, there is a lot of forgotten history in Northern New York. There is also a long history where maintaining and even restoring historic sites seems to not be a local concern. The history of the Military Turnpike supports that. It is historic and significant to the area, yet the local residents, and even the Plattsburgh Daily Press, had a hell of a time convincing politicians of the importance AND NEED to improve the road. Looking at the tavern too, though President Monroe did not see the stone tavern in 1817 because it had yet to be built, the location of the site is related to this historic tour of the Northern States by a President Monroe and yet, the tavern is just a decaying ruin today.

It’s frustrating that this history is largely forgotten. At the same time though, it inspires me to continue research and share what I discover about history here in Northern New York and other places I visit.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the Old Military Turnpike.

If you have any thoughts or comments, let me know below in the comment section!

Thanks for reading!

End Notes:

iHistory of Clinton and Franklin Counties, New York, (Philadephia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1880), 51. I found this book via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=rk4MAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA50&dq=history+military+turnpike+plattsburgh+ny&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiJj4HtoMLSAhUD4YMKHX8dADwQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=history%20military%20turnpike%20plattsburgh%20ny&f=false, accessed last on March 6, 2017.

ii“The History of Clinton County Compiled From Data Gathered in 1880,” Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], February 13, 1934, Pg. 8.

iii“All Endorse Improved Old Military Turnpike,” Plattsburgh Sentinel [Plattsburgh, NY], November 30, 1926, Pg. 5.

iv“The Monroe Highway,”Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], March 6, 1931, Pg. 4.

v“Public Works and the Turnpike,” Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], February 18, 1935, Pg. 4.

vi“The Monroe Highway Again,” Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], July 27, 1932, Pg. 4 AND “Public Works and the Turnpike,” Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], February18, 1935, Pg. 4.

vii“Military Turnpike Placed on 1936 County Road Program,” Plattsburgh Daily Press [Plattsburgh, NY], January 2, 1936, Pg. 3.

viiiWikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_State_Route_190, last acsessed on March 6, 2017.

ixAndrew S. Broadwell, “Tavern Served Travelers When Turnpike was New,”Press Republican [Plattsburgh, NY], September 22, 1975, Pg. 5.

xThe website with the cemetery inscriptions that I used came from this website: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~frgen/clinton/altona/Military_Turnpike.htm, accessed March 6, 2017.

xiWilliam Richard Cutter, A. M., Genealogical and Family History of Northern New York, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1910), 93-94. I found this book through “Google Books” https://books.google.com/books?id=-O0pAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA93&dq=lewis+s+robinson+altona+ny&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwig-LrgtKbRAhWD7yYKHZHvDXAQ6AEILjAE#v=snippet&q=lewis%20robinson&f=false, last accessed on March 6, 2017.
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