Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway: Stuff You Never Knew About the Adirondacks, the Second President Roosevelt Story

by Cie McCullough Buschle on August 23, 2012

in Road Trips

The Very Top, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

Last summer Albany Kid presented a short series called Stuff You Never Knew About the Adirondacks. The stories included How Lake Placid is Related to the Dewey Decimal System, The Adirondack, Burnell, Westport or Muskoka Chair and The First President Roosevelt Story. Now it’s time for the Second President Roosevelt Story, which contains an altogether different President Roosevelt, and starts before either Roosevelt was even governor of New York State.

From Vision to Vistas

Looking down the long and winding road, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

Back in the late 19th Century it was the dream of a man named Marcellus Leonard, of Saranac Lake, to construct a road up Whiteface Mountain. Luckily, in the 1920s four acres right at the top of the mountain were given to the state of New York for such a purpose, on the condition that the highway be named after the American Veterans of the World War. This generous gift may not have been made a few decades later, after the ski trails opened in 1958.

In 1929 construction commenced, and at the groundbreaking ceremony was then-NY Governor Franklin Roosevelt. Because it was built during the depression, many people believe that funding for the project was part of the New Deal, but New York State paid for it all. The roadway is a total of five miles long, rising over 2,300 feet at an 8% grade, increasing 450 feet in elevation for every mile, and stops just 267 feet from the summit. The highway opened for traffic on July 20, 1935, but Marcellus Leonard did not live to see it, having died at the age of 90 that past February 23.

On the drive up, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

The formal dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony took place September 14, 1935. Franklin Roosevelt attended again, but this time as President of the US. At this time Roosevelt made a speech, as presidents will do, saying “…for the millions of people who have not the facilities or the possibilities of walking up to the top of our great mountains, we have provided one mountain that they can go to on four wheels…To me, this is one of the finest things that the State of New York has ever done.”

President Roosevelt makes a Suggestion

End of the road - Parking lot and Castle Cafe, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

But President Roosevelt said more than that, of course. Because the highway does not go all the way to the top of Whiteface Mountain, President Roosevelt, now in a wheel chair, also happened to say “I wish very much that it were possible for me to walk up the few remaining feet to the actual top of the mountain. Some day they are going to make it possible for people who cannot make the little climb to go up there in a comfortable and easy elevator.”

Tunnel to elevator, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake PlacidWhen a President drops a hint like that, things happen. The men that built the road turned right around and drilled straight into “the hardest granite on the planet”, creating a 426-foot long tunnel to an elevator shaft that rises 276 feet to the summit, the equivalent of a 27 story building. All it took was an additional three years, but by the end Whiteface Mountain and the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway were completely handicapped accessible.

The Highway and Mountaintop Today

View of Lake Placid and beyond, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

Today thousands of vehicles every years pay the toll to see the stunning views around every bend and turn. Hundreds of square miles of mountains, lakes and wilderness vistas with just a bit of civilization thrown in. On clear days it is said one can see Canada, Lake Champlain, and even Vermont on the other side. Since 2010 the Highway is also used by road bike enthusiasts, as Whiteface is one of the few mountains in the Northeast that allows road cycling to the top, and the others are significantly steeper.

It is recommended by those that have gone before to take the elevator up and walk down the 0.2 mile Stairway Ridge Trail. The word “stairway” is misleading, as there are stairs at the beginning, and a few more intermittent steps along the way, but it is not as easy as simply walking down 26 flights of stairs. Most of the way is made up of steep rocks, and good hiking shoes are definitely required. Thankfully the trail is edged by sturdy handrails.

Stairway Ridge Trail, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

Many people take the drive and hike with their family dog. Be aware that dogs are not allowed in the elevator, and some small dogs may have a difficult time navigating the rocky pathway.

Once at the top you will find the state’s Atmospheric Science Research Center, in operation since 1961, and the Summit House, which houses little more than the elevator. There is a stone patio out one of the Summit House exits, on the northern side, looking towards Canada; out the other is the rocky summit, complete with obligatory pay per view binoculars. There is also a wooden deck, perfect for surveying the world.

Look out over the World, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

However there are no bathrooms, so make sure you stop at the Castle before leaving the parking lot. The Castle was built from granite that was excavated during construction of the road and houses not only the only rest rooms, but a gift shop and the Castle Cafe, famous in its own right for being “the highest elevation dining in the Northeast”.

Looking down at the Castle, Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, Lake Placid

Go Drive It!

Whiteface Mountain is located in the small town of Wilmington, about nine miles outside the village of Lake Placid. The Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway is also known as NY 431, which begins in Wilmington at the intersection with NY 86, which also happens to be Main Street in Lake Placid.

The Highway opens for the season May 18th and closes October 8th. Daily times vary throughout the season, and are usually somewhere around 9am – 4pm. Road bikes must be off the toll road 1/2 before regularly scheduled hours. The toll rates for 2012 are $10 a vehicle, which includes the driver, and $6 for each additional passenger. Bicycles are also $6, or a Bicycles Season Pass can be purchased for $40 early in the year or $69 after June 23rd. The Lake Placid Olympic Sites Passport includes a one time entrance to the Highway, along with other Olympic Venues.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary Olympic Sites Passport for the purposes of writing this and other articles. As always, my opinions are mine alone.

More in Lake Placid:

Go On a Birding Family Adventure in the Adirondacks
Cloudsplitter Gondola: Whiteface Without the White
Stuff You Never Knew About the Adirondacks: How Lake Placid is Related to the Dewey Decimal System

And check out our reviews at High Peaks Resort:
High Peaks Resort: Luxury Living in the Lap of the Adirondacks
A Family Adventure at High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid, NY

| Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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