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A New Deal for the Adirondacks, at 4,810 feet

I have an interest in Adirondack History, I have an interest in tourist attractions, and I like to go looking for photos. I’ve posted about the history of the Whiteface Memorial Highway before, but being as it’s opening for the season this Friday (Thanks for the word, Bill!), I thought the time had come around again.

Whiteface Mountain is not the tallest peak in the Adirondacks, but it is perhaps the most celebrated – for the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and for the Scenic Highway. There are lots of amenities offered by the big ol’ Ski Center, but they have big, fancy websites for such things. We’ll stick to history today. The Scenic Highway is pretty awesome. Seriously. Yes, yes – We’ve all done these tourist drives before. How different could it possibly be? Well, let me tell you. It’s spec-freaking-tacular. What a nice gift we received from The New Deal.

Whiteface Highway construction, early 1930's

Dedicated to the men and women of the First World War, the scenic highway to the summit was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. The highway runs eight miles up the mountainside – all carved, coaxed, and blasted out of granite. The road was officially opened July 20, 1935 in a ceremony featuring New York’s former Governor, by then President Roosevelt. At you reach the top of the highway at the end of your awesome drive, you’ll reach your penultimate destination – Whiteface Castle. The castle was built from the granite excavated during the highway construction, and serves as a high-in-the-sky Visitors’ Center.

Whiteface Castle Construction ca 1935

The castle now holds a gift shop, restrooms, and a snack shop. However, I’m told there was more of a proper restaurant here at one point. Maybe before the advent of wraps, paninis, and portable fast food. I’m assuming the castle must also contain offices and such – it looks big from the outside, but the public space inside is limited.

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From the castle, you can hike up to the summit, or you can enter a 424-foot long tunnel (which is pretty cool in itself) taking you directly into the stone belly of the mountain. At the end of the tunnel, there’s an elevator ready to whisk you 276 feet to the summit. Well, maybe not exactly whisk. Takes a while to rise 27 stories.

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At the dedication, Roosevelt said, “What I have seen today in this wonderful drive makes me more enthusiastic about four little words than I ever have been before. Those four short words are these, ‘It can be done.’ … 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.” Roosevelt’s elevator was completed three years later.

In addition to you, me, and whoever else visits the summit, the tippy-top of the mountain has been home to another visitor since 1961. The Weather Station. In fact, if you take the elevator, you’ll come up right inside the building that houses the Weather Station’s Observatory.

The Weather Station is part of the University of Albany‘s Atmospheric Science research facilities. Obviously, the building takes a beating, weather-wise, being on the top of a mountain and all. It was recently restored by a company that specializes in historic properties. Over the years, wind-driven rain had made its way inside the shingles, but now the old pile is high-and-dry, quite literally.

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Of course, Whiteface Mountain is mentioned in the same breath as Lake Placid quite frequently. The mountain (and especially access to it) is actually not in Lake Placid. Not by a 13-mile long shot. It’s in Wilmington. (Wilmington residents get a little fussy about that. Rightfully so. You go, Wilmington!) All the same, do give the mountain a visit, and spend some money in both towns. Love that famous Wilmington cheese.

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You too can snap that classic shot – Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Whiteface Memorial Highway 2009 season is May 15 to October 12. Hours are 9am to 4pm daily. Vehicle and driver: $9.00, each additional passenger: $5.00 each, children under 6 are free.

Thanks to the Wilmington Historical Society for the great 1930s construction photos!

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