Life on Route 9 Twenty Years after the Northway
Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Twenty years after the Northway opened, Will Doolittle—then a reporter for the Lake Placid News, now special projects editor at the Glens Falls Post Star—visited businesses along Route 9 to see how they were faring.
It was Sunday afternoon. Alice Wescott sat in the dim anteroom to the saloon at the Wells House in Pottersville. Two video games flashed and glowed from their places along the wall. Ms. Wescott coughed. The rumble of trucks shaking the nearby overpass on Interstate Route 87—the Northway—reverberated through the room. An old stagecoach stop, the Wells House sits on U.S. Route 9, on the road the stagecoaches followed from Albany to Montreal. Trailways buses still leave the Northway, the freeway that supplanted congested Route 9 years ago, to stop at the Wells House. But few other travelers stop in Pottersville now.
Ms. Wescott opened the door for a dog. The dog sighed and flopped down flat on the floor. His name was Apollo, she said.
Her Aunt Bibby owned the Wells House in its heyday. A painting of Bibby standing on the roof of the fourstory rooming house hangs on the wall of the saloon. In the painting, a crowd of finely-dressed men and women stand on the porch and roof, their gleaming green and black cars parked in the street in front of the house. The painting was of a scene in 1912, but was painted recently by Art Lyall, who sells his art and old collectibles from a shack along Route 9.
Betty Morissey, part-owner of the Wells House, sat by herself behind the bar. She smoked and watched the smoke hang in the air.
“It’s very quiet,” she said, rubbing the thumb and forefinger of one hand in a slow, circular motion. “Usually, it’s an afternoon crowd, but Sundays it’s always quiet anyway.”
Ms. Wescott drifted in from the other room.
“Right now, everyone I know is hunting,” she said. “They’ll be in after they get out of the woods.”
“Before the Northway, this was a rip-roaring place,” she added, and sat at the bar.
In 1789 Captain Platt Rogers laid out Route 9, then called the Old State Road. Over the decades, fur traders, farmers, loggers and vacationers have traveled Route 9, stopping at the villages along the way for a cup of coffee, a meal or a room for the night. The Wells House was built in 1845. The Northway was cleared and paved in 1967. The Northway is broad and fast. Drivers now know the old Route 9 stops—Chestertown, Elizabethtown, New Russia—only as names on exit signs, blurs of white letters on a green background.
The Northway displays to a driver a steady blur of trees, sky and dynamited road cuts. Route 9 offers its own palette of pastel greens, blues and yellows shining from the fronts and sides of snack bars and clusters of motel cabins. The Mt. Pines Motel and Snack Bar just outside Schroon Lake, for example, alerts hungry and weary travelers to its presence with a fluorescent green-blue trim.
Paul Begins runs the strip of 12 motel rooms and the roadside snack bar.
“My wife and daughter do most of the work,” he said.
He stood in the motel driveway, the top two buttons of his wool shirt undone despite the November wind. He wore a camouflage cap and a knife in a sheath on his hip. He had worked in Burlington, he said, but chafed at his company’s rules and moved to this outpost on Route 9 to live independently. But he has suffered three heart attacks since opening the motel and he wants to sell it now.
It was the first day in two weeks he had stayed home from hunting. Because he is picky, he said, he had yet to bag any game.
“If I was hunting meat, I’d take anything with horns,” he said. “But I’m not, I’m hunting horns.”
“My wife doesn’t go hunting now,” he went on. “She quit when she caught me. ”
He let a Lucky Strike cigarette hang from his lips for a few seconds before he lit it.
“They say before the Northway came in, these motels were full all the time,” he said.
It was lunch time at the Sugar Bowl restaurant in Schroon Lake. Economically blessed by the presence of the Word of Life Church’s headquarters and an annual influx of seasonal residents migrating to their camps on the lake, Schroon Lake fares better than many towns along Route 9. Still, the opening of the Northway stole much of the town’s business, according to Pat, the waitress at the Sugar Bowl.
She told of a friend whose parents run a restaurant on Route 9 between Elizabethtown and North Hudson.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “But they did 100 dinners a night before the Northway opened.”
A man wearing a hunting jacket with a hunting license pinned to the back sat at the counter and talked hunting with Pat.
“It’s a good time, the deer wander around there now,” he said.
The mounted head of a 145-16 wild boar graces the dining room wall at the Sugar Bowl. The owner of the restaurant shot the boar at a private hunting preserve in Pennsylvania. The cook, a thin woman with dark hair, sidled up to Pat.
“Guy was in here yesterday,” the cook said, “asking if we had some of those pigs around here.” She laughed. “I said, ‘Yes, a couple.’ ”
At the Wells House, Ms. Wescott was drinking Black Label non-alcoholic malt beer, Ms. Morissey was not drinking and a newcomer, Sherry Peet, ordered a light beer. Ms. Wescott spoke of her father, who had been a doctor.
“He’d go to Indian Lake, to Newcomb to see patients. Now you can’t get doctors to go anywhere.”
She spoke of the founding of the village in the 1800’s, by a tanner named Potter.
“There were more people here back then than there are now,” she said.
Ms. Morissey asked how many people there were now in Pottersville, and guessed at 1,000.
“Are you kidding?” Ms. Peet said. “We’re lucky if there are 200.”
They talked of the town’s heyday, Ms. Wescott mentioning the time Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the Wells House on his way to Washington to be sworn in as President. When President McKinley was shot, messengers were sent to Roosevelt at his camp in Tahawus, and he stopped overnight in Pottersville.
Gene Kelly came to the Wells House, too, she said, during breaks from the set of the movie “Marjorie Morningstar,” which was filmed at the Scaroon Manor in Schroon Lake. Once Gene Kelly invited her into the back room to dance.
“Oh my God, I almost died,” she said. “My husband was better looking than Gene Kelly,” she added.
“That’s true,” Ms. Peet put in.
“Younger, too,” Ms. Wescott said. “But your husband couldn’t dance like Gene Kelly,” Ms. Peet said.
“No, he couldn’t dance at all,” Ms. Wescott admitted.
At a graveyard along the road in North Hudson, a tombstone reads: “Red Bryan, June 1, 1913 -April 8, 1986. They said he wasn’t sick, but he is dead. Ho-Ho-Ho.”
In his lifetime, Mr. Bryan saw the town he lived in grow sick as well, although it lingers on, a few houses and businesses drawing out its life.
“This whole area used to be humming before the Northway,” said Pete Schoch, who, with his wife Pat, runs the Pine Tree Inn bed-and-breakfast in North Hudson. “The traffic used to be bumper to bumper, almost anytime of day. But Route 9 flattened out after 1967. Virtually, the bottom fell out of all the businesses.”
Mr. Schoch stood in his store next to the inn, leaning back against a windowsill. He jingled the change deep in the pockets of his green wool pants.
“We do fairly well,” he said. “We get close to 400 guests a year. But we take very little off the road. Look at it,” he glanced out the store window toward the road, “it’s dead.”
A former college vice-president from West Virginia, Mr. Schoch moved to North Hudson four years ago. But he was born near Albany and traveled up and down Route 9 on fishing trips as a child.
“I like it this way,” he said, of his self-enforced seclusion.
“This is what the guests want, too, a rural town without a lot of noise.”
“The Adirondack Park is the nation’s best-kept secret,” he went on. “People have no idea what it’s all about. I have people calling who want to take public transportation up and a taxi to go ice fishing.”
A couple miles north of the Pine Tree Inn, at the Red-Top Diner, a group of travelers (three men, a woman and a baby) explained why they were driving the old road.
“The baby was crying in the car,” one of the men said. “So we got off 87 to find a place to eat.”
The group was driving from New Jersey to Quebec. They liked the scenery of Route 9, they said, but the Northway was faster. Driving Route 9, with all its turns and towns, they would only average about 40 miles per hour, they said. They ordered hamburgers from the woman who came out to serve them. The baby cried.
A big kerosene heater sat glowing in the middle of the floor, and a Ms. Pac-Man game glowed from against the wall near the door. Next to it was a newspaper rack and metal shelves laden with a smattering of foods for sale—evaporated milk, chewing gum, two cans of Campbell’s Soup and Duncan Hines cookies.
Route 9 is making an economic comeback, according to Lois Rothaupt, who owns the Red-Top Diner with her husband George. Travelers are bored with the Northway, she said.
“There’s nothing along the Northway. There is no stopping, nothing to eat,” she said. “We do well with travelers hopping off the Northway for a bite.”
She checked on the trio with the baby.
“How you folks doing?” she said.
They were doing fine. The baby was quiet now and, shortly, they left.
The afternoon wore on at the Wells House, the smoke from three cigarettes curling in the air, the women’s talk circling back to the time Gene Kelly came to Pottersville.
“He said he liked Pottersville,” Ms. Wescott said.
“Don’t you think those famous people like to hang out with down-home people sometimes?” asked Ms. Peet.
“That, instead of having to live up to the public’s idea of who they are,” she said.
“He would have to get all dolled up to eat up at Scaroon Manor,” Ms. Wescott put in.
“And here we don’t dress up much, anyway,” Ms. Peet said.
Ms. Morissey smoked and listened. The women talked on through the slow Sunday afternoon, the only other sounds in the saloon the occasional leisurely passing of a car on Route 9, and the roar of a truck going over on the Northway.