4867 feet up to the Whiteface summit

Summit of Whiteface Mountain (News photo — Delainey Muscato)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the Whiteface Memorial Highway was one of the finest things the state of New York had ever done, so I took my own trip up to the summit to see what all the fuss was about.

The history of Whiteface Mountain, and the highway in particular, starts in 1850. A farmer in the Wilmington region, Andrew Hickock, was the first person to cut a trail up the Whiteface mountainside.

Hickock became a guide and historical photos of a guest register book at the Whiteface Mountain House show a hiking party raving about him as their guide in July 1859.

Another interesting thing about the photos from this time is what the hikers are wearing. Men often wore suits and dress shoes while women can be seen in dresses and heels.

Having walked up and down the fifth of a mile nature trail myself, I cannot imagine doing it in heels and a dress.

Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway (News photo — Delainey Muscato)

Construction of the actual highway was delayed until 1931, though then Gov. Roosevelt inaugurated the project in 1929.

After a design competition within the state public works department, an alpine-style tollgate house was constructed in 1934.

A shovel operator was the highest-paid worker during the Great Depression, at $1.10 per hour.

“People in Wilmington weren’t really suffering during the depression because so many of them were working on this project,” Wilmington Historical Society President Karen Peters said.

However, construction crews on the mountain did face other challenges. Workers ran into problems with the steep slope of the mountain and water runoff ravines.

Visitors can walk up to the summit of Whiteface Mountain on the rock staircase that starts at the castle. (Provided photo — ORDA)

Both the highway and tollhouse opened to visitors on July 20, 1935.

Adults could head up the highway for just $1.00 and children could see the summit for just $0.50. President Roosevelt dedicated the highway to World War I veterans on Sept. 14, 1935, and commented, “See the Adirondacks for a dollar.”

This highway was New York’s first paved recreational motor road providing access to a mountain environment. Before the construction of the roadway, not everyone could make it to the summit of the mountain. Roosevelt, being handicapped himself, said there was now one mountain that could be accessed by four wheels.

Unfortunately, the elevator was not running when I visited, so I was unable to see the exposed geology of the mountain inside.

Morgan Ryan, communication specialist at the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the highway from the tollhouse to the summit, said the elevator was just down for the day for general maintenance. Construction on the 27-story elevator shaft began in 1937, and the elevator went into service in July 1937.

Construction of the Whiteface Memorial Highway began in 1931. Construction crews faced issues with steep slopes and water runoff ravines. The highway and tollhouse opened to visitors in the summer of 1935. (Photograph by D.P. Church; courtesy of Lamar Bliss, St Lawrence University Collection, postcard collection of Robert Sturges)

A castle sits at the top of the highway, just before the nature trail to the summit starts. The castle used to be a second tollhouse and earned the nickname of “castle” for its unique stone walls.

Once you park your car at the castle, you have a choice of walking up or riding the elevator. Peters recommends doing one of each if possible.

“I go with my grandkids every year. They always want to walk up and take the elevator down,” she said.

The trek up the nature trail was much more difficult than I expected. Just behind the castle, a stone staircase takes you up the first part of the trail. However, this staircase soon turns into uneven mountain terrain. Shoes with good grip and clothes that allow you to move easily are a must.

The farther up the mountain you go, the colder, windier, and more beautiful it gets. I took a few breaks on the way up to enjoy the scenery and read some posted information.

The southeast slope of Whiteface has changed over time due to multiple landslides. Three consecutive days of rain followed by three inches of heavy downpour caused a portion of the mountain to slide to the bottom on Labor Day of 1971. Again in 2011, more of the mountain slid away due to heavy downpours.

The summit is simply breathtaking.

Trees on the summit are short, allowing for a 360-degree view of the Adirondacks below you. Whiteface is the fifth-highest mountain peak in the Adirondack region. Despite it not being the highest, you can still see as far as Lake Champlain on a really clear day.

My favorite part of the summit was looking down at the highway. Seeing the highway where I had just been driving so far below me really put into perspective just how high up I was.

Each breath of fresh air was so clarifying. I sat at the top for a while to enjoy the scenery. Soon, I noticed a noisy bird atop a tree near me.

The bird’s call, unlike everything I had ever heard, fascinated me. A mountain supervisor identified the bird to me as a white-throated sparrow. I enjoyed its music for a few minutes more before getting ready to head back down. Before that, I sent a picture to my parents showing them how high up I was. They couldn’t believe it. Back home, in the Finger Lakes city of Canandaigua, the highest mountain they have been to the top of is only half the height of Whiteface.

I certainly had an easier time walking back down the mountain than going up. On the way down I ran into Maria Esposito and her dog Chio.

Esposito and Chio live in Italy. They came to Lake Placid for the summer to visit family. Her family had urged her to go up Whiteface with Chio before she returned home.

“Chio loves to hike, and so do I,” she said. “I can’t believe the views. They are just beautiful.”

Once down the stone staircase, I headed into the castle to check out the gift shop and restrooms.

Though the drive back down the mountain murdered my brakes, I would certainly go back up again.

For more information about the highway, visit “https://tinyurl.com/4pme24ha” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>https://tinyurl.com/4pme24ha. Also, the Wilmington Historical Society published a book in 2013 called “Wilmington and the Whiteface Region” with many historical images and detailed notes on the construction of the highway.

Starting at $1.44/week.

Subscribe Today