Fall is a wonderful time to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Adirondacks and, for 78 years, sightseers have been driving up Whiteface Veteran’s Memorial Highway in Wilmington to enjoy the majestic views from the top.
Souvenirs from this monumental highway, along with those from Santa’s Workshop and neighboring ski areas, abound because the region was (and remains) a popular vacation destination.
Bob and Karen Peters of the Wilmington Historical Society are avid collectors of Whiteface souvenir memorabilia, and they also recently spearheaded the writing of a new Images of America book on the history of the area titled “Wilmington and the Whiteface Region.” The book, which was the collaborative effort of 11 authors, is jam-packed with historical photographs and captions that tell the story of how Wilmington went from an agricultural-based community in the early 1900s to a tourism-based economy by the mid-1930s.
It all started with Whiteface, the state’s fifth-highest mountain peak at 4,867 feet. The first trail up the east side of the mountain was cut in 1859 by pioneer guide Andrew Hickok Jr., who was soon leading hikers to the summit. By the 1890s, boating, hiking and horseback riding were established recreational activities for tourists who stayed in the many grand hotels and lodges that dotted the region.
As the new century dawned, so did the age of automobile travel, and motor roads began to crisscross the Adirondacks. In the early 1920s, a group of local businessmen and politicians lobbied for a paved highway to the top of the mountain. The state-funded project was finally approved with Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt breaking ground at the four corners in Wilmington on Sept. 11, 1929. The highway was opened to tourists in the summer of 1935 with the official dedication to World War I veterans taking place on Oct. 14, 1935.
Roosevelt, who had been elected president of the United States, returned to the Adirondacks to preside over the festivities. From a wheelchair, he gave his speech, 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 New York state has ever done.”
Furthermore, he added, “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.”
With that said, construction on the monumental stone castle with an access tunnel and elevator shaft got under way. When it was completed in 1938, the summit of Whiteface Mountain was completely handicap accessible.
The story of tourism on Whiteface doesn’t stop there. In 1947, construction began on the Marble Mountain ski area with access from the Wilmington road that led up to the Memorial Highway. The ski area, which opened in 1948 and operated until 1960, featured downhill and cross-country trails, a rope tow and T-bar, a lodge, cafeteria, bunkhouses and a shop.
In July of 1949, Santa’s Workshop, the nation’s first theme park, also opened on the Wilmington road just a short distance below the ski area.
Whiteface Mountain Ski Area wasn’t opened until 1958 and was dedicated to the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division that served in World War II.
Tourists came to the region in droves, and business in Wilmington boomed. On Labor Day 1951, the line of cars leading up Whiteface was 4 miles long, and the town was shut down by the State Police. It is estimated that 14,000 tourists passed through the region on that day alone.
Almost everyone who visited left with souvenirs. Cars that climbed the Memorial Highway and visited the theme park were wired with cardboard bumper placards that today can sell for as much as $30. The ever-popular postcard, along with scenic booklets, were plentiful, as were felt pennants that could be slipped onto the car-radio antenna. Knickknacks, china cups and plates, salt and pepper shakers, coasters, ash trays, plastic toys and doodads all flew out of the gift shops. Today those collectible souvenirs can be found on the Internet from Canada to California because Whiteface Mountain was one of North America’s greatest tourist attractions.
The book “Wilmington and the Whiteface Region” is available for $21.95 at retailers throughout the Wilmington, Lake Placid and AuSable Forks area, and through the Wilmington Historical Society. For more information, or to download an order form, visit www.wilmingtonhistoricalsociety.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 420-8370.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website www.celluloidforever.co.