The History of New York State
Book 12, Chapter 16, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


It was the committee's opinion that construction could proceed at the rate of 450 miles per year, requiring six years to complete the ultimate system.

Chapter 840 of the Laws of 1920, commonly known as the "Lowman Act," which amends chapter 30 of the Laws of 1900, provided for "State aid to counties for the construction or improvement of highways or roads." Under this law, construction was expected to proceed rapidly, many counties having already at that time appropriated or provided funds with which to meet the State aid for the year 1921. Forty-eight counties adopted the county system, a great many already owning road building equipment and employing experienced roads builders, and these counties were prepared to proceed with construction.

The necessary legislation to carry into effect the committee's recommendations were prepared and submitted by the committee for the consideration of the Legislature. The report of the committee declared that it felt that the proposed legislation provided a complete connected system of highways reaching practically every incorporated village and city in the State. It provided eight complete and continuous routes across the State from east to west and twenty-one running north and south from the southern tier of counties to the Mohawk Valley. It was expected to provide also sixty connections with adjoining States and the Dominion if Canada, so that it would be possible, when the system was completed, to enter the State on any one of these sixty highways and leave it on nay other of these connections without traveling on a single mile of unimproved highway. Provision was also made that the Catskill region should be opened up from every direction, and for the first time entrances were provided to the great Adirondack forest preserve from the south and west.

Three years after the Armistice the Bureau of Highways was able to report a complete recovery from war conditions in connection with highway construction in the State. In 1920 only 171 miles of new contracts were awarded, while the year after contracts were let for 6125 miles and the department, at the fate of the report, had actually constructed 632 miles, which exceeded in mileage any year following 1915 and broke all records of the department in the value of work performed.

The total amount expended by the department in 1921 for construction, reconstruction, and maintenance amounted to $28,775,806 as against $14,670,,035 in 1920, while the total cost of engineering supervision and overhead amounted to only $1,708,087 as against $1,356,283 in 1920, which was an increase in engineering of only 26 per cent to supervise an increase in road work of 96 per cent.

It was noted that of the "broken-down" war contracts which had been a disturbing factor in the operation of he department following 1915, 338,52 miles were accepted in 1921, leaving only twenty contract on which the pavement was complete except four, which required only 17.01 miles of construction to actually finish them. Of these contracts perhaps the most famous, Storm King Highway, was the most interesting, and the department was able to report that the grading work on that contract was practically completed. The Kingdom bridge also attracted State-wide interest and that structure was, in 1921, practically made complete. The Palenville-Cleve road which connects the village of Catskill with the Catskill Mountain region was also a war problem, which the department was able to report as solved, as that highway had been open to traffic for several months. The magnitude of this work is measured by the difficulties encountered in carving this notch out of a mountain side for nearly four miles. It’s scenic beauty is exceeded only by Storm King.

In designing pavements during 1921 more attention was paid to the study of the type best to meet existing conditions. There were, in 1921, only two general types of pavement which were being constructed in New York State in any considerable amounts; namely, concrete pavement and bituminous macadam pavement. Tabulations were given by the department to show that 56 per cent of all highways constructed in that year have been of the concrete type and 44 per cent of the bituminous macadam type. Before a determination was made on any contracts as to the type to be selected a study was made of the local available material; of the general traffic conditions; relative importance of the highway; soil and frost conditions affecting a rigid pavement; and of the character of the country through which the highway passed. Comparative estimates in each case were prepared in connection with other data at hand before making a determination. Generally speaking, where satisfactory local stone was not available, the concrete type was adopted on account of the smaller amounts of material to be imported. Where local stone was available in ample quantities on routes of secondary character, bituminous macadam was usually selected of a thickness of approximately two and a half times that of the concrete. Inasmuch as concrete pavements of the present rich mixture had then been in use for only six or seven years in this State, it was impossible to determine positively which type would ultimately be the most economical for the State to construct.

The findings of the committee of 1920 were embodied in a map which showed an ultimate system of State and State and county highways of 11,119 miles, of which approximately 200 miles were located on excellent macadam roads, which ad been before that time, improved by the carious towns and counties of the State and many miles of which would need no extensive repairs for years to come. Of the ultimate system mentioned approximately 8,357 miles were already constructed or under contract, leaving approximately 2,761 miles to be improved, of which 876 miles were located on State routes and 1,886 miles on county highways. Of the unconstructed mileage, approximately 600 miles were designed as Federal aid roads. As a result oft his report the Legislature enacted chapter 18 of the Laws of 1921 and approved a map of the ultimate and definitive system of highways of the State of New York with a total mileage of 11,219 miles, of which 8,357 had been constructed, leaving 2,862 to be constructed. Chapter 19 specified in detail the descriptions of the State routes, and by name the county highways to be constructed, and provided that the unbuilt mileage should be contracted for within six years, which provides for the construction of approximately 500 miles per year; the mileage being equitably apportioned among the counties so that each county should receive one-sixth of its unbuilt mileage each year until the system is completed.

In November, 1921, Congress amended the existing Federal aid act and made available in New York State the sum of $3,696,447,97 in addition to the previous allotment, upon its being matched with the New York State Legislature. That new act of Congress required the establishment of what was known as a seven per cent system of highways in each State upon which Federal aid might be expended. In accordance with the Federal law, C. J. Hewitt, chairman of the committee, prepared a seven per cent map to submit to the Bureau of Public Roads at Washington, which would include practically all of the continuously connected unbuilt highways indicated for improvement on the Hewitt map.

New York Bureau of Highways.--The most progressive step taken by the New York Bureau of Highways during 1925 was the change made in the status of the division mechanics and maintenance foremen, engaged in the work of maintenance and improvement. In the past these divisions were in the exempt class, the men being appointed by the Superintendent of Public Works upon recommendations of the Division Engineers. Needless to say, it was impossible to fill these places without more or less political interference; that the personnel were subject to constant change is also obvious. In order to secure continuity of service of these men, who play such an important part in the upkeep of the roads, it was determined to place them under Civil Service protection. Two methods were open; the bureau could either "freeze in" the men who already had these places, or call for open competitive examinations, letting each applicant stand upon his merits. The latter course was adopted, with the result that the following positions are placed under Civil Service regulations:

Division mechanics


General maintenance foremen


Light maintenance foremen




This would appear to be the largest number of positions ever taken from the exempt class at one time. The policy divorced the Bureau of Highways from politics as afar as it is possible to go. As the organization now stands, except for the commissioner, his two deputies, and two secretary-stenographers, every employee in the bureau until the pick and shovel man is reached is a Civil Service appointee, freed from political obligations and pressure.

It being realized that sooner or later the elimination of dangerous grade crossings in New York State was inevitable and the money spent in preparation would not be wasted, the Department of Public Works anticipated the passage of the Constitutional Amendment whereby $300,000,000 was made available to carry out this vitally necessary work.

The first step of the department was to prepare a map showing the location of al crossing at grade. This was completed and signed by the Governor on September 24, 1924. On this map crossings are indicated as follows:


On State Highway System


On county roads and town highways


Crossings in cities (outside Greater New York)




Crossings on farm and unimportant town roads were not shown. Of this total it was thought that the most danger, approximately 3,000 crossings, should be eliminated as rapidly as conditions permit. The balance were on roads carrying so little traffic that signal or gates were deemed sufficient protection for some time.

The next step of the Department of Public works was to prepare for an adequate programme for the year 1926. To this end the department directed the engineers to prepare plans for fifteen elimination in each of the nine division of the State. This was done. Field survey, general plans and a sketch showing the character of the elimination and the necessary petitions were prepared to the end that as soon as the Legislature made available the funds, the department would be ready to present to the Public Service Commission 135 projects upon which work might be begun without delay. To carry out the programme for the year 1926 was estimated to cost approximately $13,500,000. The crossings planned were all located upon the adopted system of State highways. When it is remembered that heretofore the best the department had ever done in any one year was to place fourteen eliminations under contract, the advantage of this grade crossing amendment, by which this work might be done upon a large scale, became apparent.

By the beginning of October, 1925, 481.70 miles of pavement, covering 5,069,428 square yards, had been laid down in New York State as against 419,33 miles, covering 4,374,598 square yards at the same date in 1924. A total of 62 contracts calling for 369.19 miles of new construction were executed during the year. Of this, 100.65 miles called for grading and structures either with or without a gravel driving surface from 1924 onwards, no pavement less then eighteen feet wide had been constructed in the neighborhood of large cities.

During the year 1925 contracts for the elimination of nine grade crossing were completed at a total cost of $959,400. Contracts were executed and construction work started on six eliminations, the total cost of which was estimated at $644,200. Detail plans were prepared for eleven further eliminations on which orders were issued by the Public Service Commissioner, at an approximate cost of $1,100,000. In anticipation of legislation putting into effect the provisions of the grade crossing amendment voted in the fall of 1925, the public works department prepared the necessary preliminary information for the elimination of 135 grade crossings for submission to the Public Service commission in the near future. The following is a summary of the activities of the Highway Bureau during the year:


Number of Projects



New construction




Reconstruction by contract




Reconstruction by department forces




Surface treatment




Grade crossings




Administration and engineering








During the war, through the cooperation of the Department of Public Works, with the various park commissions and county authorities affected, plans for the future development in Erie and Nassau counties were worked out and adopted by the two counties. In Nassau County, this plan included the widening of the existing east and west turnpikes under State control to a minimum of forty feet, the taking over and widening by the State of one main line county turnpike and the addition of several short stretches of new highway to connect contemplated New York City boulevards with the State system in that county. At the present time, New York is building and planning for the construction of several wide boulevards to take care of the tremendous traffic, which is not congested on a few narrow streets. The total width of pavement on these boulevards will be 710 feet and the existing highways in Nassau County which must carry the traffic thrown on them by these boulevards have a total width of pavement of only 72 feet. The programme adopted calls for a total width of pavement of 510 feet.

Legislation enacted by the 1924 Legislature enabled New York State through the Bureau of Highways to rebuild all bridges on State and county highways which might be condemned after January 1, 1926, and to build bridges on State and county highways which became necessary through the construction of side lines.

While there are and have been, for several years, many hindered of bridges on State and county highways which are not adequate to properly carry the traffic, the department thought it best not to condemn them and thus make the law passed by the 1924 Legislature practically inoperative, as an opinion of the Attorney-General declares that any bridges condemned before January 1, 1926, cannot be rebuilt by the State. With this in mind only 86 bridges were condemned under Section 22 of the Highway Law during the year. The majority of these were on construction or reconstruction contracts which could not have been executed without proper bridge resolutions by the town or county authorities and on which no action looking towards their rebuilding had been taken before January 1, 1926. Some of them, moreover, were bridges on town roads which do not come under the provisions of the law as amended.

There are, however, many more condemned bridges on the State and county system, some of which have been condemned for many years. A few of these bridges are described as "death traps" and are of such length and so expensive to rebuild that it is a burden which many town cannot bear to keep within their constitutional debt limit. We believe, the report of the Bureau of highways observes, "that the Legislature should give serious consideration in relieving these towns from this burden by a further amendment to section 22 of the Highway Law."

The State appropriations and motor vehicle fees available for town highways and county roads in 1925 was as follows:

State aid to counties, under Section 320-B Highway Law


State aid to towns, under Section 101, Highway Law


Motor vehicle fees




These funds, with town and county appropriations, provide more than $30,000,000 for the improvement of town and county roads. During the past year, the towns and counties have made rapid strides, in adding to their hard surface mileage. Much of this work has been of what we call a permanent type, about 150 miles of it being of concrete construction.

Variety of Traffic.--In 1916 the number of cars carrying other than a New York State license on the main routes and on the Adirondack routes was 18 per cent of the total. In 1919 this ratio had increased to 20 per cent. On road No. 202, Rensselaer County, between Albany and New York, and on the Boston route, there were cars from forty-five different States and one from Puerto Rico, during a twelve-hour daylight period.

A study of the percentage of increase of the various classes of traffic is instructive. It will be noted that the percentage of increase for motor trucks or buses increased 230 per cent from 1916 to 1991, while the increase in total traffic for this period was 115 per cent. The percentage of increase in motor traffic from 1909 to 1919 was 1, 879, or neatly twenty times as much in 1919 as in 1909. Horse traffic in 1919 was but 36 per cent of that of 1909, in other words it was 2-3/4 times as much in 1909 as in 1919. The motor traffic increased 148 per cent from 1916 to 1919. The reports of the Secretary of State shows that the number of licenses of the State increased by a percentage of only 77 per cent. This means that not only were there 77 per cent more cars, but that people had begun to use their motor cars a great deal more per car than in the earlier year.

The remarkable growth of motor traffic and the still more remarkable increase in trucks and buses during recent years is proof of the economic importance of this means of transportation and when considered in connection with the abandonment of many short railroads and inter-urban electric railways, it tells of a change in our transportation methods, the limits of which cannot at present be more then surmised.

The rails, bridges, and permanent way of our railroads have been increased in weight and strength time after time, to take care of increased weight of rolling stock which economy demanded. In the light of all present data, the highways of the country are following closely the paths made by the railroads, and true economy would point toward the use of heavier and more permanent pavements.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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