As far back as 1898, for example, there was a booklet entitled “Road Maps of Sullivan County: Showing the Good Roads.” Of these roads, it was said that “many of the Sullivan County roads are turnpikes, maintained by a chartered company. They are made of shale rock, and are hard and springy.”
Of course, more of the folks riding on those “hard and springy” shale roads in 1898 were likely to be riding bicycles than driving cars, but that would change before long. By 1908, before cars were regularly seen on Sullivan County roads, autos were being manufactured in nearby Goshen, Kingston, Newburgh and Walden, and Martin Hermann was building wooden bodies for Buicks in Callicoon. By 1909, what were then called “automobile parties” had become commonplace at Sullivan County’s many hotels, and places like Monticello’s Palatine and Liberty’s Mansion House served as temporary headquarters for groups from Manhattan and Brooklyn and Jersey City, who were touring the scenic county by day and spending money in the local shops and taverns and eateries by night.
Sullivan County’s most renowned link to the automobile was established a few years later, by which time one in every 14 Sullivan County residents owned a car. Motorists traveling between New York City and Cleveland, Ohio in the early years of the 20th century invariably took one of two routes. They drove either the Mohawk Valley route, through Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, or they traveled the historic Lincoln Highway, through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
That all changed in 1918, largely through the efforts of a man named R.H. Johnston, who almost single-handedly brought national attention to the road he began calling the Liberty Highway.
Johnston was the New York branch manager of the White Motorcar Company– of which he would later serve as chairman– when he needed to get a large fleet of trucks from the automaker’s Cleveland factory to New York City. Both of the popular routes were clogged with U.S. Army vehicles on their way to New York for transport across the pond to France. After studying a number of maps of the area, Johnston devised an alternate route that took him from New York to Monticello, Liberty, Binghamton, Elmira, Hornell, Olean, Jamestown, Westfield, and Erie.
After driving the route himself, he wrote a lengthy article about his journey in the popular weekly automotive magazine Motor Age, which appeared in the April 4, 1918 issue.
“The new route from New York to Cleveland is about 585 miles long,” he wrote. “This is about 80 miles less than the Mohawk Valley route and is only about 30 miles longer than the Lincoln Highway route. Owing partly to the spirit of the times, and partly to the fact that the tourist setting out from New York over the new route makes his way toward Liberty, N.Y., it seems to me that the new route should be known as the Liberty Highway and I will so designate it here.”
The publicity didn’t stop there. The Motor Age article was reprinted by other publications, including a number of newspapers along the route.
“Mr. Johnston reports that he found his route in good condition all the way, and from every point of view it is preferable to either the Mohawk Valley trail or the Lincoln Highway,” the Sullivan County Republican noted on May 3, 1918. “A distinguishing feature of the Liberty Highway, aside from the excellent condition of the roads, is the splendid scenery which it unfolds to the tourist. Most of the time the route follows several valleys which characterize the Southern Tier counties. The road winds picturesquely through these valleys following the water courses.”
Both the Republican and the Liberty Register ran front page stories about the highway, reproducing a promotional mailing sent out by White. Before long, other car companies were following White’s lead and making use of the new route. Harry J. DeBear, manager of the New York Maxwell Motor branch, routed his new cars from Buffalo to New York along the Liberty Highway, and officials from Buick and Hudson also utilized the route.
Then Johnston hired a filmmaker to travel with his vehicles and record the beautiful scenery along the way for use in a promotional film.
“The camera crews were received with great enthusiasm by the Business Men’s Association of Liberty and Monticello and by the public in general,” Manville B. Wakefield writes in his 1970 book, To The Mountains by Rail, “and more than six hundred feet of film out of the several thousand taken over the entire southern tier were shot in Liberty. The completed film, greeted with appropriate parades and hoopla, was shown to enthusiastic Sullivan County audiences.”
The film brought national attention to the area. Eventually, the Liberty Highway Association was formed to further publicize the route, and it proved to be a worthy successor to the Ontario & Western Railway as the chief promotional organization boosting “the mountains.”
In 1923, the New York Times called a drive along the Liberty Highway between New York City and Binghamton, “a pleasant weekend trip,” and as the popularity of the automobile grew throughout the ’20s, the route became one of the most popular ways to reach Niagara Falls, which, in its June 17, 1928 edition, the Times called “the objective of more vacation tours than any other scenic spot in the Eastern United States.”
By 1930, State Route 4 had been re-designated Route 17, and was largely reconstructed. Still, as the Sullivan County resort industry boomed, even those improvements proved inadequate. A survey in 1932 revealed that more than 88,000 cars used the two lane roadway in a twelve-hour period. The resulting congestion prompted local officials to call for a new, larger highway, and after more than twenty years of trying, they finally succeeded in getting the Quickway built. By the time Governor Averell Harriman officially opened the new road in 1958, the Liberty Highway was but a distant memory.
Photo: A 1928 promotional map of The Liberty Highway, called “the shortest, fastest, most scenic route from the Lakes to the Sea.”