The colorful name Devil’s Kitchen has been used in numerous book titles, restaurant names, and for hiking destinations in at least seven states. Close to home in upstate New York, we have a Catskill version, described here as “quite possibly the most hellacious [bicycle] climb in New York State.” The same area, with cliffs, numerous waterfalls, and slippery slopes, has seen many hiker deaths as well.
But there’s another Devil’s Kitchen farther north, located about midway on Route 9 between Chestertown and Warrensburg. Despite lacking the cliffs and stunning landscapes featured at other identically named places, deaths have occurred at the Adirondack site—which today exists in name only.
When horse-drawn stagecoaches plied the area’s roads in the 1800s, the Devil’s Kitchen was a site traveled with caution, having rock walls on one side and a steep ravine on the other. As automobiles came into use, roads required upgrading, and when the state passed a highway bill in 1911, the Warrensburg-Chestertown road was slated to be “fixed” as part of the eventual New York City-to-Montreal highway system. As reported in the Warrensburgh News, “At the Devil’s Kitchen … the roadway will be cut from solid rock in order to get it away from the dangerous bank on the edge of which the present road runs.”
The following year, dynamite was used to reshape the Devil’s Kitchen. Anticipating better travel conditions and the potential for greater profit, the owner of the Warrensburg-Chestertown Stage Line bought a 16-passenger Stanley Steamer to handle two trips daily between the villages via his new Automobile Stage Line.
Upgrading roads led to increased traffic and a natural uptick in accidents. But at dangerous sites like the Devil’s Kitchen, the accident rate rose drastically, earning the place a reputation that spread well beyond the borders of Warren County. The road was treacherous, yes, but there were also very few experienced drivers—cars were, after all, a new technology.
In the 1920s, the notoriety of the Devil’s Kitchen increased due to fatalities that occurred there, first in 1921, when a woman was killed and another was badly hurt, and in 1923, when two died and three others were injured, two of them critically. In the second instance, the car skidded on snow-covered roads and plunged off the highway into a ravine, where it landed bottom-side up, crushing to death a mother and her young son.
During the 1920s, bootleggers frequented the narrow road, speeding as fast as they dared through the dangerous curves. In fact, the driver of the car in that terrible 1923 accident had recently been arrested for transporting alcohol. Just two months after the crash, he appeared in court on Prohibition violations. Northern New York’s famous judge, Frank Cooper, aware that the man faced charges in the deaths of two close relatives, offered mercy in the form of a $250 fine.
One incident at the Devil’s Kitchen involved the operator of the aforementioned Automobile Stage Line, who failed to move his vehicle aside quickly enough to accommodate a pair of bootleg vehicles hotly pursued by agents. One of the smugglers’ cars skidded out of control and struck the stage line car, slamming it against the guardrails, which prevented it from dropping to the rocks below.
Within six months of the mother-son double-fatality, at least two other serious accidents occurred at the Devil’s Kitchen. In mid-1926, the state finally announced plans to fix the problem with a three-step solution: dynamiting the roadside rock wall to eliminate the sharp curves, using the debris to fill in the ravine, and building a new and straighter road across the filled area.
Extensive drilling, blasting, and reshaping of the site lasted more than two years, culminating in the opening of the new unpaved road in late 1928. By fall 1929, guardrails and a macadam surface brought the project to a close.
In July 1930, an Albany physician lost control of his vehicle in the Devil’s Kitchen area and collided with several guardrails, one of which penetrated the car, striking him in the face. He died a week later.
A number of less-tragic accidents happened there during the ensuing decade. In 1939, another construction project was begun, this one creating a 22-foot-wide cement road with ample shoulders on both sides. Heavy equipment and huge quantities of dynamite (1,500 pounds in the largest single blast) once again revised the landscape, and by late 1940, a new road from Warrensburg to Chestertown was completed.
On September 5, it was announced that the 10.21-mile stretch was completed except for the installation of guardrails and cables to help protect the public in case of mishaps.
And on October 1, the first accident to occur on the new Warrensburg-Chestertown Road involved a two-car collision at—where else?—the Devil’s Kitchen.
As the great Yogi Berra once said, or at least is credited with saying, it was “déjà vu all over again.”
Photo: An old postcard of the Devil’s Kitchen
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.