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The Taconic:  Gateway To A New Yorktown

Motorists today may take it for granted, whizzing by at speeds at upwards of 60 miles per hour or more if they do not get caught by the State Police.

But in its early years, the Taconic State Parkway was one of several new highways that helped make northern Westchester and Putnam counties easily accessible to New York City.

One of four highways built in Westchester County during the 1920's and 1930's, the Taconic had an effect on the Yorktown area, promoting not only summer resorts but an influx of businesses and year-round residents as well.

Built in four different stages beginning in 1931, the Taconic at first was originally designed to be no more than an extension of the Bronx River Parkway, which opened to traffic in 1925.  In fact, until 1941 when the Taconic State Park Commission took over the operation of the highway, it was known as the Bronx River Parkway Extension.

Passage of a 1924 statewide referendum during the general election appropriated $15 million for the construction of the parkway. An original $125,000 was set aside for the purchase of private land between the Kensico Dam in Valhalla and the approach to the Bear Mountain Bridge, the 18-mile route that was the first section of the parkway.

As part of the same project, a 3.8-mile strip of highway, now known as the Bear Mountain State Parkway, was opened on the same afternoon. Two years later, the Taconic was extended nearly another four miles to Peekskill Hollow Road.

The road was built further, to Fahnestock Park in 1935 and stretched to Route 55 near Poughkeepsie in 1938.

Construction of the new highway began in 1929 after the Westchester County Park Commission acquired the land, some of which was actually donated by realty companies and even private citizens. By 1924, the property owners had combined for a total land donation of 143 acres, of which the Briarcliff Realty Company gave 43 acres to the Commission.

Construction took just over two years as the new parkway opened for vehicles on Sunday, November 14, 1931. A special tribute featured a parade of dignitaries including then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.

With the opening of the parkway, for the first time people from New York City could consider living in upper Westchester full-time rather then just spending some time in the summer, said Yorktown historian Doris Auser.

For others, the parkway meant traveling up to the Yorktown area for weekends and summer vacations with the growth of resorts, according to Doreen O'Connor of the Yorktown Museum. Unlike the railroads of the 19th-century that first opened the area to vacationers, families found the new parkway a much more convenient means of transportation, since they were not confined to train schedules.

The influx of new people created the need for new businesses, such as gas stations, retail outlets and food stores.

While not the sole reason for the populations of Yorktown booming by 800 percent in the last 60 years, certainly the Taconic Parkway was a major factor.  From Revolutionary War times until 1920, Yorktown's population remained nearly constant at about 4,000, Auser noted. The 1980 census listed more than 32,000 residents there, with numbers expected to steadily climb.

The parkway when it first opened was two lanes for its entire length, from what is now the Hawthorne interchange to the country line, said parkway coordinator Nicholas Pucino. The surface was a similar concrete pavement used today and the speed limit was probably about 35 miles per hour, the usual parkway limit in those days, he said.

O'Connor said she recalled the days when there was no center guard rail, creating some hideous accidents in the early days and a number of humps she call "whoopsie-daises," like the one still evident at Pleasantville Road. There was also no left-hand turning lane at the Chappaqua Road intersection, the scene of even more accidents, she said.

Pucino said as parkway speed was upgraded over the years to the current 55-mile-per-hour limit, safety precautions had to be taken. Curves and bends in the road were less severe and all the humps except for the one at Pleasantville Road were eliminated.

Locally, Yorktown apparently, was the town that was most seriously affected by the Taconic, with neighboring Somers and Cortlandt only being indirectly moved.

"All the parkways had some effect on the communities," said Somers historian Florence Oliver, adding the Taconic had minimal impact on her town because it was about seven miles to the east.

The extension of the Saw Mill River Parkway and the construction of Interstate 684 in the 1960's were the highways that had the greatest impact on Somers, while Albany Post Road (Route 9) became Cortlandt and Peekskill's most important artery.

Today, the Taconic Parkway extends 105 miles, connecting Westchester County with the Berkshire section of the New York State Thruway about 20 miles southeast of Albany.

Work is not yet complete on the Taconic, Pucino said the completion of a widening project between Route 117 and the Millwood exit was planned and contracts on the work might even be bid by the end of this year.  Starting in 1958, the road at the Hawthorne interchange went to three lanes in each direction, while the portion from Millwood to Roosevelt Park was expanded between 1961 and 1967.

 Source: by Martin Wilbur, The North County News, June 22- 28, 1988, Bicentennial Supplement

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