This post is the latest in an occasional series examining the history of Buffalo-area highways and streets.
Western New York is home to two major east-west transcontinental highways: Interstate 90, the longest route in the Interstate Highway System, and U.S. Route 20, the longest road in the older United States Numbered Highway System and also the longest road in America.
I-90 travels from Boston, Mass., to Seattle, while Route 20 extends from Boston, Mass., to Newport, Ore. The entire Buffalo-area portion of I-90 travels along the New York State Thruway. In Erie County, Route 20 is carried by (from west to east) Southwestern Boulevard between Cattaraugus County and West Seneca; Transit Road between West Seneca and Depew; and Broadway between Depew and Genesee County.
In New York State, both roads – along with another important road, New York State Route 5 – travel along the same corridor as the Erie Canal, providing a link between the major upstate cities and outlying areas of Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. That’s no coincidence: Eighty percent of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the Erie Canal.
But before these major roads were built as we know them today, how did Buffalonians, and upstate New Yorkers in general, travel long distances?
The answer lies in a 1904 book by Archer Butler Hulbert titled “Historic Highways of America: Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers.” Hulbert said that in the early days of the United States, the only land route between Lake Erie and Central New York’s Mohawk Valley was a rugged Native American path called the Iroquois Trail.
“The interior of New York was an almost unexplored wilderness at the end of the Revolution in 1783,” Hulbert wrote. “With the opening of the Genesee country … a tide of immigration began to surge westward from the upper Mohawk along the general alignment of the old-time Iroquois Trail.”
Gradually, a route called the Great Genesee Road emerged from the Mohawk Valley westward to the Genesee River in the Rochester area, approved by state lawmakers in 1794. Four years later, legislators extended the road to the western boundary of the state. The road was operated by private turnpike companies, and in the following years more turnpikes were built, such as the Great Western Turnpike, constructed in 1800 along the present-day route of Route 20 between Albany and Buffalo. The turnpikes were eventually surpassed in efficiency by the Erie Canal, which sparked a boom in Buffalo’s population.
The groundwork had been laid for our modern roads. The route of the Great Genesee Road and the early turnpikes were eventually incorporated into the cross-country Yellowstone Trail in the early 1900s, and as the automobile increased in popularity, much of that route became what we know as New York State Route 5. Route 20 and I-90 were added along the corridor in the 1920s and 1950s, respectively, as America continued to invest in auto infrastructure.