Historical Details

Highway 20

Courtesy of Library Archives, 10/06/2015

By Michael J. Till

US Route/Highway 20 is one of the original cross-country highways designated "Federal" in 1926. It extends from Boston, Masssechusetts to Newport, Oregon and is the northernmost, and at 3365 miles, the longest of the country's original transcontinental roads. The following are little known facts about US Highway 20. All occurred at sites along its route although some events predated the actual highway.

  • The Boston Hotel Buckminster is located at Kenmore Square, the eastern terminus of US Highway 20. In September, 1919, a professional gambler named Joseph "Sharp" Sullivan met with Chicago White Sox player Arnold "Chick" Gandil in a guestroom of the hotel where it was agreed that the White Sox, the overwhelming favorite, would throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. This became known as the infamous "Black Sox Scandal" which resulted in the lifetime suspensions of eight White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson.
  • In July, 1929, WNAC Radio moved into new studios in the Boston Hotel Buckminster. Later that year, WNAC arranged the first network broadcast in the history of radio with station WEAF in New York City, using a 100-foot antenna connected to the building's roof with clothesline.
  • Highway 20 is the only road in the United States to have had two major league ballparks along its course. Both were located in Boston. Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox is adjacent to Kenmore Square, and Braves Field, home of the Boston Braves until the team moved to Milwaukee in 1952, was located two miles west along Commonwealth Avenue.
  • The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA was the first chartered school in the United States for blind children. The Director was Dr. Samuel Howe, whose wife Julia Ward Howe was author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Helen Keller attended the Perkins School for the Blind and she and her mentor, Anne Sullivan, are memorialized by the Keller-Sullivan Memorial Garden on the campus.
  • Howe's Tavern near Sudbury, MA provided the inspiration for Longfellow's poem "Tales of a Wayside Inn." Now known as Longfellow's Wayside Inn it opened in 1716 and is believed to be the oldest operating inn in the United States. Longfellow was thought to have visited the inn on only two occasions.
  • Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was born in Springfield, MA in 1904. He attended Springfield's Classical High School and later Dartmouth College before becoming arguably the country's foremost writer of children's books. His birthday, March 2, has been adopted by the National Education Association as "Read Across America Day"
  • Cornelius McGillicuddy, known throughout Major League Baseball as Connie Mack, was born and raised in East Brookfield, MA. He went on to become a professional baseball player, manager and owner of the Philadelphia Athletics. During his 50-year managerial career he set the major league record for the most wins (3731) and also for the most losses (3948). Connie Mack was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1937.
  • The original "Elsie the Cow," the famous mascot of the Borden Dairy Company was a registered Jersey heifer born at Elm Hill Farm in Brookfield, MA. Her reign symbolizing the "Perfect Dairy Product" began in 1936. Her "husband," Elmer the Bull became the model for Elmer's Glue.
  • Charles Merriam, a West Brookfield, MA native and later a successful publisher in Springfield, MA, bought the rights to "Webster's Dictionary of the American Language" upon the death of Noah Webster in 1843. He continued publication of the original two-volume version, but also transformed the dictionary into the shorter, more readable and hugely popular "Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary."
  • Jacob's Ladder Roadway in western Massachusetts was called the United States' "First of the Great Mountain Crossovers" in recognition of the engineering skill demonstrated in building the road over the wild Berkshire mountains. Mrs. George Westinghouse, wife of the American industrialist, raised the flag at the dedication on September 10, 1910. Jacob's Ladder Roadway was incorporated into US20 in 1926.
  • Guilderland, NY was the home of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, famous geologist, explorer and author, who is credited with discovering the true source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. His Journal, titled "Algic Researches" is reputed to have been the inspiration for Longfellow's poem "Song of Hiawatha."
  • In 1946, Ed Koch, future US Congressman and colorful Mayor of New York bussed tables at the Adler Hotel in Sharon Springs, NY.
  • In 1837 Samuel F.B. Morse visited his cousin, Judge James Otis Morse, in Cherry Valley, NY. Here, with the assistance of Judge Morse and Amos L. Swan, a local merchant, Morse developed the first working telegraph machine. The invention was filed with the US Patent office the same year. In 1844, Morse returned to Cherry Valley and with Swan established the first telegraph office in the area. Swan later became a Captain in the 76th Regiment of the Union Forces, serving under Brigadier General Abner Doublday, the inventor of baseball.
  • Leland Stanford studied law at Cazenovia Seminary (now Cazenovia College), NY from 1841-45. He moved to California where he became the state's 8th Governor (1861-63). Subsequently he became president of the Central Pacific Railroad, while simultaneously serving a six year term as United States Senator. During his tenure with the railroad he extended it eastward to join the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah, and actually hit the Golden Spike symbolizing the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. A lifetime of successes notwithstanding, he is best remembered as the founder of Stanford University.
  • One of the greatest hoaxes in American history was perpetrated near the village of Cardiff, NY. In 1869 a giant petrified man was unearthed behind a barn, and promoted by the owner as one of the giants of the earth mentioned in the Bible. Even after the figure was proven to be a crude fake, gullible viewers continued to pay to look at it, and P.T. Barnum, sensing its potential, exhibited a replica. The original block of gypsum from which the Cardiff Giant was sculpted was mined near Fort dodge, IA, another Highway 20 city.
  • Seneca Falls, NY is the recognized birthplace of the Women's Rights Movement in the United States. In 1848, five women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first convention that had the specific objective of expanding the role of women in America. Today the site is a National Historical park located at 136 Fall Street.
  • In 1865, Waterloo, NY druggist, Henry C. Welles, proposed decorating the graves of fallen soldiers, and one year later, May, 1866 a ceremony was held at each of the village's three cemeteries. In subsequent years other communities joined in on the established date of May 30. In May, 1966, both the US House of Representatives and Senate unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 587 which state "Resolved, that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day."
  • Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849, became the first woman in the United States to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree. Dr. Blackwell graduated from Geneva College in Geneva, NY. The school is now known as Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
  • Fredonia, NY is a city of firsts. The first successful natural gas well was dug there in 1821. It is home to the first Grange Hall in the US, and the first Women's Christian Temperance Union convention was formed there.
  • Westfield, NY was the home of eleven year old Grace Bedell, who in 1861 had written a letter to Abraham Lincoln encouraging him to raise a beard in order to improve his chances of winning the presidency. When Lincoln visited the town he invited Grace to the podium to show her his beard. The rest is history.
  • The term "Jumping on the Bandwagon" originated from 19th century circus owner and clown, Dan Rice (1822-1901), who made his home in Girard, PA. He was so popular that politicians sought his endorsement. He allowed favored candidates to ride on his bandwagon in circus parades, hence the term. Legend also has it that Mr. Rice's red, white and blue costume and top hat were the inspiration for the attire worn by "Uncle Sam." Coincidentally, Dan Rice gave his first circus performance in Galen, IL, another city on US20.
  • American automotive pioneer, Ransom E. Olds, was born in Geneva. HO, the son of the village blacksmith. He founded both the Oldsmobile and REO motor car companies, the former becoming a major division of General Motors. Mr. Olds, rather than Henry Ford, was the first to use the moving assembly line in manufacturing automobiles. The site of Olds' boyhood home on Main Street in Geneva is now fittingly occupied by a NAPA auto parts store.
  • Four United States Presidents have called cities on US20 home. Millard Fillmore - East Aurora, NY; James Garfield - Mentor, OH; Rutherford Hayes - Fremont, OH and US. Grant - Galena, IL.
  • James Garfield used a unique, and successful method to campaign for the presidency. He did not travel, but rather gave speeches from his front porch in Mentor, OH, which were covered by reporters who stood on his front lawn, and subsequently reported in the newspapers of the day. This gave rise to the term "Front Porch Campaign" and the name of Garfield's estate, "Lawnfield." Garfield is recognized as the country's first left-handed president. He was ambidextrous and could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other simultaneously.
  • The first traffic signal system in the United States was installed by the American Traffic Signal Company at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, OH on August 5, 1914. The system consisted of Red and Green lights operated by an officer housed in a booth in the center of the intersection.
  • The Westlake Hotel in the Cleveland suburb Rocky River, OH was one of the most luxurious in the entire Cleveland area. Due to its proximity to Cleveland's Airport it became a favorite with aviation pioneers. Amelia Earhart was a frequent guest as were James Doolittle and Wiley Post. Charles Lindbergh was known to have visited the hotel but if he ever stayed overnight is uncertain.
  • Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to regularly admit female and black students.
  • At the turn of the twentieth century, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company in South Bend, IN was the world's largest producer of horse drawn wagons and buggies. In 1902 Studebaker entered the automobile market with an electric vehicle. The first electric car Studebaker produced was retained by the company. The second was purchased by Thomas Edison.
  • A famous political cliché originated in the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago In 1920 the Republican Party met there, and when the convention deadlocked, a group of powerful political figures met in private and chose Warren G. Harding as the compromise candidate for President. A reporter covering the event described the scene as a "Smoke Filled Room" and thus coined the term which has become synonymous with back room political maneuvering.
  • US Supreme court Justice John Paul Stevens, until retiring in 2010 was the senior Justice both in age and years of service. He was a member of the family that developed the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. His father and grandfather were successful businessmen in the insurance and hotel industries. The Stevens hotel was sold to Conrad Hilton in 1943 and it became the centerpiece of the Hilton Hotel chain. A bronze statue of Justice Stevens as a small child is located in the hotel.
  • Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, IL in 1899. He was educated in the public school system and wrote his first articles for his high school paper. Upon graduation in 1917 he left Oak Park for a reporter's job with the Kansas City Star. Later he described Oak Park, an affluent suburb of Chicago, as a town of "wide lawns and narrow minds."
  • Frank Lloyd Wright moved to Oak Park as a young man. He developed many of his architectural theories and principles in his Oak Park studio. Oak Park boasts the most Wright designed buildings of any city in the country. Unity Temple, one of his most significant buildings is the only Wright structure in the country located directly on US Highway 20.
  • Freeport, IL derived its name due to the generosity of an early resident, Tutti Baker, who provided "free portage" across the Pecatonica River on his barge. The name was said to have been suggested by Mrs. Baker.
  • The Fenelon Place elevator (aka 4th Street Elevator) in Dubuque, IA is the shortest and steepest railroad in the world. The total length is 296 feet and it rises 189 feet from the bottom to the top of the bluff. The railroad opened in 1882 to transport citizens from their homes atop the bluff to Dubuque's business district below. It has continued in use to this day.
  • Vatican protocol states that the Pope can celebrate mass only in certain designated churches. In the U.S. the only church not in a metropolitan area is St. Francis Xavier Basilica in Dyersville, IA (population 4025). The church is located directly on US20.
  • Independence, IA once was home to Rush park, a famous "Kite-shaped" horse racing track which earned it the nickname "Lexington of the North." World trotting records were set there in the late 1800s. Also, the first two-minute mile on a bicycle was accomplished at Rush Park. John S. Johnsons set the world record of 1:56 3/5 seconds on September 27, 1892. Original US20 goes directly through the former Rush park grounds.
  • Five Sullivan brothers, natives of Waterloo, IA, tragically lost their lives together during World War II when their ship, the USS Juneau, was sunk in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalcanal. Their deaths were instrumental in the enactment of the 1948 Department of Defense Sole Survivor Policy that can exempt other family members from combat duty if a son or daughter of that family has been killed in military service.
  • Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only person who died on the Lewis & Clark expedition is buried in Sioux City, IA. The 1804 diagnosis was bilious colic, now thought to be a ruptured appendix. A stone obelisk marks his grave. It is the nation's first nationally registered historical landmark.
  • According to local legend, Al Capone and members of his gang reserved rooms at the Golden Hotel in O'Neill, Ne for their exclusive use, and it is said that special escape tunnels were constructed at his request. Capone supposedly used the hotel as a hideout, and the local businesses as a means for laundering money. Although there is evidence of underground passageways in the basement of the hotel, whether or not Al Capone ever stayed there remains a mystery.
  • The Sand Hills region of central Nebraska is the largest grass stabilized sand dunes area in the world. It covers 19,600 square miles, about one-fourth of the state. Some of the dunes rise to a height of 330 feet.
  • In May, 1877, Chief Crazy Horse, the renowned and respected leader of the Lakota Sioux Tribe who one year earlier had masterminded the defeat of General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, was arrested and taken to Fort Robinson, near Crawford, NE. A struggle ensued in which Crazy Horse was bayoneted. He died shortly thereafter.
  • During the Second World War, Fort Robinson was a primary location for the training of the K-9 Corps. The only known military dog kennels remaining from the World War II era are located there.
  • Van Tassell (population 15) is the first village along Highway 20 when entering Wyoming from the east. It holds the distinction of being the least populous town in the least populous county of the least populous state in the nation.
  • The town of Cody, WY was founded by Buffalo Bill Cody and named for him. A monumental bronze statue in the city entitled "Buffalo Bill - the Scout" was dedicated in his honor on July 4, 1924. The statue was sculpted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, renowned patron of the arts and daughter of Cornelious Vanderbilt II.
  • Theodore Roosevelt is said to have called Cody Highway (US20 after 1926) between the town of Cody, WY and the east gate of Yellowstone National Park "The most scenic 50 miles in the world."
  • Federal highway numbers are not used within national Parks. Thus, US20 is interrupted as the road traverse Yellowstone National Park. The eastern section from Boston to the East entrance of the park was designated in 1926. The western section, from the western gate of the park to Newport, OR was designated in 1940. The connecting link through the park is the Grand Loop Road.
  • Arco, ID is the site of the world's first peacetime use of nuclear power. Experimental Breeder Reactor #1 was activated on December 20, 1951, and the town of Arco began receiving its electricity from this source on July 17, 1955.
  • Early astronauts who were scheduled to walk on the moon received part of their training at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. They learned the basics of volcanic geology in preparation for searching the moon's volcanic surface for the most scientifically valuable rock specimens to bring back to earth.
  • The first automobile, an Oldsmobile, to cross Santiam Pass (Elev. 4817 feet) near Cascadia, OR was driven by Dwight B. Huss on June 20th, 1905. The gatekeeper, Mr. J.L. Ney had never seen an automobile and did not know how much toll to charge. He noted that horses and cattle reacted with fright much the same as when they encountered a wild hog, so he called it a "road hog" and charged three cents, the toll for a pig.

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