Saturday, June 7, 2008

US 20: “Twenty West” Cross Country Trip Book

Here’s an article from the Albany Times Union which covers one person’s book and documentation of their own cross country trip on US Route 20:

Chronicling 3,300 miles of history
Scholar's book tells the long and winding tale of U.S. Route 20

By MIKE PIEKARSKI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Friday, June 6, 2008

Malcolm "Mac" Nelson is a lot like the road he loves. The 74-year-old former professor might have a few miles on him, but he's still as vibrant, interesting and genuine as ever.

In his new book, "Twenty West," recently released by the State University of New York Press, Nelson waxes poetic about U.S. Route 20, the country's longest road, which tells "a very American story," he writes.

Unlike the more well-known Route 66, much of which is now interstate highways, Route 20 "is a real road; it's still there," Nelson said in a recent phone interview, adding that only 75 of its 3,300 miles have been subsumed into interstates.

Part of what Nelson calls the Great Road, which stretches coast to coast from Boston, Mass., to Newport, Oregon, runs through the Capital Region. In New York, Albany is the only major city through which it passes. That stretch, which includes Western and Madison avenues in Albany and Western Turnpike farther west, has played an interesting part in history.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Capital Region section of Route 20 "was a busy but slow dirt road, occupied largely by horses, stagecoaches and teams of oxen," said Nelson, professor emeritus of English at SUNY Fredonia. He recently retired after a 40-year teaching career.

By the early decades of the next century, he said, the road "was the greatest road from Chicago to Albany" until the state Thruway was built in the 1950s.

On his journey along what he calls "the Main Street of my life," Nelson takes readers past the Great Lakes, through Yellowstone National Park and beyond the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The southern Illinois native grew up near the road and has lived the last 30 years alongside it in Brocton, 50-odd miles southwest of Buffalo.

He is no stranger, though, to the Capital Region: He has visited Albany "hundreds of times" and personally lobbied Govs. Mario M. Cuomo and George Pataki at the state Capitol as an executive board member of United University Professions.

One period he discusses in his book is the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th -- a pivotal time in the United States and the Capital Region.

"That was the time when the people who ran America lived along Route 20," said Nelson, a trim, lanky man with a shock of white hair, a friendly manner and a stentorian voice.

One of those was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president who, after serving as mayor of Buffalo in the early 1880s, won the governorship of New York and a stay at the then recently constructed Executive Mansion on Eagle Street, a stone's throw from Albany's Western Avenue.

Nelson also writes of other notable Americans who had connections to the Capital Region's stretch of Route 20, including "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville; William Seward, secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln; and Civil War hero Philip Sheridan.

According to Nelson, the road "was a way to transport people, and when you transport people, you're also transporting ideas."

Piekarski, a freelance writer from Latham, can be reached at

Book signing
Malcolm "Mac" Nelson will sign copies of "Twenty West" at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza.

The US Route 20 Blog homepage can be found here.

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