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The interstate highway system changed the United States in many ways. As soon as any particular stretch of highway was completed the impact was immediate and irreversible. Small towns, diners, motels, farm stands and gas stations that sat beside the former two-lane roads through the countryside lost their patrons. The owners lost their way of life.
Well before I was born my grandparents started to spend summers on the St. Lawrence River. To get there, they would drive NYS Route 11 from Syracuse to Watertown and then take Route 37 North until arriving at a somewhat insignificant intersection, where a left onto Route 26 would complete the drive to Alexandria Bay. All told, it was about a 2 1/2 hour drive not including any stops they would make along the way. They might get gas at a Sinclair station in any one of the many small towns and they knew all of the best fruit and vegetable stands along the way.I was a young boy when Interstate Route 81 was built. Before my parents were able to shave a good hour’s worth of “when are we going to be there” questions off the drive to visit the grandparents, we drove the same route traveled by the family since 1937. We made the trip often enough that I knew the roads fairly well and the final stretch after Watertown was the most fun. We played a road game called “Cows” that consisted of yelling “COWS!!!” at every new herd we drove and getting points for being the first. We passed a fruit stand I knew had the best huckleberries in the world, because my grandfather told me so. Then we turned left onto Route 26, known by us as “the bumpy road”. It does get cold up there in the winter and the frost heaves on that road were a great deal of fun on the bouncy back seat of my Dad’s car.
Then there was a final left turn just outside of “A-Bay” where a man in a white coat and captain’s hat from Uncle Sam’s tour boats waved a handful of flyers at everyone that passed as if he was guiding us into to a parking space and that confirmed we had come the right way. In less than 5 minutes we would be driving under the old dark red “Welcome to Alexandria Bay” sign that signaled not an end of a long drive, but a beginning of great times at “The River”.The tour boats are still in business but the man no longer waves at that corner. The fruit stand is long gone but the cows are still grazing along the road. And the last remnants of a funny old diner right next to the road just before “the bumpy road” had fallen in. They were just recently removed.
I don’t specifically recall stopping at the White Birch Diner though it is possible we did, maybe to get me a Bubble-Up in a small glass bottle or a hamburger if I had been complaining about being starving for the past hour.
But I remember always taking note of it as we passed by. It was covered with White Birch branches nailed up tight together as siding. The sign was made of white birch too. It was quite an imaginative little diner. Hell, any young boy with an ounce of woodsmanship would think a birch covered building was pretty cool!Long after the highway became the fastest route to The River, I would pull off at Watertown and drive my own kids up the “back way” and show them where all of the old things used to be. Maybe they didn’t care too much, especially because the bumpy road was repaved and they just wanted to be driving under the new (rather ugly) sign at A-Bay to finally “get there”!
But the White Birch Diner did always get a second look because, even though it was long since closed, it was still just plain interesting. It had entered into the realm of being a “new ruin” with a story to tell and now it is gone.