Route 17 is no Route 66. Few roadways can compete with that iconic 2,400-mile cross-country highway that novelist and former Long Islander John Steinbeck dubbed “The Mother Road” for its mystique, history and grandeur — and enough personality to inspire a song. But New York’s Route 17 has garnered its share of Long Island admirers who can still get their kicks traveling the winding road, nicknamed the Quickway, to upstate destinations.
It was hard not to fall in love with Route 17 — whose first 70 miles were completed in 1960 — and Long Islanders and metro New Yorkers did just that. The Quickway cut travel time into the southern Catskill Mountains and beyond by a full 50%, transforming what had been a stop-and-go ordeal into a pleasurable drive in the country.
Over the years, places along the Quickway became venerable institutions for travelers who often passed down to their children the tradition of stopping there to stretch their legs or have a bite. But time and progress brought changes to the Quickway, and many popular spots along the roadway now exist only in memories.
The COVID pandemic reduced leisure travel and commuting to and from inland colleges to a trickle. It wasn’t until the end of last summer that road trips again became “doable,” with the focus now more on the journey than the destination.
In anticipation that Long Islanders this summer will cruise the Quickway north and west to the southern Catskills and other locales, here are some roadmarks-nostalgic and modern— along the way certain to evoke fond memories and make new ones.
Most Quickway commercial establishments have reopened after the COVID closure, but many have done so under reduced hour and/or capacity restrictions. To ensure you will be able to enjoy these places to the fullest, call or check online beforehand.
First stop Tuxedo, New York
THEN: Located on old Route 17 in the Southfields section of Tuxedo near Harriman State Park, Red Apple Rest, a defunct sprawling, cafeteria-style diner, which dated to 1931, was generally considered the halfway point to Catskill resorts in the days before the Thruway and Quickway, which officially doesn’t begin until Harriman. As such, the 24-hour eatery, which was named after Russian immigrant founder Reuben Freed’s original red-haired manager, “Red” Appel, became just about everybody’s “go to” sustenance stop going and coming, including such Borscht Belt comedians as George Carlin, who were known to try out new material here and at the nearby Red Apple Motel in the wee hours.
Elaine Freed Lindenblatt, Reuben’s daughter and author of “Stop at the Red Apple: The Restaurant on Route 17” (Excelsior Editions, 2014), recalls growing up at the Red Apple as indescribable. ”The comings and goings 24/7 brought a new scenario daily: you had to live it to believe it. When my dad passed away in 1980, after nearly fifty years of running the Red Apple, he took with him the heart and soul of the place. ” The Freed family sold out in 1984, and under its new owners, the Red Apple Rest hobbled along until 2006 when it was rather mysteriously abandoned with a sign reading “we went away for a graduation and a vacation” in the front window.
NOW: Now probably too dilapidated to be saved, this once-truly iconic diner that served nearly a million meals a year can only serve up fond memories to those road warriors old enough to remember when the polish was still very much on the Red Apple.
Second stop Goshen, New York
THEN: One of the first casualties of the new Quickway, built just to the west, was the village of Goshen, the picturesque seat of Orange County, and the birthplace of harness racing. Located in its twin spire dominated 19th-century village center is the original (1838) half-mile Historic Track, the world’s oldest still active racetrack.
NOW: While the only public racing takes place over the July 4 weekend, training is a mostly everyday occurrence and free for the watching. Adjacent to the track is the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame (admission $10, harnessmuseum.com). On a rise just to the west of the Quickway here is the new Legoland New York amusement park (legoland.com/new-york), which, after a year’s delay because of COVID, is slated to open this summer. In the meantime, older kids are sure to find plenty to amuse them at the multi-attraction Castle Fun Center (thecastlefuncenter.com) in nearby Chester.
Third Stop Wurtsboro, New York
THEN: For pre-Quickway motorists, the mid-19th-century canal and later railroad town of Wurtsboro was where the going really got tough, no thanks to the nearly 1,000-foot climb immediately west of town up through the Wurtsboro Hills. By looping well to the south and following the natural contours of the land, the Quickway made the climb much less onerous.
NOW: But it also completely bypassed Wurtsboro, which is now a sleepy, one-street town whose only real attractions are the folksy Canal Towne Emporium and Danny’s Village Inn, a former stagecoach inn that dates to 1814. For those of more modern tastes, slightly before Wurtsboro in Bloomingburg is the well-advertised Quickway Diner, which first opened in 1987. Across the parking lot is the equally popular (at least in summer) Quickway Twin Cone, a modern reproduction of a classic 1950s walk-up window-service dairy bar.
Fourth Stop Monticello, New York
THEN: Founded in 1804 and named in honor of then-President Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello was another original Route 17 town whose 20th-century fortunes became tied to the tourist trade, especially its two mega Borscht Belt resorts, the Concord and Kutsher’s.
Their gradual demise brought Monticello down with it, with only moderate relief provided by the Monticello (harness) Raceway which opened in 1958.
NOW: But now that Resorts World Catskills Casino occupies the location of the former Concord and YO1 Health Resort–the former site of Kutsher’s–the once-thriving regional business center is showing signs of renewed life.
Quickwayfarers, however, and especially those with children, will be drawn to two non-town attractions, the long-standing Holiday Mountain Fun Park, set to open the July 4 weekend (845-796-6128, holidaymtn.com) with bumper cars and boats, climbing wall, mechanical bull, go-karts; and the 2-year-old Kartrite Resort and Indoor Waterpark (845-397-2500; thekartrite.com). With 15 water attractions spread over 80,00 square feet, the Kartrite is New York’s largest. Forced to close because of COVID concerns last year, the Kartrite is awaiting state permission to reopen.
Monticello also provides the Quickway’s speediest way to the 10-mile distant Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (BethelWoodsCenter.org), where the three-day music festival named after the central Catskills town of Woodstock (the tickets had already been printed) actually took place in August 1969. A museum (admission: $19.69) captures the zeitgeist of the legendary concert, while the pavilion plays host to less frenetic contemporary performances.
Fifth Stop Liberty, New York
THEN: The Glory that was Grossinger’s (among many others): The Town of Liberty draws its name from the fact that an impressive 303 of its citizens fought in the Revolutionary War. After the many local tanneries played out in the 19th century, Liberty sprang back into life as a resort community in the 20th century, anchored by nearby Grossinger’s.
At its height in the 1950s and 60s, the “Borscht Belt” boasted more than 500 hotels, 50,000 bungalows, and 1,000 rooming houses. While most of the marquee resorts closed for good in the 1980s, their deteriorating shells often remained for years afterward. Grossinger’s for example, didn’t finally come down until 2018.
Nostalgia junkies can still see – but not access — The Pines in South Fallsburg and the Nevele in Wawarsing, or trod the grounds of the old Concord and Kutsher’s, now Resorts World Catskills and YO1 Health Resort, respectively, and both in Monticello. Very much still open 85 years on (though now serving an almost exclusively Orthodox clientele) is the Raleigh in South Fallsburg. Also still in business are dozens of bungalow colonies, especially in the vicinities of Kiamesha, Swan, and Kauneonga Lakes.
Contemporary Quickwayfarers, however, know Liberty best for its two diners, the relatively new (1990) and right off the exit Liberty Diner, and the technically much older New Munson, which, though built in the 1940s, wasn’t moved to “downtown” Liberty from the corner of 49th Street and 11th Avenue until 2005.
NOW: A shadow of its former self, “downtown” Liberty is still worth checking out for its two antique stores, Town and Country Antiques and the Antique Palace Emporium. You never know what you’ll find until you look. Alas, you won’t be able to get anything anymore at Fiddle’s Dari-King, 4 miles farther up the Quickway in puny Parksville, once the site of numerous hotels and resorts, but now virtually a ghost town. A true rite of passage for years, Fiddle’s used to be right off the road, which made it an almost irresistible (at least to kids in the back seat) treat stop. But after a 3-mile bypass routed traffic up and over the town in 2011, Fiddle’s closed for good in 2013.
Last stop Roscoe, New York
THEN: For Quickwayfarers en route to central New York, the tiny (population 600) hamlet of Roscoe was — and still is — the last best place to gas and feed up before the scenic, but otherwise uneventful, 60-mile stretch into Binghamton.
For the latter, that typically meant the iconic silver, college pennant-decorated Roscoe Diner, which first opened its glass doors to hungry but harried motorists in 1969.
NOW: Those still disappointed by the demise of Fiddle’s Dari-King can appease their sweet tooth at Nif T’s ice cream next door. These days, Roscoe has bigger fish to fry, as evidenced by its new moniker, Trout Town USA. Beginning in April, fly fishermen began wading into the cold waters of Willowemoc Creek and Beaver Kill in an attempt to snag a trophy.
For those more interested in just looking, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum is off Old Route 17 in nearby Livingston Manor. Fishing has brought new life into Roscoe’s quaint 1930s downtown, where those with a little more time can wade into the offerings at the Roscoe Beer Company and Do Good Spirits Prohibition Distillery (vodka, whiskey, and gin). The Quickway’s other two readily accessible craft breweries, Catskill and Upward, are both in Livingston Manor.
Quick History of the Quickway
Built in the 1920s to link the towns of the western Lower Hudson River Valley and southern Catskills to each other and New York City, Route 17’s design and capacity shortcomings became painfully apparent during the post-WWII economic boom. Driving home those inadequacies was the phenomenal popularity of the so-called “Borscht Belt” resorts of Sullivan County. By 1950, more than a million visitors a year, mostly traveling on weekends, so paralyzed traffic and endangered public safety along the original Route 17 that something had to be done.
The solution was the Quickway, New York’s first free, long-distance (70 miles) expressway. Equipped with separate accelerating and decelerating lanes, the four-lane dual carriageway, which began in Harriman and ended in Horton, was constructed in five 10-mile sections between 1951 and 1960. In addition to its state-of-the-art design, which also proved remarkably scenic, the Quickway bypassed several previous bottleneck towns, most notably Middletown, and reconfigured the steep climb through the Wurtsboro Hills. As a result, travel time was reduced by 50% and accidents by 70%.
By 1968, the Quickway had been extended another 60 miles to Binghamton, making it the most efficient access route to the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes. As such, it also became the mother road of college students and summer and fall vacationers, for whom fast-food restaurants and roadside attractions were generally the only justifications for stopping. Fifty years later, improvements to the Quickway continue to be made. And should it actually become Interstate 86, even more will be required.
Interactive editors: Heather Doyle, Kristen Sullivan, Gabriella Vukelic and Jeffrey L. Williams
Photo editor: Reggie Lewis
Design: James Stewart
QA: Daryl Becker