NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: 'Pekin Cut' first road carved through escarpment

Construction of the Pekin Hill Cut in 1915.

The Niagara Escarpment is a stone line that divides the county into north and south regions. “Below the escarpment” is the Lake Ontario plain that was once the bottom of glacial Lake Iroquois. “Above the escarpment” is the area which was once partly covered by glacial Lake Tonawanda whose waters spilled over its crest at various places to create waterfalls both large and small. It is a physical barrier between the two regions that, although not insurmountable, did create an obstacle to travel in the early years of white settlement in the area.

Native American trails followed a diagonal route up and down the escarpment in places that were too steep for a straight path. These trails were used by the first settlers here and were improved upon by succeeding generations. But by the early 20th century, and the invention of the automobile, some of these roads were impractical for the “horseless carriage.”

This was the case in the hamlet of Pekin which straddles the towns of Lewiston and Cambria at the top of the Niagara Escarpment on Upper Mountain Road. Town Line Road runs north-south through Pekin between Ridge Road and Saunders Settlement Road. Prior to 1915, in order to get up or down the escarpment at Pekin, you had to use what is now Old Pekin Hill Road which zigzagged its way down to the northern part of Town Line Road.

In 1914, New York state, with an aim to improve roads for automobile traffic, decided to “cut through the brow of the mountain” (the word escarpment was rarely used in the newspaper articles) at Pekin to directly connect the two parts of designated NYS Route 30 (changed to Route 429 in 1932). Harridine Brothers of Medina was awarded the contract to do the excavation. One hundred and fifty men worked for nearly two years removing hundreds of tons of rock 88 feet deep and hauled it northward to create a graded road bed as far as Lower Mountain Road. The portion cut through the “mountain” was narrow, about 18 feet, just enough room for two autos to pass at the same time. A new bridge was constructed to carry the “Mountain Road” over the new roadway. The project cost about $40,000 (about $1,000,000 in 2020).

Although this new highway solved some problems, it created others. Despite the grading done to make the road less steep, in the winter cars skidded off the road on a regular basis. To complicate this, some thrill seekers used the roadway for coasting, causing the surface to freeze smooth making it difficult to go up the hill even with chains, with drivers whizzing by going in the opposite direction. There were numerous accidents even in good weather, when motorists trying to exit the village onto Town Line Road were hit by other cars going up or down the hill. Mischievous boys found the Upper Mountain Road overpass an ideal place to drop water balloons and even pumpkins on to cars traveling below. By the late 1950s, there was already talk of widening the road to two full lanes (24 feet). Rocks slides and water seepage were reoccurring problems but the real impetus for reconstructing the road was the announcement that Niagara County Community College would be built a short distance south of the hill and the increased traffic would only exasperate the hazards of the Pekin Cut.

Bids for expanding Town Line Road between Ridge Road and just south of the village of Pekin (2.8 miles) were opened in late 1967. A new bridge would also be built to carry Upper Mountain Road over the expanded roadway. The Albert Elia Construction Company of Niagara Falls won the contract and construction began in April 1968 with 30 men on the job (compared to 150 in 1915). The projected cost was 1.5 million dollars (7.5 million in 2020) and would take nearly two years to complete. The expansion would be done on the west side (Lewiston side) of the existing road creating a three lane, 36 feet wide thoroughfare.

One property that stood in the way of the road widening was Shimschack’s Restaurant. Originally built in the early 1900s as the Lake View Hotel, the Shimschack family took it over in 1934. Rather than have the building demolished and then rebuild in another location, the family decided to move the restaurant 30 feet to the west and 50 feet north, back from the road, to create a parking lot in front. The new bridge built over the roadway is 96 feet long and 24 feet wide with a pedestrian sidewalk. The work on the road and the bridge was completed in early 1970, making the new Pekin Cut 50 years old this year.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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