When here in Massachusetts the final link of I-91 opened in late 1969 it took with it the bulk of the interstate through traffic. Some sections of US-5, formerly four lanes wide, were even eventually reduced to two and the old highway was relegated mostly to local traffic and travelers looking for a motel or a place to eat.
This grand old highway and all its previous incarnations had been the major N/S route through the Valley for at least three centuries, maybe a millennia if we include the old Native American Trails. Now, with its primary purpose for existence behind it, and paling in the shadow of its big interstate brother who followed its path, US-5 needed to reinvent itself. But, lacking a clear, unifying mission, segments of the old highway were left to develop or decay on their own. But, reincarnation and rebirth comes in many forms.
It was once said that life doesn't happen on the new Interstates. Yet we can find that life, in all its variety and historical richness, on those older highways like US-5. Traveling its route we can find the remnants of an earlier era... romantically dubbed by some to be the Golden Age of automobile travel. If we look we can still find the old motels and cabins and restaurants that hearken back to an era when my parents and grandparents traveled this highway. Many of these original businesses that once served the motoring public are gone but the buildings themselves have often been recycled. Gas stations have become repair shops, restaurants have become antique shops, and old motels have become efficiency apartments. In just a one-mile stretch of Riverdale Road in West Springfield are three generations of Friendly Ice Cream shops.
One prime example of this by-gone age is the family-owned Donut Dip in West Springfield which originally opened in 1957. The photo below is courtesy of Paul Shields and was taken in 1959. In the background is the old Castro Convertible store.
Where few of the original buildings even remain on Riverdale Road, Donut Dip has survived the incredible changes all around it. In an era where some stores try to recreate that classy retro look, Donut Dip still proudly maintains it's original 50's interior. Forget the dime-a-dozen Dunkin' stores. This place doesn't just have great donuts, it's a must-see tourist stop!
I still remember my favorite sections of the highway... things that would capture a young boy's over-active imagination. There, in a retaining wall of deeply recessed, long gone railroad underpass in Holyoke was a mysterious staircase leading up into the dark, forbidding, woods. Despite its Lovecraftian appeal, my parents would never stop and let me explore. At Smith's Ferry a large, concrete T-Rex lay in wait to surprise the unsuspecting. To this day I, and the many I've asked who have memories that go further back than mine, have no inkling why the dinosaur was even there. The mighty T-Rex met its demise when I-91 was constructed. That particular section of the new interstate ran directly adjacent to the older US-5, and the area was filled in.
Then there was that vicious hump at the flood dikes in Northampton. My dad and I always conspired to divert my mother's attention before the aero-inspired (but hardly aerodynamic) '58 Olds went airborne. The hump was probably built so the road could remain open as long as possible in case of a rising flood. The hump was eliminated when I-91 was built. The level of the new interchange with US-5 was built up to be above flood levels. The rest of the highway through the Oxbow had to fend for itself.
In the fertile fields of Hatfield, Whately, and Deerfield, were the miles of tobacco netting and barns. A few more miles up the road was Old Deerfield. Ever expecting to find ancient relics just lying about, I would try and talk my folks into finding the Bloody Brook massacre site. There just had to be arrowheads and rusted muskets lying all over the place!
The Cheapside Bridge, dwarfed as it is by the adjacent giant railroad trestle, always heralded the turn-off to the Deerfield rail yard with its old locomotive roundhouse. Deerfield was a junction of two major rail lines and had the giant rail yard to prove it. In Greenfield, the huge stone retaining walls could just have well been the parapets to an ancient fortress. Passing beneath the dual railroad overpasses was the closest I'd come storming the gates of a castle of old.
In West Springfield were the tunnels... Aside from the dubious thrill of going underground, I’d try to talk my dad into honking the horn just to hear the echoes. Then there was a grill on Riverdale Road shaped like a giant wooden milk pail with a crank. It's gone the way of the old Riverboat Restaurant and the old Smiths Ferry nightclub once shaped like a Zeppelin.
We may not appreciate a highway like US-5 when driving past the infamous Bonde's Island treatment plant during a heat wave or if stuck in a Holiday shopper traffic jam along the strip developments of West Springfield. But, I for one would not give up the ride along the wide, tree-lined residential areas of Longmeadow and Holyoke, or the aging West Springfield bypass with its tunnels and view of the Springfield skyline, the formally teeth-jarring ride through the Oxbow, the rounded valley of Bernardston, and certainly not the gem of US-5: the Holyoke stretch along the Connecticut River.
Traveling I-91 and its new 65-mph speed limit could save some time and some wear and tear on my car, but I've become so tuned into the nostalgia and the pageant of history around me that I wouldn't give it up. I'd like to be counted as US-5s #1 fan. Anyone else want to join the club?
"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
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