The birchbark canoe, a flying car, high technology hybrid-electric buses, connections to a major water super-highway, and an alternate airport for space shuttle landings — these are all innovations central to our region’s prosperity.
Those who have lived here for millennia know just how navigable our region is. Canoes connected Upper Canada, at the upper limits of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, to Lower Canada, the more developed region farther down river through Montreal and beyond.
This transportation network allowed great First Nations to trade among themselves, and then with interlopers for a couple of centuries at the end of these great empires that once controlled our region.
But while birchbark and dugout canoes were replaced by warships and then ferries, barges and, eventually, ocean-going container ships, the great waterways of the St. Lawrence, the Erie Canal, Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, and the Richelieu River nonetheless defined our region. Eastwest trade along the Seaway and the Erie Canal system, and North-south trade along the Richelieu and Lake Champlain have left an indelible stamp on our region’s economic development.
While birchbark canoes are more often relegated to display walls on Great Lodges in the Adirondacks today, we’ve never lost our transportation tradition.
Recall that the eras of great transportation innovations occurred at special times in our history. This region was again discovered by Europeans such as Samuel de Champlain precisely because of the development of large seaworthy warships. There was very little new activity yet in the western part of our nation, but trade between the burgeoning areas of Lower Canada, New York, and New England was primed to take off. That put our area on the map.
Indeed, whole wars, and the only substantial war fought on United States and Canadian soil, were designed to take advantage of the latent potential of a combined eastern North American economy. Again, this area was at the center of this emerging universe, both in the War of Independence and the more forgotten War of 1812. Major and pivotal battles for each were fought here to capture what was seen as a major trade and transportation hub. Within that same century, our region was one of the first to capitalize on railroad transportation to connect Quebec and New York. Rail eventually took over the bulk of trade, at least until cars and trucks supplanted trains within another century.
Two more notches in the ratchet of progress were the connection of Quebec to our Interstate Highway system to celebrate a World’s Fair and Olympics in 1967 and the buildout of a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base to wage battle in the Cold War. Each one of us enjoys the Northway — many of you daily — and all of us benefit from the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War as our airport was converted to economic development use.
But we are not interlopers or merely passive beneficiaries of each development in this transportation region. Our region fueled each of these innovations, and continues to do so today.
Certainly, when the British and the Americans had to amass flotillas for the wars of 1776 and 1812, they could not merely rely on boatbuilding from across the continent or the ocean. A burgeoning boatbuilding industry developed here in New York and in Vermont. The ability to provision boats from either side of the belligerence even induced Vermont to attempt to remain a neutral in the War of 1812.
Locals, and even the Vanderbilts, had interests in and helped build the railroads so that our resources — including some of the world’s best iron ore from reserves in Lyon Mountain — could be used for the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge and other projects that would benefit our country and the planet.
Not to be outdone, Henry Abram Lozier, a local bicycle manufacturer, put Plattsburgh on the luxury motorcar map. His Loziers were the most expensive and fastest cars in the country, and his since repurposed factory still stands prominently on the shore of Lake Champlain.
Our high proportion of cloud-free weather (believe it or not) was an instrumental factor in placing a SAC base here. That Cold War decision resulted in a huge construction boom, with dozens of expensive and concrete-intensive missile bunkers built within a short radius of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Indeed, the publisher of Strictly Business was the first nuclear weapons technician assigned to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1957.
But it does not stop there.
The proximity of Plattsburgh to Quebec created a conduit for European and Canadian transportation businesses to set up shop here and gain access to United States markets. First Bombardier, then Nova and Prevost and the numerous suppliers that support them, put Plattsburgh on the light rail, subway, metro, and luxury bus map. These manufacturers continue to build upon the success our strategic location provides in the transportation sphere, most notably in the investment Alstom is making in its purchase and absorption of Bombardier’s light rail manufacturing into an even larger and interconnected multinational rail car designer and manufacturer.
And now we all see what the airport has become since it has reverted to local control. A beautiful terminal in the Great Lodge tradition, a runway so long and wide that it was declared an alternate emergency landing spot for the Space Shuttle and an opportunity to allow us to piggyback on a growing network of places to fly, thanks to our stature as Montreal’s U.S. airport, has created a jewel in our transportation crown.
But, as a huge aviation enthusiast myself, I find our most fascinating role as a test site for the next generation of personal vehicles — a flying car. The Terrafugia Transition Street-Legal Airplane production prototype is using Plattsburgh International Airport to test a vehicle that they hope can someday be stored in our garage, used for commuting, then driven to the airport, where wings will fold out and fly us to destinations in half the time that cars allow.
Who knows what the next transportation innovation in our region will be. Given our history, and the ability of entrepreneurs to surprise us, I’m sure there will be others for which we can take great pride and joy.
It’s fair to say that, given our transportation innovation legacy, the world is at our doorstep.
Dr. Colin Read is a professor of economics and finance at SUNY Plattsburgh’s School of Business & Economics. You can read his weekly blogs on the economy at www.everybodysbusiness.online.