Tonawanda News

April 25, 2014

ADAMCZYK: Sheridan Drive, tell me everything

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — It’s a street in Tonawanda, a major one, Sheridan Drive, and the more I examine it, drive down it, study its history, the more I want to know, so if you have any idea what went on, on Sheridan Drive, ever, tell me because I want to know.

OK, that’s enough begging.

Sheridan Drive was designed as an east-west road across northern Erie County. It opened in 1925 to derision over its cost and lack of perceived need by anyone but farmers (and it was farmland it traversed, back then). It was years later that it turned into the spine of the fast-growing Town of Tonawanda.

The familiar monument to it, at Delaware Avenue, explains little: the name, the date and the identity of contemporary politicians. It is flat on top, that monument, leading to speculation it was meant as a pedestal for a sculpture, perhaps one of Army General Philip H. Sheridan, who had no connection to Western New York (a statue of Sheridan astride his horse was commissioned but erected in Albany, his claimed birthplace). Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda was actually named after Sheridan Road in Chicago, which also features a Sheridan-on-a-horse statue.

For some reason there are few buildings on this expanded-to-six-lanes road that are taller than two stories. Those taller (like the Dent Neurologic Institute) suggest the road could be lined with higher buildings, skyscrapers perhaps, and the street could theoretically be an urban canyon if Tonawanda required that many offices.

The western end of Sheridan Drive practically touches the Niagara River, so it likely was instrumental in illegal rum-running in the dark and ludicrous days of Prohibition. All that booze from Canada, arriving at spots along the river on the American side, then transported down a long, straight, flat and relatively unused road, parts of which went without lighting for years (and a photograph exists of Sheridan Drive with a sign on its grassy median, circa 1930, warning not to allow horses to graze there).

Long, straight, flat, deserted. Perfect for drag racing, and there spawned an illegal drag racing culture straight out of “American Graffiti.” In turn, it begat about two dozen mom-and-pop pop stands, burger and hot dog joints, with parking lots perfect for comparing cars, smoking cigarettes and what became known as “makeout sessions.” And who knows what else.

Tonawandans of a certain age love being prompted to recite the identities of those long-past establishments. Ted’s and Anderson’s remain, but Pat’s, Brinson’s, those that went before “and many others,” as it said at the bottom of marquees advertising rock and roll touring caravans (you could see eight or so musical acts, all bands from the radio, in a single show), make the list of memory.

By the 1980s it was turning into the commercial strip we know today. The Town of Tonawanda had long stopped behaving like a rural outpost; housing developments grew north and south of Sheridan and the road became the main drag of the northern suburbia.

I should add that western end became an industrial powerhouse after wires full of Niagara Falls’ electricity pumped through it, around 1910, and a power plant was built in 1916. Factories required workers who required trolleys and buses and roads to get to work.

Sheridan Park was built for workers and their families. So were surrounding World War II barracks for workers, and many of the structures remain. East of Military Road, Sheridan Drive becomes progressively more gentrified, if you can attach that term to a state highway (NY 324), and by the time it reaches its original terminus (Niagara Falls Boulevard) and passes into Clarence, still named Sheridan, you can practically hear its jewelry rattle.

Here is what I want to know about Sheridan Drive: everything. We have here a road that grew with its environment, and grew in importance as it nurtured its community, a historical case study. If you do anything in Tonawanda these days, you likely drive down Sheridan to do it.

Some men’s white whale is the pass they dropped on the high school football field, the road not taken, the thing that stands out in the mind as what that turned them into what they are, and believe me, you can spend a sleepless night pondering this sort of matter. Me, I’m haunted by a road, and it’s time to embark on researching it. If you know anything about Sheridan Drive that I don’t, tell me. Tell me all about it.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears weekly in the Record-Advertiser. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears weekly in the Record-Advertiser. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.