McKownville Improvement Association
- The Great Western Turnpike, and McKownville

The Great Western Turnpike was the ancestor of US Route 20, now Western Avenue in McKownville and the adjacent City of Albany. William (Billy) McKown's canny anticipation of the building of this road to Cherry Valley, most likely based on insider information, is the origin of McKownville. He sold the right-of-way through his land to the Turnpike Company for 6 cents, with the restriction that the road must be built on the surveyed line. McKown's large hostelry and tavern was constructed right next to this line, ready for the opening in 1800 of this eastern section of the Turnpike. This establishment provided refreshment and accommodation to travellers, and their horses, and to droves of cattle and other livestock, for which McKown built extensive stockades and barns near the hotel on both sides of the road, and a water system using pine log pipes. A newspaper article from 1928 contains a section that gives a good description of this early 19th century enterprise, and its connection to livestock markets in Boston and New York City (and reveals that the hamlet then had a different name). McKown's hostelry, like some others along the Turnpike, also served as an informal post office, and became the location of the McKownville Post Office from its formal establishment in 1862 until it was closed in 1905.
tollgate 2 Gt
      Western Turnpike
Tollgate No. 2 on the Turnpike, 1890's; its location was in present-day Westmere
(image from Guilderland Historical Society files)

This road was a privately funded, shareholding venture, with tolls charged at numerous gates along the way. After the Erie Canal opened in 1826, and even more after the railroads started to grow, after about 1840, the turnpike failed to compete with them for long-distance transport of people and farm products. It may never have been particularly profitable, even before the competition arose. In 1849 the section between the start of Western Avenue in the City of Albany and the hamlet of Guilderland 8 miles west, passing through McKownville (1851 map), was improved with new investment by turning the south half into a plank road, and the renaming of it to the Great Western Plank Road. As it in turn became an unprofitable business, maintenance was inadequate and eventually abandoned. Travelling on the road in the later 19th century was an unenjoyable experience. Local government took over the road in 1906, and some maintenance was then provided. It became part of the national road network as US Route 20 in 1925.

A local newspaper (that titled itself "The Turnpike Record") published in 1956 a summary of the history of the Turnpike and Plank Road written by W.H Mohr, and an extended series of articles by A.H. Gregg [text transcript pdf; scan images pdf] on the history of the Great Western Turnpike was published in 1957.  Gregg included two of Henry Schoolcraft's tales of the wolves that could still occasionally be encountered in the earliest 1800's when travelling through the pine forest on the road west of McKown's hotel. The map of 1854 below shows "Wolf Hills" about half a mile south of the Turnpike along what is now Johnston Road.

Tollgate No 1, Great Western Turnpike
Tollgate No. 1 on the Turnpike; view to the west of the rutted snow on the Western Turnpike, 1890's
(original image source not identified; posted in

The Turnpike has another link to McKownville; the last toll collector for Gate No. 1 was a local resident, William J. Knowles (1833-1912). Tollgate No. 1 was first situated near McKownville (at the location of the present Homestead Avenue intersection), but was replaced in 1849 by the one shown in this photo, located at Winthrop Avenue, west of the intersection of Madison and Western Avenues in Albany.

William Knowles lived on a farm that he sold to the Albany Country Club in 1894, and then moved in 1895 to a house still standing at the eastern corner of Knowles Terrace, 1261 Western Avenue. There's a photo of him and his family at that house taken in 1898. He might have been the first commuter living in McKownville, 2 miles walking or by horse each way to and from this tollgate.

His son, also William J. Knowles (1894-1948), purchased McKown Grove in 1926 and ran that business until his death in 1948, struck by a car on Western Avenue (clip from Altamont Enterprise 26 November 1948) .
      from Altamont Enterprise 1948-11-26
clip from
      Altamont Enterprise 1914-08-14He had an earlier involuntary encounter with a car on Western Avenue in 1914, riding a motorcycle at the age of 19, getting a broken leg from that incident (clip from McKownville news in the Altamont Enterprise 14 Aug 1914).

      Enterprise clip 1895-04-05
Not that the Great Western Turnpike before the coming of cars was a safe place, either; this clip from the Altamont Enterprise of 5 April 1895 records a lucky escape for William Witbeck's second son Arthur, age 8, walking the few hundred yards from the schoolhouse to McKown's Hotel, which his father had been leasing since 1884.

In 1897 the city of Albany had prevented the Turnpike from blocking traffic using city side streets and bypassing the collection at tollgate No 1.
The eastern 9 miles of the Western Turnpike passed in 1906 into the ownership of the United Traction Company, and collection of tolls ceased [an interesting detailed history of these events]. The two miles of the northern 66 foot width of the former Turnpike in the city of Albany was given to the city, and soon paved; the same width of the remaining 7 miles in Guilderland was given to Albany County. The southern one-third of the width of the Turnpike was reserved for a trolley (tram) line. This was only built as far as the present City of Albany-Guilderland boundary, and as just a single track, with service to this point started in 1911. The UTC operated these trolleys to the city boundary on Western Avenue only until 1925; after that a bus service was substituted, including hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles for a short time.
photo of
      trolley at County Club stop, Western AvenueWestern
      Avenue trolley near Manning 1920'sUnited Traction Company trolley (left) at Country Club stop, the end of the Western Avenue line at the City of Albany-McKownville/Guilderland boundary, 1920-25. (image from Guilderland Historical Society files)

(right) on Western Avenue near the Manning Boulevard intersection, view to the west, also 1920
(original image source not identified; posted in

4-axle UTC bus
      1930's Western Ave routeACF bus for
      Western Avenue route April 1929
(left) Versare gas-electric hybrid 4-axle bus used by United Traction Co on Western Avenue route from 1926 (this monster had a top speed of 30mph!)
(original image source not identified; posted in

(right) ACF Metropolitan bus tested for Western Avenue route; clip from Albany Evening News 26 April 1929
(posted in

  later history of Western Avenue and Route 20 in McKownville, from 1925

Randell map 1805 GW Turnpike
section of map of John Randel 1805 showing McKown's T(avern) next to the route of the Great Western Turnpike Road
Used with permission of the Albany Institute of History and Art

1842 map
      tollgate 1
section of 1842 map by J. Bradt showing position of the original Tollgate No. 1 near the Albany City line just east of McKownville

area of
      McKownville on 1851 Sidney map

area of McKownville on the 1851 Sidney map, showing McKown's hotel on the south side of the Great Western Turnpike at the Crum (now Krum) Kill stream. John McKown (William's eldest son and heir) is the individual referenced on this map as the hotel owner. The brewery marked at the Guilderland-Albany line was Amsdell's. Tollgate No. 1 had been removed in 1849.

part of Gould map of 1854 - Great Western Turnpike

Part of the Gould map of 1854 showing the section of the Great Western Turnpike from the present Johnston Road intersection to the hamlet of Guilderland (then called Hamiltonville) at the present Foundry Road/Willow Street crossing.
Wolf Hills are marked along the present Johnston Road, and Toll Gate No. 2 a short way east of the crossroads that is now the Route 151 intersection.
The JA McKown marked on both sides of the road farther west was James A McKown, a nephew of William (Billy) McKown. The cemetery nearby is the Prospect Hill Cemetery.

The first paving of Western Avenue into McKownville was described, among much other evidence of corruption in Albany, in an article titled "Mr. Barnes of Albany", published in Colliers Magazine in 1912. The pertinent part reads:
"There is a brick street pavement, built at the expense of the taxpayers of Albany, from the heart of the city out to the country club and to Barnes’s country bungalow. Two hundred and twenty-five feet of this pavement extends beyond city limits. For two miles, on the north side of this paved avenue, there are seven dwelling houses, and on the south side there are fourteen dwelling houses and an ice house. Forty thousand dollars of bonds were authorized by the city council for this Boulevard de Triomphe, dedicated to the convenience of Barnes and his friends. The boulevard might have been paved with some other substance but for the fact that one of Barnes’s henchmen is a stockholder in a brick plant, and Barnes, being a Harvard graduate and a classical scholar, follows the Roman custom of dividing the small spoils among his camp followers……..
The State law required a petition for an improvement of the kind this brick pavement was, to be signed by persons owning not less than one-third of the number of feet on both sides of the road. It was useless to try to get the consent of these property owners; so the bonds were voted by the city council without them. These bonds were bought at public sale by the National Copper Bank of New York City. The attorneys of the bank discovered the flaw, and the bank refused to take the bonds.
Thereupon, the City Comptroller, contrary to law privately sold part of these and other like bonds to the Albany Police Pension Fund, of which fund he was the treasurer; and what was left he sold to Charles H. Gaus, the State Comptroller, who was Barnes’s Mayor of Albany at the time the bonds were voted, for the State Canal Debt Sinking Fund."

from C.P. Connelly, 1912. Mr. Barnes of Albany. Colliers Magazine, v. 49, no. 26, issue dated 1912-09-14, pages 10-11; 32, and 35. [pdf file]

later history of Western Avenue and Route 20 in McKownville, from 1925
return to McKown's Hotel page
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