Taconic Parkway: New York’s diner drive
All text and photographs copyright © 2004 – 2009 by Glenn Wells
Diners of the Taconic Parkway
Before there were Interstate highways, New York had its parkways. These car-only, limited access roadways were geared more toward a pleasant Sunday drive than to getting someplace in a hurry. Most of the parkways snake through the metropolitan New York City area and Long Island, but one – the Taconic State Parkway – follows the eastern Hudson Valley northward almost to Albany. The Taconic offers a different driving experience from the busy, truck-clogged Thruway west of the river. Today’s traveler can take in scenic vistas and see stone overpasses and retaining walls as attractive today as when the highway was new, all while traveling over pavement that, unfortunately, has seen better days. The Taconic Parkway also connects a series of state parks, begun as Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the 1930s, featuring stone buildings and broad lawns evocative of a more stylish era. South to north, the traveler will encounter Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park, Fahnestock Memorial State Park, James Baird State Park, and Lake Taghkanic State Park.
The Taconic Parkway also offers a diner history lesson, but this lesson is an especially tasty one because most of the diners are still open, still in original condition, and serve good food. Our story begins, not on the Parkway itself, but eight miles to the west in the village of Red Hook. And, like all good stories, this one has a main character, an entrepreneur named Bert Coons.
At the start of the 1950s, the Taconic Parkway reached only as far as Route 199. Travelers wanting to proceed further north needed to detour onto US Route 9, bringing them through Red Hook. Bert Coons, who previously ran gasoline stations in the area, bought the Halfway Diner in Rhinebeck (a year old Silk City diner that had ceased operating) and moved it to North Broadway in Red Hook. Since traffic exiting the Parkway and continuing further north on Route 9 went directly past the diner, business was good. The diner was later acquired by Samuel and Arleen Harkins and is today known as the Historic Village Diner. This diner was the first one in New York to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Harkinses even placed their own historic plaque at curbside to call attention to that fact. However, the plaque erroneously states that the diner dates to 1927, whereas the Silk City tag over the doorway bears the serial number 5113 – the 13th diner built in 1951.
By 1954, the next section of the Taconic Parkway was complete, and the Parkway now ended at Route 82 in Ancram. Bert Coons was again ready to serve hungry travelers with another diner located at the Parkway’s end. The West Taghkanic Diner is a large Mountain View diner, serial number 399, and for diner enthusiasts this one is as good as it gets. The diner is still located in its original location, was never bricked over or had a mansard roof added, and is still operating as a diner serving food to hungry travelers – exactly as it did half a century ago. The diner is in excellent original condition inside and out, and features an especially noteworthy Indian head sign outlined in working neon.
Coons’s next diner was the Chief Martindale Diner, Silk City diner number 5807, located at the end of the next section of the Parkway to be completed, on Route 23. As with the West Taghkanic, this diner is in outstanding original condition, and has bold red “DINER” letters on the roof aimed toward the Parkway. This diner ranks below the West Taghkanic in only two respects: the parking lot is unpaved, and the roadside sign, which looks like it was originally a copy of the West Taghkanic’s sign, has missing neon and chipping paint.
The next diner Coons opened was originally located not on the Parkway, but on the other side of the Hudson River in Catskill, opening in 1962. A mere five years later, however, this Fodero diner was moved to its current location on Rigor Hill Road adjacent to the Parkway. This diner is highly visible, especially for northbound travelers, and offers easy off – easy on access with a gasoline station across the street. This diner represents the new directions in which diner styling was moving in the 1960s – the earlier stainless steel look of the West Taghkanic and Chief Martindale diners was now out of vogue, and new styles such as Space Age and Colonial were taking over. This diner, now known as O’s Eatery, offers a little of each – the cantilever counter stools and booths have a clean, modern look, but they are paired with Western-style wagon wheel light fixtures overhead.
By 1964, the Parkway was completed as far as the Berkshire Spur of the New York Thruway, where ultimately the Taconic Parkway would end. The last exit before the Thruway was Route 295 in Chatham, where Coons would open one more diner, another Fodero. Coons remained in the diner business until 1970, died two years later, and his family eventually sold the diners. The Route 295 diner went to Barney LaPlante, who moved it to Route 20 in New Lebanon and operated it as the Indian Head Diner. In 1992, LaPlante sold the business to Jimmy Dilis, who undertook an unfortunate remodeling of the diner, renaming it Jimmy D’s Pizza Royale. The other four diners remain in the same place Bert Coons left them, and are among the best preserved vintage diners you will find anywhere.
(Portions of the above account are based on information appearing in Roadside Online on 12/29/2001.)