Halloween is the time of year when you can dress however you want and talk about the occult without people questioning your sanity. This is a good time, therefore, to bring up the Psychic Highway.
As an avid reader, I always read a book related to the occult or monsters, a horror novel, or something related in October. This year, I’m reading “Occult America” by Mitch Horowitz. I came across a chapter titled “The Psychic Highway” that might change your perspective of U.S. Route 20.
A 3,365-mile stretch of highway connecting both coasts in the northern section of the country, US 20 is the longest road in the nation. Clearly the highway is essential for the movement of freight, but in the 18th and 19th century, the route (before it was a highway) was essential for the movement of ideas – more specifically, spreading the word of mystical religions.
In the early 19th century, western and central New York was known as the “burned-over district.” Coined by Charles Grandison Finney in his 1876 autobiography, the term refers to an area during the Second Great Awakening that was so evangelized as to have no “fuel” (unconverted population) left over to “burn” (convert).
The Second Great Awakening was a sweeping religious movement that enrolled millions of converts. It used the power of mysticism and the supernatural to appeal to unconverted parties. During this time, western and central New York was virtually untouched in terms of religious clergy. With no professional clergy to guide a population, the area was ripe for the picking regarding spreading new and progressive ideas.
The Erie Canal connected the eastern and western ends of New York state, allowing migrants with mystical and spiritual religions to access the untapped land of unguided believers. In fact, historian Whitney Cross used the term “psychic highway” to describe the Erie Canal. After all, it spread the ideas of “psychic” mysticisms to the region.
Historian Carl Carmer may have been the first to coin the term “psychic highway” in his book Listen for a Lonesome Drum.
"Across the entire breadth of York State, undeviating, a hilly strip scarcely twenty-five miles wide invites the world's wonder. It is a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult whose great stations number the mystic seven."
Among the many mystical and spiritual ideas of the 19th century, the most famous came from a man named Joseph Smith who came up with Mormonism. Maybe you have heard of it. His family moved to the burned-over district during the Second Great Awakening. Using the expanded Psychic Highway, Smith moved his commune to Ohio and Missouri.
Other mystical and spiritual leaders would also use what is essentially modern-day U.S. Route 20 and other routes to spread their word. Before modern technology like radio, television and even the telegraph, the movement of ideas and beliefs had to be done by word of mouth. The Erie Canal and a trail that would later become U.S. 20 were essential in growing the mysticism and spiritual boom that came from New York.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out Mitch Horowitz’s “Occult America” and “The Psychic Highway: New York’s ‘Burned-Over District’ and the Growth of Alternative Spirituality in America.”