By Bob Blake
Recently, my wife and I took a marvelous trip winding through the twists and turns of the mountains near West Jefferson. We concluded with a brief excursion on the Blue Ridge Parkway. As I later learned, those convoluted turns and grades were not designed by near-sighted or intoxicated engineers. Rather…blame it on the buffaloes. Before the Native Americans tromped the paths, it is likely the buffaloes sought the quickest route to water and green grass. Settlers eventually added folk names to these “trails” that evolved as our roads.
Now construction crews carve mountains with electric knife efficiency using swarms of yellow bulldozers. The first builders, however, even lacked dynamite! They stuffed hollow reeds with black powder, ignited by a trail of smoldering leaves. They built fires under larger rocks and created cracks by quenching them with icy mountain water.
John Preston Arthur’s 1914 History of North Carolina Roads, recounts the 1789 construction of the mountainous Boone’s Trail to Tennessee. He describes one section as “more than one hundred miles, two thirds of which, was without a single human habitation!” The ole mountain boys were quick to discover commerce with shipments of stout North Carolina whiskey. A contract exists that states John Welch would deliver to the thirsty folks in Tennessee “2,667 gallons of good proof whiskey on or before the 14th of August 1814.” Figure a gallon weighs roughly 7 ½ pounds…that’s a heavy load for a wagon over bumpy roads.
North Carolina’s western isolation ended in 1828 with the completion of the Buncombe Turnpike between Maryville, TN and Asheville. The mountain economy received another boost with the completion of the Asheville & Greenville Plank Road to the south.
The construction of railroads, such as Tweetsie in the 1860s, played a lesser role in mountain development because of the severe landscape and high cost of laying the track.
Stagecoaches and wagons plied the high country routes with goods and passengers. The North Carolina legislature finagled financing by selling confiscated Cherokee land in several mountain counties. Prisoners (referred to in Arthur’s paper as “convicts”) performed much of the labor. Throughout the mid-19th century, the states and counties bore the responsibility for the roads.
The name “road” was a compliment to many of these ditched out paths. Despite the high wheels, automobiles were much less agile than horses.
In the 1890s, the federal government took notice and appointed General Roy Stone to cure the “disease of bad roads.” The advent of the Post Office RFD or Rural Free Delivery a few years later required improved roads and bridges. Use of tractors and light trucks soon followed. America slowly became motorized and church in the Model T became a pleasant reality.
The improvement of roads changed the way directions were given. It was no longer sufficient to say: “At the top of the hill turn right at the cemetery,” or “Go straight through town past the courthouse and turn left at the school.” In our next edition, we will attempt to make some sense of the evolution of highway routes and numbers.