A Hard Road Through The Mountains

Believe it or not, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper tourists wasn't always the norm in the High Country. Before the 1920's, the area was often called "The Lost Province" because of the lack of passable roads.

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With the explosion of the automobile industry, more people began to clamor for good roads. In the latter part of the 1800's, many roads were either built through local financing or through "involuntary volunteer" labor, in which men between the ages of 18 and 45 required to work four days a year in some areas.

Some places used toll roads to generate funds, much to the dismay of poor farmers who were transporting produce off the mountain for sale. In addition to a turnpike at Shulls Mills, and one between Blowing Rock and Lenoir allowed Watauga residents free passage.

The 1921 General Assembly finally established the state highway system, with a one-cent tax on gasoline to help pay for construction. Prominent High Country players in the political scramble to develop roads were Frank Linney, D.D. Dougherty, and Mary Martin Sloop. A $50 million road bond was approved, and even early on there was official recognition of needing to "rescue the hillbillies."

Frank Page, who was chair of the newly-formed State Highway Commission in 1924, wrote: "It does not have to be argued to them (mountain people) that roads have a civilizing influence, that through these means of communication the 'Lost Provinces' of the northwest, beyond their impenetrable mountains and two days' journey from the capital of their state, have been brought within seven hours of respectable speed...The whole state is knit together in this net of highways."

By the end of the decade, the state had assumed responsibility for secondary-road maintenance. Counties gave up their equipment to the state, and allowed use of convicts to supply labor. Many counties leased their convicts to other counties that used chain gang labor. The "Good Roads State" that was a dream in the 1910's became a reality in the 1920's, with state citizens voting for a total of $117 million worth of road bonds in the decade. Over 7,500 miles were built, more than half with hard surfaces such as asphalt, macadam, concrete, or gravel. During that period, only Texas had more surfaced roads than North Carolina.

Historian John Harden wrote, "Hardly any instrument of organized society is so vital to the people as the highway. It is the link between country and town, the route to the marketplace, the way of knowledge and education, the artery of commerce, the call of adventure, the measure of civilization." Remember those lofty words the next time you are sitting in traffic debating whether to clamp down on the car horn.

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