From Pig Paths To State Roads

Few inventions changed the face of America as much as the automobile. As Henry Ford and other auto magnates were striving to make the automobile affordable to the middle class, state highway commissions were trying to keep up with the growing.

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Demand for good roads. In the rugged mountain areas of Western North Carolina the need for such roads was dire and the construction of them a major engineering task.

To get an idea of how bad the roads were at the beginning of the decade, a newspaper story from 1910 described the new travel record for an auto trip from Charlotte to Blowing Rock. The trip took a mere five hours and ten minutes.

In 1911 the Blowing Rock Turnpike began construction. It would effectively connect the High Country with Lenoir and its prosperous network of farmers' markets and railroad depots. The Blowing Rock Turnpike not only served cars but horsedrawn wagons and could be used, free of charge, for Watauga County residents bringing their goods to market. Other turnpike users paid 60 cents for a three-horse wagon or 75 cents for an automobile-generally considered to be a good bit of money in those days!

The work was undertaken by 50 to 70 convicts and other, paid, laborers. When it was complete it became a self-sustaining road by charging a toll to users. In 1921 the State Highway Commission abolished all toll gates in North Carolina.

One of the prime movers and shakers in the push to provide western North Carolina with good roads was Governor Locke Craig. Craig was a native of Asheville and knew of the road problem in this end of the state from first hand experience. When he became governor in 1913 one of his first acts was to designate two days in November of that year as "Good Road Days". These two days were legal holidays on which every able-bodied citizen of the Old North State was urged to put on some work clothes and work on the Highways where they lived.

The General Assembly of North Carolina stepped in that same year and passed several laws enabling local townships to sell bonds to help build roads. The University of North Carolina began holding annual good roads institutes in 1914. The institute emerged as a statewide "town meeting" of sorts where representatives of various regions debated on everything from toll booths to whether chain gangs should be used to build roads.

The big breakthrough in highway funding came in 1916 when U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a plan where the federal government would come up with matching funds for states involved with highway construction.

Although travelers in the 1910s had to tolerate awful roads, they still had the advantage of a healthy railroad system. The narrow gauge line known as "Tweetsie" served western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the Clinchfield Railroad ran from Johnson City to Marion, and Norfolk & Western line ran from Ashe County to Abingdon, Virginia.

The expansion of road construction and the tremendous popularity of the private automobile hastened the death of the passenger railroad system in western North Carolina. In the coming decades the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a number of state maintained roads would connect the so-called "Lost Provinces" of our region with the rest of the state and the world. And you can now drive to Charlotte from Blowing Rock in a little over an hour.

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