By Stephen Smoot
The State of West Virginia has a ranking of 38th in the nation in terms of total road mileage with 80,167 with that number slated to expand over the next year and a half as another segment of Appalachian Corridor H nears completion. For over a century, the Division of Highways and its predecessor organizations have faced challenges presented by terrain, weather, economic dynamics, and more to keep state communities connected and enable commerce to flow within and without.
Senate Bill 84 from the 1913 session of the West Virginia State Legislature laid out the creation of the first executive branch agency to oversee roads. According to Otis Rice’s work on the history of West Virginia, many of the state’s core roads started as animal pathways. American Indian hunting parties used the established trails to track down and kill game, then return it to their home villages. British and other European settlers simply followed trails laid down before their arrival, sometimes even improving them in the process.
By the early 1800s, the Commonwealth of Virginia had several “turnpikes” extending across what would become the Mountain State. Chief Justice John Marshall even took part in survey work along the James River and Kanawha Turnpike near modern Hawks Nest. Northwestern Turnpike, first proposed by George Washington to connect the eastern regions of Virginia to the Ohio River, bisected the state.
This road helped to establish Harrison County as an important center of commerce in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Railroads emerged as the primary transit carrier of the early Industrial Revolution for both passengers and freight. They helped to knit the nation together as they carried news, ideas, and production over thousands of miles.
The emergence of the gasoline powered automobile forced a shift, however. Automobiles powered by gasoline give their owners freedom of movement on a scale unknown before. By 1913, their use in West Virginia grew to the point that the Legislature created a “state road bureau, providing instruction in road building, for the preparation of road materials, for assistance to county road authorities, and for use of prison labor on the public roads.”
The bureau was composed of four officials, “the professor in charge of the railway and highway department of the state university, for the time being, who shall be chief engineer and chairman of the road bureau, the director of the experimental station at the state university,” and two other state citizens qualified to vote.
Use of automobiles continued to expand substantially, especially after Henry Ford’s assembly line system helped to make car ownership affordable for many more people. In 1917, the Legislature replaced the State Road Bureau with a State Road Commission.
The commission moved beyond the traditional local solutions for road construction and maintenance, “to provide a complete system of laws governing the construction and maintenance of public roads and ways, the traffic thereon, to classify such roads and provide for a connecting system of highways throughout the State, to provide for the cooperation of the State and Federal Governments in raising and expending such revenues.”
After World War I, however, state roads remained mostly a network of dirt roads clinging to hillsides. Even though Mordecai Levi led the world in creating brick roadways (Summers Street in Charleston), the time and money needed to construct them often left them mostly used in cities.
Through 1919, the West Virginia Good Roads Federation criss-crossed the state to generate support for a “Good Roads Amendment.” Their slogan “help pull West Virginia out of the mud” convinced voters to pass the measure. It raised $85 million in bonds to connect all of the state’s county seats and allowed for imposition of gasoline taxes to pay them off.
Voters approved Good Roads Amendments in both 1920 and 1928. The year after the second amendment passed, the state connected all county seats with at least one paved highway. The years 1921 to 1933 saw $128 million spent on roads.
In 1921, the Legislature also created the State Road System.that established a two-tier system of state highways and county district roads. Also, Congress directed states to set aside seven percent of their connected road system for federal aid. Three-sevenths could receive designation as “primary” highways while the rest would be secondary roads. The state system had established four core roads, designated state routes one through four.
By 1925, the federal government established the numbered US route system. West Virginia state highway 1 became US Route 50. Two of the rest became US 60 and US 19 while West Virginia 2 in the Ohio Valley retained its designation.
World War II demonstrated the utility of four laned, divided, limited access highways. General Dwight D. Eisenhower studied closely Germany’s use of the autobahn. The expanded interstate network established by law in 1944 became the Interstate Highway System with a new set of numbered highways in 1956. Construction of these highways made some routes, such as US 21 (paralleled by Interstate 77) redundant. US 21 became a county route. Other US routes disappeared altogether or went back into the state system.
The 1960s saw the Appalachian Corridor system established as part of the regional aid package championed by President John F. Kennedy. The program envisioned six corridor highways, all four laned, but with varying levels of access. Only H, planned to run between Weston and Strasburg, Virginia, remains uncompleted and is one of the longest running highway construction projects in the nation.
Expansion of the highway system into a modern network of roadways required the Legislature to once again address government organization. Under the administration of Governor Arch A. Moore Jr. the state created a Department of Highways. Moore and the State Legislature steered funding through a new set of road bonds. Approximately 10,000 employees worked to expand the system while maintaining the roads in place during the decade.
In 1989, the Department was recategorized as a division under the newly created Department of Transportation.