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I-40 rockslide uncovers old debates on highway

The Asheville Citizen-Times continues to do a great job covering all the angles of the Interstate 40 Haywood County rock slide.

An article in Sunday's edition provides a strong historical perspective on how the Pigeon River routing of Interstate 40 came about. And perhaps most strikingly, in an article that ran just prior to the highway's opening in the fall of 1968, how engineers from both Tennessee and North Carolina warned "...that slides would probably be a major problem along the route for many years."

On February 12, 1969, not long after the Interstate opened, the first rock slide that would close I-40 occurred.

Like many other Interstates within North Carolina, Interstate 40 through the mountains has a history prior to formation of the Interstate Highway System and was also a heated political battle between local communities.

The discussion for a road that would eventually become Interstate 40 dates back to the 1940's as the idea for interregional highways were being promoted within and outside of North Carolina. North Carolina completed two studies in the 1940's - a 1945 study looked at a French Broad route into Tennessee and a 1948 study looked at a Pigeon River route.

The early 1950's was when the debate between the two routes really heated up. Haywood County leaders publicly argued that a 1921 NC provision that called for the building of roads between county seats including roads that connected to county seats in other states. Haywood officials wanted their road contending that "Madison [County] has had three roads to Tennessee built under this act."

They also mentioned that the right-of-way for the US 25/70 “interregional highway or Super Highway” was too narrow.

The die was cast in June 1952 when NC Governor H. Kerr Scott allocated $1 million towards the Pigeon River road. It also seemed that the state of Tennessee preferred the Pigeon River Route.

When the Interstate Highway System was created in 1956, I-40 would be routed along the Pigeon River route.

It would take over ten years to complete Interstate 40 through Haywood County.

Besides the concerns from engineers about possible slides prior to the highway's opening, there is another aspect to the highway that I learned from this article. The travel lanes for Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge today are slightly different than they were when the highway opened in 1968.

Beginning in the late 1970s through 1985, and due to the safety concerns from frequent slides, the travel lanes of Interstate 40 were shifted towards the Pigeon River. What happened were the eastbound lanes were shifted over to what were then the westbound lanes. The westbound lanes were then constructed closer to the Pigeon River. From there, the slopes were stabilized as much as possible by clearing rocks, isolated blasting, rock bolts and mesh, along with barrier walls.

Ironically, that same year a rock slide at mile marker 4 closed the highway for nearly nine months.

Since then more repairs and safety upgrades have been made in between the next slide, and the same will be done once I-40 re-opens. The geography of the area makes the perfect fix next to impossible. The ultimate solution would cost millions, possibly billions, of dollars to complete and would certainly face numerous financial let alone environmental hurdles.

Most engineers today admit that if with modern technology and standards, Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge wouldn't even be built.

“I would say today, if we had no road through Haywood, with the advances in geotechnology, we would never try to build an interstate-type road down there, unless there was just no place else to put it,” retired NCDOT engineer Stan Hyatt said. “It's just an area that's full of nothing but fractured rock waiting to fall off.”

Comments

J-Dawg's Realm said…
Do you have any pictures or anything showing where they planned to put (what is now) I-40 before they put it along Pigeon River? Driving that stretch of highway, I have to give them the credit that is due -- putting a highway thru there like they did when they did is a feat! Until the slide, I have been thru there no less than 2-3 dozen times,and I am astounded each and every time at how they were able to build such a highway not only on unstable ground and make it as stable as they do with the amount of truck traffic that travels through there.

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