Historic Road in WV Vital to Frontier, Civil War Strategy

Wed November 30, 2005 - Northeast Edition

BEVERLY, WV (AP) From frontier days through the Civil War, a road built 160 years ago to link Virginia’s upper Shenandoah Valley with its western boundary on the Ohio River played a key role in moving people and property over the Appalachian Mountains.

And now West Virginia’s section of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike has become one of 45 new National Scenic Byways designated on Sept. 22 by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

The route follows U.S. 250 from the Virginia border, across Cheat Mountain to Huttonsville, where U.S. 219 follows the old turnpike north to Elkins. Westward from Elkins, U.S. 33 runs into Lewis County, where it becomes state Route 47 through the farm country and foothills leading to Parkersburg.

Claudius Crozet, Virginia’s chief engineer, who had served as an engineer for Napoleon, laid out the route, said Ruth Brinker, director of the Staunton-Parkersburg Scenic Byway Alliance.

“He had the near-impossible job of finding a route through the mountains with a grade that never exceeded 4 percent, but he did it and much of the route is still being used today,” she said.

The original route largely followed Indian trails, using contour-hugging curves and switchbacks to keep the turnpike’s gradient below the required 4 percent so it could be used by oxen-powered freight rigs.

Construction began in 1838 and continued until 1848, when the last bridges were complete. Early travelers were charged 25 cents per wagon, team and driver to use the toll road.

In addition to playing a key role in the settlement and development of industry in western Virginia, the turnpike became a strategic prize during the Civil War.

“Control of the road was vital during the Civil War, since it was one of a very few roads in what is now West Virginia that could accommodate freight wagon traffic,” said Brinker, a retired archaeologist of the Monongahela National Forest.

Gen. George McClellan became the Union’s first battlefield hero when troops under his command wrested control of the road from a much smaller Confederate force at the summit of Rich Mountain in Randolph County, in one of the earliest battles of the Civil War on July 11, 1861.

Today, the Rich Mountain Backway, a side loop extending off the turnpike’s National Scenic Byway route, takes visitors to the site of the battle, where the foundations of a farmhouse and stable that sheltered troops can be seen. Carvings made by veterans of the battle also remain in a field of boulders.

A few miles farther is the site of Fort Garnett, where 1,300 Confederate soldiers were stationed. The fort was named after its garrison’s commander, Gen. Robert S. Garnett, who was shot and killed two days later while crossing Shavers Fork at Parsons, becoming the first Civil War general to be killed in action.

Also along the byway is the Pocahontas County town of Bartow, where Robert E. Lee staged a failed attempt in August 1861 to rout a Union force blockading the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike atop Cheat Mountain, 10 mi. to the west. The remnants of that fort can be seen on a 4-mi. side trip off the byway at Cheat Bridge.

Union troops clashed two months later with a Confederate force entrenched in a pasture behind Travelers Repose, the first stagecoach stop west of the Alleghenies, which is a family home today. In that action, known as the Battle of Greenbrier River, the attacking federals fell back in the face of dug-in rebel gunners.

Nine-mile Camp Allegheny Backway follows the original turnpike from Travelers Repose to the 4,400-ft. summit of Buffalo Mountain and the site of Camp Allegheny. Foundation stones, fireplace hearths, and the remnants of trench lines and artillery parapets can still be seen at the site of the highest encampment in the Civil War’s eastern theater.

On Dec. 13, 1861, a force of 1,900 Union soldiers attacked the Confederate garrison in a poorly coordinated assault the outnumbered Southern troops managed to quell. After a severe winter made more difficult by disease outbreaks and spotty supply deliveries, the Confederates abandoned the position in April 1862.

The Department of Highways will install National Scenic Byway signs along the route. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s America’s Byways program will promote vacations along the route and has made driving itineraries, photos, maps, and points of interest along the route available on its Web site, www.byways.org.

The 1900-vintage Bank of Beverly building is being rehabilitated to serve as a Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike visitor center.

The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike is the state’s sixth National Scenic Byway. Other routes that have received the federal designation are the Historic National Road, which follows U.S. 40 through the Northern Panhandle and Wheeling; the Coal Heritage Trail through the state’s southern coalfields; the Midland Trail, which follows U.S. 60 from White Sulphur Springs to Huntington; the Highland Scenic Highway through the Monongahela National Forest; and the Washington Heritage Trail in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.