Parkway Traces American Indian Path

Mon June 06, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Maybelle G. Cagle

Four engineers and contractors who helped complete the final segments of the Natchez Trace Parkway were recognized at a ceremony marking the end of construction after 67 years.

The historic parkway stretches 444 mi. from Nashville, TN, to Natchez, MS. Over the years, war halted construction of the parkway, because funding was diverted from construction jobs and toward defense.

It runs through three states with Mississippi having the most miles, 309. There are 102 mi. of the parkway running through Tennessee and 33 mi. of the parkway in Alabama.

An estimated cost of construction for the Trace runs between $400 million to $500 million. An exact cost is not available because early records are sketchy.

Engineers and contractors recognized at the Natchez ceremony were Hill Brothers Construction in Faulkner, MS; T.L. Wallace in Columbia, MS; Wilbur Smith Associates, an engineering firm with 50 U.S. offices; and Neel-Schaffer Inc., a Jackson, MS, engineering firm, one of the largest privately-held engineering firms in the southeast.

“They were the contractors on the last parkway construction projects [in the Clinton and Natchez areas]. They are representative of all the contractors who worked so hard to complete construction of the parkway,” said Jerry Pendleton, a spokesman of the National Park Service.

The date for the ceremonies (May 21) was significant. It was on that date in 1934 that Congress approved an act to have the Old Natchez Trace surveyed and a commemorative parkway planned.

“Construction began in 1937 on a 12.5-mile segment of the parkway from milepost 102 to milepost 114.5 in Madison County,” Pendleton said.

Several events celebrated the parkway’s completion.

They included the opening of the Clinton Visitors Center, near a Trace exit into the city; the opening of the Jackson-area parkway segment just off Pinehaven Road in Clinton and a second ceremony in Natchez at the southern terminus.

Danny McAlister, marketing director of Hill Brothers, said the partnership between the two federal agencies, Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division and the National Park Service, in conjunction with the design/build team, Hill Brothers Construction & Engineering Co. and Wilbur Smith Associates, was vital to the project’s success.

“One of the main objectives was to construct a safe and environmentally-sensitive parkway project that satisfied the needs of all parties. Accomplishing this objective required close and continuous coordination with all parties throughout the life of the project,” said McAlister.

McAlister said the partnership with Wilbur Smith created “a lasting relationship.” Hill Brothers is currently working on a design-build project in Shreveport, LA, with the engineering firm.

“We were responsible for the roadway and the bridges on the last eight miles of the project,” said Michael McGuire, regional vice president of Wilbur Smith and engineer of record of the project. “It was very unique, because of the aesthetics required for the project. The aesthetics were challenging.”

A hint of color was used in some areas to make the roadwork more pleasing to the eye. “We used black pigment mixed in with concrete [on the ditches],” he said.

According to McGuire, making the bridges look similar was another challenge.

Will Noffke, a vice president of T.L. Wallace, said over the years his company worked on “lots of projects” related to the parkway.

“They were nice size projects. We could take pride in them, because of the aesthetics. We had to take a little more time with them and they were a little more costly to build,” he added.

His company’s recent Trace projects included construction of six bridges on the parkway and dirt work for another Trace project in the Clinton area.

Noffke said T.L. Wallace worked with Neel-Schaffer on some of the projects.

Mark Bailey, vice president and manager of transportation engineering of Neel-Schaffer said his firm designed several projects along the Trace. One was a connector road bridge that connected a roadway in Madison County.

“It was different, because it was the first design-build we had been involved in with a public project,” he said.

Bob Felker, who is employed by the National Park Service (NPS), oversaw construction of the parkway for the past 23 years. He has been with the NPS approximately 35 years and serves as liaison between it and the Highway Administration.

“The biggest challenge was to blend the new construction into the natural landscape,” said Felker, a landscape architect. “It doesn’t look like any other road. It has 11-foot lanes and six foot grass shoulders.

“We’ve learned over the years how to transition from the wood line and undisturbed areas up to the road area,” said Felker. “Where the cuts and fills blends together is a real critical point” in construction.

“If you notice along the parkway, the tree line meanders back and forth. It adds visual interest,” said Felker.

Although the Natchez Trace Parkway spans 444 mi., it isn’t the longest parkway in the nation. The Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina, is 25 mi. longer.

Felker said all of the construction projects on the Trace have been unique. “All have had their high points and their low points. I have been real pleased with all of them,” he added.

At the southern terminus, “We four-laned Liberty Road [where the parkway terminates in Natchez] and put in some nice street lights. We did some landscaping that worked well,” he added. “We normally don’t do a lot of plantings. But, we used quite a few trees for screening the parkway from local residences and local residences from the parkway.”

According to Felker, there will always be something to replace on the Trace, although construction is completed. Currently, McGhee Construction, of Sneads Ferry, NC, is replacing a bridge north of Jackson at Old Canton Road.

Felker said the road needed to be five lanes and the affected municipalities, Madison and Ridgeland, got funds to widen the road.

As a result, the bridge had to be removed to provide five lanes. Two lanes will be going and two coming. The fifth lane will be a turning lane.

“The schedule calls for completion by the end of the calendar year,” added Felker. CEG