West Virginia clashes over new Corridor H highway near Blackwater Falls

DAVIS, W.Va. — West Virginia transportation officials plan to move quickly to extend a new bridge and freeway over the North Fork of the Blackwater River near this small Appalachian town, using part of money provided by the recent Congressional infrastructure bill.

State highway officials say completing another segment of Corridor H — a highway in all but name that stretches through begging — will deliver the economic development promised for nearly 60 years, as well that easier access for visitors heading to nearby state parks, ski trails and bike trails.

“That’s been our number one priority,” Jimmy Wriston, West Virginia’s transportation secretary, said earlier this year before a state legislative panel. “We will build this road.”

But a protest movement almost as old as the highway plan has resurfaced here, and in neighboring Thomas. Opponents fear the planned four-lane road and bridge will ruin mountaintop vistas around Blackwater Falls, part of an area the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd called a ‘jewel of the wilderness. and destroy the appeal of the cold country vibe and grass. roots tourism in their communities.

Over 2,200 people have signed an online petition opposing the current route and arguing for an alternative that would pass north of the two towns. A Tucker County Chamber of Commerce survey of its members, including nonprofits, found a majority of respondents favored the northern alternative, according to an email sent to members. .

If built according to state plans, opponents say, the road will turn the two separate cities, each of which has about 600 residents, into another off-ramp from America’s interstate congestion.

“The reasons people love to come and live here, why people have chosen to stay here for generations, and why people come to visit, is because of what this area offers: the rugged beauty and the sense of history and culture here,” Linda Reeves, owner of the Studio Gallery, told Thomas. “It’s just unfathomable. And it doesn’t have to be done that way.

Others fear the proposed bridge and highway will encroach on nearby Coketon, whose beehive-style coke ovens and other industrial ruins bear witness to how people, including many Italian immigrants, worked when West Virginia boasted vast lumber, coal, and railroad operations in the late 19th century. The area – part of the Blackwater Industrial Complex that stretches between Thomas and Hendricks – has qualified to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“So you might be looking at a big bridge up there with trucks and noise and lights and smells,” Judy Rodd, director of Friends of Blackwater, said during a recent visit to Coketon. “There will be no more peace in the valley.”

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Rodd, who has worked to preserve the natural landscape in and around Blackwater Falls since the 1990s, said the nonprofit was raising money to extend existing cycling and walking routes along the North Fork of the Blackwater River, past Douglas Falls and into the state of Blackwater. Park – just below the planned site of the bridge crossing.

She and other opponents complain that West Virginia Division of the Highway (DOH) officials have given little thought to preserving the environment and history. They say the massive freeway project is the kind of state and federal freeway project that sometimes divides neighborhoods and creates other harmful, unintended consequences that stretch far into the future.

“The DOH is still back in the 1960s with its Appalachian highway mentality, and we’ve all changed here,” said Nancy Luscombe, who lives in Davis and whose daughter owns a shop in town. “We are all in a different century.”

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But others are more than eager to complete a project that has been around since Congress authorized the creation of an Appalachian Development Highway system in 1965. Proponents say the highway will usher in high-paying jobs that have disappeared. with the mining and forestry industries.

“Corridor H is probably the only hope this town will ever have of ever being anything again,” said Dave Stevens, who recently opened the Music Center store in Parsons, an unlucky Valley town just west of ‘here. He said his hometown had yet to recover from a devastating flood in 1985, a situation made worse by the loss of coal mines, sawmills and factories.

The Corridor H controversy has rekindled discussions about how West Virginia has historically been exploited by powerful interests eager to turn its natural resources into money. It has also rekindled long-standing class divisions – between those who live or play in the mountain villages and their ski resorts, cycle paths and other attractions, and those who get by in the surrounding county or the valleys below.

“Most people I talk to are keenly interested in building the road,” said Alan Tomson, mayor of Davis and a retired U.S. Army colonel. “They’ve been anticipating its finished construction for decades, and they want to see it happen.”

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Tomson said he hopes the new road will bring national restaurant and hotel chains and big-box stores like Walmart closer than those currently 45 minutes away.

“We believe in competition and capitalism,” he said. Tomson said he studied the proposed route using a topographic map and disagreed that the route will be visible from Blackwater Falls viewpoints, and he doesn’t think the arch bridge that will cross North Fork will interfere with the ruins below or irreparably divide the two. towns.

“It’s a road. It’s not a wall being built,” Tomson said.

Davis and Thomas once buzzed with the kind of intensive industry – lumber in the former, coal in the latter – that helped make America a world power in the 20th century. But after the coal ran out and the trees felled — some have called Davis a “stump” over the years — towns declined.

It’s only in the past few decades that a new economy has developed around breweries, fine dining, gift shops, and expensive coffee that would fit Brooklyn. The Purple Fiddle, a concert hall this newspaper once described as “a magical oasis in a desert of nowhere,” is also a big draw.

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“We’ve created a wonderful little business niche here that didn’t take a highway to create itself. And I would like to see us keep that and retain the charming aesthetic of this small town,” said Walter Ranalli, former mayor of Thomas. He said the impact could extend beyond cities and their economies.

Although the Highways Division stresses that the road will not cross the Blackwater Falls Canyon, Ranalli said the road will pass nearby scenic areas while crossing the North Fork of the Blackwater River.

“So you line the canyon and you look in, not over it,” he said.

Wriston, the state transportation secretary, expressed little patience for what he called a “small minority” spreading “misinformation” about the need to find an alternative in the north. He said moving the planned road north would have more serious environmental impacts, delay the project and cost more.

“We’ve been working on Corridor H for three decades now,” Wriston said in a brief interview after testifying before a congressional panel last month. He had expressed at that panel his frustration with federal micromanagement of state projects and environmental concerns about a bumblebee species recently found near Corridor H that could delay construction. “There is nothing more to study,” he said. “That’s all I talked about today.”

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But Hugh Rogers, a board member at the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said the state’s refusal to seek alternatives would likely delay the project, if only because opponents would renew the type of complex litigation. which had led to the previous route changes.

“These towns looked left behind, and now they’re thriving. It’s really a different situation,” Rogers said. If Corridor H continues, he suggested: “You are likely to kill the golden hen.”

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