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W.Va. hits the open road

by Franny White

STAFF WRITER

Lifelong Clarksburg resident Ed "Sonny" Allawat, 61, remembers when U.S. Route 50 expanded to four lanes. Then 18, Allawat stood directly above the construction workers on the Fourth Street bridge as they built the new road in 1957.

Before, Route 50 had run straight through Clarksburg's downtown on Pike Street, bringing a consistent flow of visitors into town. A few months after Allawat watched over Route 50's construction, he graduated from Victory High School and joined the Army.

With the new, improved Route 50 and a string of other federal and state-sponsored highways and interstates built in the 1950s, the West Virginia Allawat knew would never be the same.

Many of today's roads originated from buffalo, wagon or Indian trails. Today, U.S. Route 219 is often called the "Seneca Trail" after the Native Americans who initially wore the route down.

But West Virginia's road history really began in 1743, when a road was built to connect Winchester, Va., to the home of Col. Morgan Morgan, the first white settler in what is now West Virginia -- Bunker Hill in Berkeley County.

In the 1950s, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower became concerned with the nation's defense and wanted to build a national highway system to transport military personnel and equipment. The 1956 Federal-aid Highway Act made this possible.

At the time of the act's passage, only three interstates crossed through West Virginia: Interstate 64 from the Kentucky boarder to Charleston, a short 15 miles of Interstate 70 across the Northern Panhandle and 23 miles of Interstate 81 through the Eastern Panhandle.

But for the most part, West Virginians depended on the ruthless, winding two-lane state roads.

Clarksburg resident Pat Wolford, 53, remembers these roads. Although she admits she didn't travel much as a kid, she remembers her trips to visit relatives in Parkersburg as being trying.

"You had to slow down," Wolford said. "(The road) had turns at every curve."

Vinnie Oliverio, 48, of Bridgeport, grew up in Glen Elk and remembers seven-hour-long car trips to Annapolis, Md., along old Route 50. Some of Route 50's turns were so infamous they were given names like "hairpin curve."

Now, Oliverio drives there in less than 4.5 hours.

Norm Roush of Charleston, now the deputy secretary of the West Virginia Division of Highways, said those windy roads were an impediment for many residents.

"There were many years that people did not go north and south through West Virginia" because of switchback roads and steep mountain sides, Roush said.

Back then families didn't have the money to own numerous cars like so many affluent American families do today. Because of that, fewer people took long road trips. Of all the long-time area residents who spoke to the Exponent-Telegram, none said they traveled much when they were younger.

About the same time the Federal-aid Highway Act began to be put into action, Roush graduated from college with a degree in engineering. He left his southeastern Ohio home to work for the Federal Highway Administration, then the Bureau of Public Roads

Roush, now the deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Transportation, has worked on roads when they were all the rage and what many people believed as the key to development.

"Everybody was concerned about transportation in those days," Roush said.

It was during the 1960 presidential race that West Virginia got in the heat of the road development craze. John F. Kennedy was having a tough time in the primaries, and West Virginia became JFK's test. When Kennedy won the state, he felt obligated to do something in return. His personnel asked the young governor, Cecil Underwood, what the state needed.

Kennedy "wanted to know what we wanted," Roush said. "And what we wanted was I-79."

The state had already decided to develop Route 50 from Parkersburg to Clarksburg, but now West Virginia would have a federally funded interstate running smack through its middle

Nearly 50 homes had to be torn down to build the new four-lane Route 50, including the home of Vinnie Oliverio's grandmother. Oliverio, 48, grew up in Glen Elk, but now lives in Bridgeport.

"They cleaned out a bunch of beautiful homes," Oliverio said. "They don't make those homes anymore."

Despite the sacrifices, the new Route 50 and interstates meant West Virginians could travel across their state and nation faster.

"It was an attempt to really tie the state together," Roush said. "It allowed us in essence to become a much closer part to the rest of the nation."

Now, trucks of goods are zipped across the state in what comparatively seems like no time. Some say the highways and interstates were the "demise" of a flourishing, small-town West Virginia. And others say they were just the beginning.

Roush believes highways are a necessity in a modern world.

"If we were going to be cavemen and be by ourselves, then we wouldn't need roads or even to communicate," Roush said.

And Roush insists the state's highway efforts have paid off. Despite a negative, and false, stereotype of West Virginians, Roush said our highways are top-notch.

"Our roads are as good as everybody else's," Roush said.

Staff writer Franny White can be reached at 626-1443.

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