The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Tennessee Road

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1986

Issue: July, 1986

The lives of people have always been influenced by communication and transportation. There was little of either available in America prior to 1800. When cities and villages began to be established along the eastern seaboard and more particularly in the New England area, a few stage coach lines carrying mail, small express and passengers came into being.

Then with the advent of the Erie Canal and Clinton's steam engine to begin the era of the railroads, people began to be travel conscious.

The success of the Erie Canal caused the planning and starting of canal construction in the eastern United States, but the steam engine developed rail transportation so much more rapidly that canal transportation soon passed into oblivion.

The Tennessee Road through southwestern Virginia was established as a principal route in the late 1700's and early 1800's. This route developed for several reasons. First, Philadelphia became recognized as the principal source of supply for Virginia which at one time extended from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, and for Tennessee. Later the nation's capitol was moved to Washington.

In this same period, Baltimore developed as a principal seaport and a marketing city and began replacing Philadelphia as a source city for Virginia and Tennessee.

There was a natural route from the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington areas to Tennessee through the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, as a result of increasing traffic on the poorly constructed and maintained roads, travel was both hazardous and uncertain.

It soon became apparent that mail and passenger traffic would be improved by establishing stage coach lines. Stage Coach Lines were not practical if they could not get over the roads. The answer seemed to be to form large companies with adequate capitol who would then secure franchise rights from the state legislature to establish a principal route, build an improved road with bridges and ferries that would allow travel under all conditions, and then collect a fee from the public who used it. This would make possible stage coach, wagon freighting and improved public usage.

KERCHEVALS HISTORY published in 1818 records that the Valley of Virginia was in a rapidly developing status with towns and villages growing along the entire route. It was at approximately this time that a group of Baltimore capitalists formed a company to build a road from Baltimore to Tennessee. They secured a franchise from the Virginia legislature only as far as Staunton with the proviso that once it was completed it would be extended.

The company then set about building the improved road which would then be classified as and termed a "Pike," so named because of an English engineer who had developed and engineered the method of building an improved road that would drain properly and sustain heavy usage. Later a Scotch civil engineer named MacAdam developed a method of crushing stone to various sizes, placing the larger sizes on a prepared soil and clay bed, then placing medium sized stone as a middle course with a final course of small sized stone. With Pike's treatise on selecting a proper road route, grading and soil treatment and then with MacAdam's treatise on surfacing a highway, these improved and superior highways came to be known as "Pikes."

The franchised company established a house generally every five miles to house their superintendent who would supervise his section of highway and who would also collect the toll from the highway user.

To insure that the user would pay the toll, the highway operating company placed a long bar or barrier across the highway. The toll house sat right on the edge of the road. One end of the barrier bar was locked to a column of the toll house porch. When the toll was paid, the barrier bar was unlocked and turned aside so that the toll payer could pass.

Thus these houses came to be known as toll houses, toll gates and turn gates. The roads thus built and operated came to be known as "Turn Pikes."

The northern section of this particular highway from Baltimore to the Virginia line was called the Frederick and Winchester Turnpike. From Winchester to Staunton it was called the Valley Turnpike, and over the years it became "The Valley Pike," eventually extended to Lexington.

Contributing to the history of this particular highway was the Baltimore and Ohio Canal, the forerunner of the B and O Railroad. It carried traffic from Baltimore and Washington westward to Harpers Ferry, Maryland, where southbound traffic used the stage lines over the Valley Turnpike.

In time, at Harrisonburg, Virginia, some 68 miles south of Winchester, another company was organized, The Warm Springs Turnpike Company, which built a connecting Turnpike to Warm Springs, Virginia, a distance of approximately 65 miles. Later a third company at Harrisonburg was formed and built a turnpike eastward 18 miles to what is now Elkton, Virginia on the Shenandoah River and westward some 12 miles to the West Virginia line at Rawley Springs, Virginia.

The date of the organizing of the Valley Turnpike Company is uncertain, but around 1820 is thought to be the most likely time. If so, it was in business for over 100 years. The Virginia turnpike companies all went out of business by an act of the Legislature in 1919 wherein the state took over construction, maintenance and supervision of all state thoroughfares.

The toll houses or toll gates were all removed one year later in 1920. This brought into being the Virginia State Highway Department. In 1921 the State began employing motorcycle mounted police to supervise state highway motorists. Only in 1932 were they given a second vehicle to use, a Chevrolet Roadster.

Interestingly, the turnpike toll houses were responsible for many small towns being established along turnpikes. There was only an occasional village between county seats. But with the advent of toll houses and stage coach stops where horses were changed and passengers were fed, people began to build homes, stores and blacksmith shops at these points, consequently, the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester, Virginia to Lexington, Virginia where the turnpike was later extended to, has a village about every five to seven miles. Many of them are about the same size.

Looking back to "The Tennessee Road," it was so named for one reason only, through traffic. There are records of people migrating to Tennessee and even to Texas in the 1700's over this route. In fact, because the road existed was the reason Sam Houston, born just north of Lexington, Virginia, on this very road, traveled it to Texas and for whom one of its largest cities is named.

This road was somewhat nebulously looked upon as extending from Washington to Memphis on the Mississippi River. Be that as it may, the facts indicate that most references to this road prior to 1800 were by politicians traveling it to attend the constitutional convention and the early governmental body's organizational meeting. This was followed by the meetings of the Congress. The reorganization of this as a principal route with very limited use came only after 1800 and probably 1810 would be a more acceptable date.

The factors that influenced the establishing of the route appear to be the following:

The Shenandoah Valley naturally lent its terrain as far as Lexington. Incidentally, one section of the Tennessee Road for a few miles was covered with logs laid side by side called "Corduroy" road. This section was in Rockbridge County on the approaches to Lexington, from there, the Tennessee Road extended to Fincastle, the Botetourt County seat, and from thence to each county seat to the Tennessee line. If you look closely along U.S. 11, you can still see old buildings that once were toll houses or stage coach hotels. At Mauzy, Virginia ten miles north of Harrisonburg, Virginia, the old Stage Coach Office and tavern can still be seen. Abingdon and Newbern, Virginia have similar buildings.

U.S 11 is still almost the route of the Tennessee Road. Exceptions are that it does not route from Buchanan to Fincastle; it originally passed some 3 miles north of what is now Roanoke, and by Newbern which was the first county seat of Pulaski County. It remains one of the most scenic sections of this country.