The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Floyd County, Virginia Roads - How They Were Built, as told by George Shelor

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1985

Issue: August, 1985

This road grader was state of the art road building equipment in the first quarter of the twentieth century.This road grader was state of the art road building equipment in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The way the population was scattered back when they first started building roads in this area, the first roads were probably built to get from neighbor to neighbor. Then the roads would expand to connect on into towns and from that to cities.

The terrain of the mountains would be followed, avoiding going too far uphill or too far downhill. Roads would be laid out along the line of least resistance which meant they often lead to rivers or creeks. In later years when there was access to better equipment, that was changed. Then road banks could be worked off and road beds changed to get them out of the lower, muddy elevations and up higher where there was better drainage.

The first thing necessary in the early days were horses. Horses had to pull the equipment. It took two or more horses to pull an early road grader. Besides the grader, there was a "dump buggy." One man would drive the horse and one or two men would operate the pan of the dump buggy to scoop up dirt. When it got full, they would take it somewhere and dump it and start scooping dirt again. That was the way they moved dirt from a high point to a low one.

At first the people themselves were responsible for road building, then it was the county supervisors. Sometime in the 1920's, the state took over the road maintenance.

Farmers would stock pile stones that they carried off their fields. The state owned a rock crusher and would go around to the different locations where rocks had been piled up, crushing the rocks into gravel for the roads. The farmers might have been paid for the rocks or it might have been a gratis arrangement just to get the rocks out of their fields.

A Peerless steam tractor.A Peerless steam tractor.

Primarily the state wanted white rock, flint rock. State workers would set up the crusher which was relatively easy to move. It had an engine that turned it and jaws that would crush up the rocks into gravel which were then loaded into a truck and put on the roads in the area where the rocks were being crushed. They were still doing it that way in the 1930's.

There was one road in a section known as Jones Mountain that had what was called a "Corduroy Road." It was in an area where there was a lot of water seepage and vehicles would bog down because there was no bottom, no solid road bed. They went in and put down straight poles the width of the road, side by side. This made it somewhat easier to travel. Not good, but better than the mud bogging them down.

In the early days, when a road crew encountered a boulder in the path of the road, they would use a hand operated star drill. The star drill would be pounded down into the rock and the cross part (star) would penetrate into the rock and eat away a cavity. Some sort of explosive was then placed in the hole and the boulder was blasted. Because this was so time consuming, they usually just went around boulders whenever possible. Even if they were able to blast the boulder down to the level of the road bed, after the road was used for a length of time, the dirt around the remaining part of the boulder eroded and the boulder wound up sticking up in the road bed again.

When the state took over the road maintenance, they had better equipment, crawler type tractors. They were the forerunners of caterpillars, of which Best and Holt was one of the older companies.

A typical road crew in those days consisted of one man on the crawler, one man on the grader and two men behind them with shovels. You could hear that operation coming before it got within sight. It was a big show for the kids to go out and watch.

Early roads were narrow and fences were close to the roads. It was very difficult to pass another vehicle on those roads. The road grading created quite a problem. Every time the roads were graded, the driver tried to get the blade over as far as possible to make the road a little wider. This cut into the road banks and the fences started falling in. Some farmers would get right bitter over it. It was a major grievance the landowners had with the state.

Right after World War II, there was a lot of pressure to get state road 799 paved. They were limited for funds for construction and equipment, so instead of straightening and putting it on a better grade, they just scratched over the old road bed, put a little more stone on it and surfaced it. That's the reason it's still so crooked and narrow today.

Paving state road 799 was a slow process. They'd pave about a half mile and maybe two or three years later, pave some more of it. In three stages of building two miles of road, the lapse of time was about 8 or 10 years.

There was a story that once, when another road was being built, a state inspector came in and asked the guy who was grading what he was doing. The grader said, "I'm building a road." The inspector got onto him and almost fired him right on the spot, saying, "I told you these roads have got to be 20 feet wide!" The guy building the road thought he was saving the state money by only making the roads 18 feet wide. From then on out, the roads were 20 feet wide.