US Route 52: America’s Other Great Highway


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Over the past 75-years, much has been made about historic U.S. Route 66, often affectionately referred to as the Main Street of America.

Though the famous route linking Chicago to California has certainly earned its place in history, there is another route – just as old as Route 66 – that deserves just as much of the nation’s admiration, it is U.S. Route 52, America’s other great highway.

Beginning at the Charleston Harbor in sunny South Carolina, the 2,072 miles of the 89-year-old route run northwest all the way to the Saskatchewan / North Dakota border.

Like the hundreds of communities the one-lane (Portal, ND), two-lane (Calmar, IA), three-lane (Welch, WV), four-lane (Charleston, SC) and six-lane (Wytheville, VA) route passes through, the road itself is a pure representation of the unique stories, values and struggles of each of the eleven states the roadway links together.

US Rt. 52 in Charleston, South Carolina Photo courtesy: Khanrak
US Rt. 52 in Charleston, South Carolina
Photo courtesy: Khanrak

In South Carolina, the route begins on Charleston’s Broad Street, passing underneath Palmetto trees and picturesque southern mansions.

The 150-miles of U.S. Route 52 in North Carolina link the coastal plains to the Appalachian Mountains, passing by the fascinating ancient pinnacle known as Pilot Mountain.  The Saura Indians, the region’s earliest known inhabitants, called the mountain “Jomeokee”, meaning “great guide”.  Just a handful of miles down the road, the route cuts north and becomes the Andy Griffith Parkway, passing through Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith and inspiration for the fictional community known as Mayberry.

Pilot Mountain from the south on U.S. Route 52 PHOTO Courtesy: Christopher Ziemnowicz
Pilot Mountain from the south on U.S. Route 52
PHOTO Courtesy: Christopher Ziemnowicz

Crossing into the Commonwealth of Virginia, the route’s elevation climbs from 1,296 ft. at the stateline to nearly 3,000 ft. in just 8.5 miles, atop Fancy Gap Mountain — a notorious stretch of U.S. 52 so feared by early southbound truckers that the route and mountain inspired J.R. Williams to write a well known ballad, “Rolling Down Fancy Gap.”

Continuing through Virginia, the route passes by Wythe County’s Historic Jackson’s Ferry Shot Tower, a 1700s- era tower used to construct lead bullets.  Briefly joining with Interstates 81 and 77 for a nine-mile stretch in Wytheville, the route breaks from the six lanes and again takes the winding trail up Big Walker Mountain, passing by the 100-ft. high observation tower known as the Big Walker Lookout, offering visitors a view of the surrounding countryside some 3,586 ft. above sea level.

Caution to the would be traveler of U.S. 52 (WV) who is quick to become carsick, the route’s winding path through the Mountain State’s  southern coalfields is certain to have you pulled over by the road long before you reach the top of Horsepen Mountain!  Also, lookout for coal trucks, ATVs (which are legal to drive on this historic highway in many West Virginia communities thanks to the Hatfield McCoy ATV trails), speed traps and left-right-left-left-right-left-right turns… If you’ve ever driven on what is known as the National Coal Heritage Highway (US-52 in West Virginia) you know exactly what we’re talking about!

US Route 52 in McDowell County, W.Va.
US Route 52 in McDowell County, W.Va.

It is West Virginia’s version US-52 that highlights the Appalachian region’s great struggle just to survive over the past half century, especially in McDowell County, the American County that is literally going extinct.  At the same time, however, US-52 also showcases the Mountaineer spirit of persistence, as transportation officials are in the process of upgrading the route to a high-speed four-lane divided highway, a route that will cut the driving time from Williamson, West Virginia, to Bluefield, West Virginia, from +120 minutes to 87 minutes.

Between the West Virginia cities of Williamson and Huntington, the route briefly crosses into Kentucky twice, thanks to the impenetrable West Virginia mountains.  Word of caution to the traveler along this stretch: the speed limit in West Virginia is 65 mph, but drops to 55 mph along the Kentucky portions.

Crossing the Ohio River via the Nick Joe Rahall II Bridge, the route winds along the banks of the Ohio River, the largest tributary, by volume, of the Mississippi River.

Through the Buckeye State, the route passes through the Ohio localities of Portsmouth and Cincinnati, passing directly in front of the Cincinnati Bengal’s 65,000-seat Paul Brown Stadium, before heading northwest into Indiana.

The route through Indiana enjoys a less prominent role than in other states, serving as a secondary-bypass between Indianapolis and LaFayette before entering the Land of Lincoln, Illinois.

It is in Illinois that the route zigzags through the nation’s heartland, passing just yards from the Chicagoland Speedway near Joliet, as it intersects the historic pathway of Route 66.

Continuing west, Route 52 crosses the Mississippi River near Savanna, Illinois, though the river as this location more closely resembles a swampy lake.

In Iowa, the great highway runs north along the western banks of the Mississippi River, passing through the heart of Dubuque, a charming midwestern town whose brick streets date back to 1833.

A violin painted on a silo near Green Island, Iowa, is a popular landmark along the route. PHOTO Courtesy: Dawn Hopkins
A violin painted on a silo near Green Island, Iowa, is a popular landmark along the route.
PHOTO Courtesy: Dawn Hopkins

A far cry from the mountain highway of the two Virginias, Route 52 enters the plains of Southern Minnesota in big sky country, where cornfields, silos and flatlands abound for a countless number of miles.

Eventually, the route’s agricultural views giveway to the urban skyline of Minneapolis.

Dissecting St. Paul, the route passes by casinos and the farmers markets of both St. Paul and Minneapolis, passing by the campus of the University of Minnesota, before cutting north back toward the rural heartland of America’s upper Midwest.  In total, the U.S. route runs 377 miles through the Land of 10,000 Lakes, before crossing its final border at the Red River of the North and entering Fargo, North Dakota.

From Fargo, the route continues west for about 75 miles, before turning northwest toward the Badlands of North Dakota.

The remainder of the route doesn’t link any major American cities, instead, it merely connects little towns with funny names – cutting through the center of places such as Foxholm, Anamoose, Bowbells, and my personal favorite, Lignite!

The American highway reaches its final town in Portal, North Dakota, where it meets the Canadian Border Patrol and Saskatchewan Highway 39, an undivided 271-mile long highway connecting North Portal and Moose Jaw.

It is impossible to define the culture of US-52, as encompasses eleven separate states and covers more than 2,000 miles.  To put it simply, the road highlights our nation’s greatest accomplishments and vistas, as well as our greatest struggles.  If you’re traveling US-52, you can expect to see real America…  and all of America!  This is why we believe that US Route 52 is America’s Other Great Highway!

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