Follow Appalachian Magazine on Facebook: Facebook.com/AppalachianMagazine
When the God of Creation molded the landscapes of eastern and western Virginia, He erected a mountain barrier between the two regions that helped to fuel an intra-state dispute which ended only when the two incompatible sections were under the authorities of different state governments.
While Western Virginia’s chief geographic features are tall and long mountain ridges with lush and wide valleys in between, the Mountain State’s geography features countless steep mountains splotched together in an elaborate prehistoric maze.
For centuries, this great divide has worked to create two unique and totally different cultures in the Virginias. One whose history was made by farmers and statesmen and another that has been defined by coal mining and labor wars.
This contrast between the two states is one that continues even unto this day: since 1968, Virginia and West Virginia have voted differently in 8 of the past 12 presidential elections. For years, West Virginia was a Democratic stronghold, whereas Virginia chose the Republican candidate for president in every election from 1964 to 2004. Interestingly, as West Virginia’s Republicans have found new success in Charleston, the Commonwealth’s Democrats have successfully transformed the Old Dominion into a blue state on a national level… It seems that the two states simply have to be different!
A major step was taken to bring the two sides of the mountain together, however, in the summer of 1969.
While the rest of the world was crinking their necks, trying to spot Neil Armstrong dancing about the moon, workers in Mercer County, West Virginia, and Bland County, Virginia, were fixated upon the 3,584-ft. tall East River Mountain, the border between Virginia and West Virginia.
Over the next several years, the two states invested over $40 MILLION in blasting through the bedrock of the mountain, creating two separate tunnels through wall of earth, in an effort to pave the way for President Eisenhower’s envisioned Interstate – 77, linking Cleveland, Ohio, to Columbia, South Carolina.
“The work was difficult, the TNT explosions were loud and the mud was deep. At East River Mountain, caves created sinkholes and sunk part of the tunnel two feet so that concrete had to be hauled in to correct the problem. More than 30,000 feet of lumber was also hauled in to support the tunnel,” wrote Rickie Longfellow.
Work on the twin 5,400 ft. tunnels through the mountain was officially completed at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on December 20, 1974. The tunnel carries the biggest price tag of any project done to date by the West Virginia Department of Highways.
Roughly midway through the tunnel, an observant motorist will find a green sign, stating “STATE LINE: WV / VA.” The East River Mountain Tunnel is one of only two instances in the United States where a mountain road tunnel crosses a state line. The other is the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, connecting Tennessee and Kentucky.
For Virginia, the $40 MILLION East River Mountain Tunnel was just a portion of the costs associated with Interstate 77. Roughly 20 miles to the south of the East River Mountain Tunnel is the Big Walker Mountain Tunnel, near the border of Bland and Wythe County, Virginia. The Big Walker Mountain Tunnel carried a price tag of $50 MILLION and was the most expensive single project undertaken on Virginia’s interstate system at the time.
Each day, tens of thousands of motorists pass through the two tunnels, which are roughly 15-minute apart. According to the Beckley Post Herald, the East River Mountain Tunnel alone has cut the travel time from Wytheville to Beckley in half.
For those like me, who love the cultures and people residing on both sides of the mountain, we can only imagine how drastically different things would be today had this tunnel been created a little more than a century earlier.
Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia Click here to check out the book on Amazon!
Click LIKE to share this article with your friends on Facebook!