Virginia’s Fancy Gap Mountain: Notorious Route for Truckers, Fog Danger & No Brakes

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PHOTO: Fancy Gap Mountain, courtesy of Idawriter
PHOTO: Fancy Gap Mountain, courtesy of Idawriter

It’s a no brainer to say that mountains are synonymous with life in Appalachia. The hills, valleys and ridges of the places we call home dominate nearly every facet of our daily lives – the name of our sports teams, state songs, and even churches give hint that in our veins flow pure, proud and powerful mountain blood.

Stretching from North Alabama to the shores of Canada, the Appalachian Mountains are home to a countless number of hilltops and place names all worthy of novels and histories far beyond my own writing ability; however, there are few mountain tops in our region as notorious among drivers of tractor-trailers as Virginia’s Fancy Gap Mountain.

The mountain serves as the backbone to what is known as the Eastern Continental Divide, meaning, in short, all water that flows to the southeast of the ridge catches a relatively short ride to the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, the raindrops that choose to flow to the northwest of the mountain ridge embark on a long and perilous journey down the New and Kanawha River, before dumping into the Ohio River and from there journeying down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

Because of this reality, motorists making their way down the Southwest Virginia mountain, along US Route 52, descend from nearly 3,000 ft. elevation to just 1,296 ft. at the North Carolina state line in only 8.5 miles.

Photo: Fancy Gap Mountain in 1935, courtesy of Fancy Gap
Photo: Fancy Gap Mountain in 1935, courtesy of Fancy Gap

In the early years of the trucking industry, the mountain became so notorious for its danger it quickly developed a nickname as “The Killer Road.”

So terrible was the mountain that it inspired the J.R. Williams trucking ballad “Rolling Down Fancy Gap.” The song states, “I’m a ride’n and a guide’n, slip’n and a slide’n, rolling down Fancy Gap. My brakes are hot and my nerves are all shot… I just passed another straight down sign, it didn’t look that steep on the map… My air pressure keeps on falling, thought I’d heard my name somewhere, must’ve been St. Peter calling.”

In the summer of 1972, the Danville Register reported that eight separate traffic fatalities had occurred on the route in only the first six months of that year.

The problem became so bad that the county’s medical examiner Dr. J.H. Early begged the Virginia Highway Commission to do something about the mountain road’s dangerous curves. Early stated that the eight all died “in the same hole within 100 ft.” of each other.

Thanks to the persistence of family members and the county’s medical examiner, funds were eventually secured in order for Interstate 77 to be extended from Wytheville to the North Carolina border.

The introduction of Interstate 77 may have straightened out the curves of Fancy Gap Mountain for motorists, however, it could not remove another hazard of the mountain — extremely thick fog.

Early native Americans reportedly called the mountain “Foggy Camp” because the mountain’s geographic location makes it a natural fog machine.

According to Fancy Gap Tourism, “Since Fancy Gap is located on the cool crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rising warm, moist air from North Carolina is cooled beyond the temperature for the water it contains, it releases its water vapor into the fog that often blankets the area.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation has invested considerable money to warning drivers of the threat the mountain’s unpredictable fog can create for motorists, however, the state government is powerless against the natural forces of earth.

On Easter Day in March 2013, 95-vehicles crashed on the mountain’s I-77 southbound lane in a chain reaction crash that left 3 dead near the Virginia-North Carolina line.

The following year, 28 vehicles crashed on the mountain in a single weekend due to foggy weather.

Though the mountain’s fog can be hazardous, the views it offers on a clear day are truly magical. Southbound motorists can spot the unusually shaped Pilot Mountain to the southeast, as well as an all inspiring glimpse of the mountain valley below.

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!

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