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A Superhighway of the 19th Century: The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike
October 9, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was an integral part of Virginia’s early state road system. After decades of inaction on the part of the Virginia government in Richmond, the state finally agreed to demands from its western citizens and began to construct a turnpike into the interior.
Funding and organization for the turnpike was provided by the Internal Improvement Fund Act of 1816 and the Turnpike Act of 1817. The preliminary survey was made in 1823 by Colonel Claudius Crozet, Virginia’s chief engineer, who had once served in Napoleon’s army and who had later taught at West Point. This road, traveling over the high mountains near the birthplace of rivers, was an engineering marvel and opened up large sections of western Virginia to settlement and commerce.
Construction began in 1831 in Staunton, but was almost immediately halted due to money problems. Once the project was placed under direct control of the Board of Public Works in 1841, serious work began on the turnpike, with completion in 1850.
The turnpike route came under supervision of each county it crossed, unlike the Northwestern Virginia Turnpike from Winchester to Parkersburg, which was placed under the authority of a state board of directors. Because of this, the turnpike was subject to the whims and selfish interests of competing factions along the way. This was the main reason the road was completed several years later than the Northwestern Turnpike; it was also plagued with financial problems, labor and contractor difficulties, resistance to eminent domain, and intensely rugged terrain.
Portions of the turnpike were open to wagon travel west of Staunton in 1841, and construction to Beverly on the Tygart River was completed by 1843. With additional borrowing authorized by the Board of Public Works, the middle section was finished to Weston on the West Fork River in 1845. Delays in completing bridges over the Tygart, West Fork and Hughes Rivers and their tributaries delayed full use of the turnpike. The western section, from Weston to Parkersburg, was completed in 1847, though travel from origin to terminus was impossible until 1850 when the last bridges were finished. Many of the bridges on this and other turnpikes were built by Beverly native Lemuel Chenoweth. One of his bridges, in Philippi on the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike, still stands.
For the first time in the history of Virginia, a continuous road from Richmond to the Ohio River via Staunton was available. The historic highway is now commemorated as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike National Scenic Byway, which follows much of the original route. Travelers today can follow U.S. Route 250 from Staunton, Virginia across Allegheny Mountain through Bartow, Huttonsville and Beverly to U.S. Route 33 through Buckhannon and Weston to State Route 47 to Parkersburg.
To learn more about the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, visit their exhibit “Travel a Turnpike through Time” at the Beverly Heritage Center in Beverly, West Virginia.
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Photo courtesy of Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike Alliance.