A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 7

Blacksburg Transported: From Wagons to Jet Planes

by Patricia S. Neumann


Patricia S. Neumann


From 1746 through the first decade or so of the 1800s, the settlement that eventually became Blacksburg was well situated on the preferred route from the northeast following the Appalachians westward. The private enterprise called the Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike was known to be the shortest route over easier terrain than that of its rivals. But at the very end of 1805, an "Enabling Act" in the General Assembly encouraged another entrepreneur to spend three years building a rival toll road, a wagon trail on "the old ridge roadbed" from Salem, up the south fork of the Roanoke, through Shawsville, and up the part of the Allegheny ridge now known as Christiansburg Mountain. While this longer route covered more challenging hills, its reputation for reliable good maintenance eventually established it as preferable to what had become the neglected road that ran through the newly established town of Blacksburg. Besides being called the Ingle's Ferry Road, the preferred road became known, and prospered, as "The Great Road."

Clearly, east-to-west through the Montgomery County region was still the mind-set for travel in 1821. Two roads came from the east to Blacksburg: the original Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike, labeled by John Wood on his 1821 map as the "Road from Fincastle to Blacksburg," and the "Road from Salem to Blacksburg." In Montgomery County today, the former is county Route 785, Catawba Road, while much of the latter survives as county Route 603: parts of North Fork Road, Den Hill Road, Jennelle Road, Cedar Run Road, and then, within the town, Ellett Road and South Main Street.

Wood labels the east-west road through Christiansburg as the "Great State Road." In Christiansburg it was crossed by the "Road from Floyd Court House," now Route 615, which runs by way of Pilot and enters Christiansburg via South Franklin Street. This road continued north, roughly following the present path of Business Route 460. The present Route 8 from Floyd had no counterpart at that time.

North of Christiansburg, the north-south road was simply "The Blacksburg Road" in early road orders. It must be remembered that the county seat was far more important as the center of government and trade than Blacksburg was, so this was a natural way of referring to the road between the two towns. Present-day Midway marks the place where the Blacksburg road originally continued straight, climbing notorious Lundy's Hill. Springs near the top of the hill made it infamous for never-drying, sticky, axle-deep mud year round.

From the top of Lundy's Hill, this road continued northeast. Its right-of-way remains as Holiday Lane and then Ramble Road as far as the airport. Beyond the modern airstrip, Airport Road begins tracing the old Blacksburg roadway as it continues to South Main Street. In the lawn of the corner house at Airport and Main, one can still see the flat curve of the original Blacksburg-Christiansburg road as it turned left towards downtown. At this curve, it joined the road from Salem to Blacksburg coming in from the right.

Leaving Blacksburg to the north, the north-south road headed straight for Brush Mountain, over the top, and straight down the other side. Wood's 1821 map calls this route the "Road from Giles Court House." From Blacksburg, it is now first called Toms Creek Road, then Laurel Drive, and High Ridge Drive to the crest. Within the Poverty Creek basin, the trace of this old toll road is still clear, descending northwestward towards Pandapas Pond. The top half of the descent is part of mountain horse trail 1001 of the Jefferson National Forest, but the original turnpike, which can be very clearly seen, proceeds straight downward more directly towards the mountain gap into Giles County than the horse trail does in the bottom half of Brush Mountain. Hikers on this trail walk today on an historic path. This turnpike was one of the usual early American roads-built by private enterprise over an old Indian pathway.

According to Wood's map, the roads mentioned here were the only roads in the Blacksburg region in 1821 of interest to the Virginia Board of Public Works and the legislature, save one. There was a short connection from the Blacksburg road to Yellow Sulphur Springs. Coming from Christiansburg on the Blacksburg road, one approached this connecting road curving to the right just before the climb up Lundy's Hill. Wood labeled it as the "Road to Y Spring."

Super Road, Railroad

In 1835 the legislature agreed that the state would invest in 40 percent of the Southwest Turnpike Company to upgrade the Great Road with a finish of crushed rock over well drained subsoil. This would be only the fourth such special road in Virginia; other roads of the time were simply dirt wagon-trails. The attempt to attract private capital to improve the Great Road, which came within ten miles of Blacksburg, took eleven unsuccessful years. Finally, the state agreed to pay the entire amount necessary to begin the project and carry it until the tolls started coming in. By 1848 the Southwest Turnpike was finished through Montgomery County. Because of its unique surface, it was popularly called "the macadamized road."

One reason private capital had been so difficult to secure for through-road improvement was that it had not been clear where transportation capital might best be profitable, in roads or in railroads. As it worked out, Christiansburg gained both. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad came through the area a mile north of Christiansburg in 1854, establishing beyond a doubt that to reach both modes of the very best transportation of the day, Blacksburg's route of primary importance had become its road south towards the county seat.

The proliferation of roads surrounding Blacksburg was remarkable between Wood's map and an 1865 Civil War reconnaissance map. The 1821 "Road from Giles Court House" had become "Old Giles Road," for it was supplanted by a better road that snaked up Brush Mountain further eastward. This newer road's way up the mountain was essentially where 777 and 778 lie today, looping on either side of present-day 460. The newer road to Giles is labeled "Mountain Lake and White Sulphur Turnpike," a tribute to its most important service to the thriving local business in vacation travel among the nearby resorts. We therefore see Blacksburg on a significant southeast to northwest route. When south of Blacksburg, the new route followed the old Salem-to-Blacksburg road, but a new portion, the current Den Hill Road, came from White Sulphur Springs further southeast. Both the White Sulphur Springs road and a tramway connected White Sulphur Springs to its own depot on the railroad still further southeast. The tramway was mule-drawn from the depot and descended by gravity on its return trip from the springs.

After the Civil War, private operators abandoned many lesser turnpikes. Some of particular interest to the county were turned over to it for maintenance. In this way, Montgomery County gradually became the overseer of roads and bridges surrounding Blacksburg. Still, this certainly did not mean that there were significant improvements in local roads. When the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College was established in 1872, all nearby roads were still primitive muddy or dusty wagon tracks.

Yearnings for a Train

Rail travel, however, suggested new possibilities. Inexpensive passenger transportation, which was much faster than that available on roads, had its influence on the public mind. By the 1890s, for example, the resort at Yellow Sulphur Springs filled annually to capacity during its entire season, with people brought from afar by the railroad. Virginia Tech's annual spring "Sham Battle" attracted thousands from the breadth of the state. Every horse near Blacksburg was pressed into service to meet the trains.

As a result of the college students and the other visitors they attracted, Blacksburg became a town seasonally receiving, then giving up, significant numbers of young people to the depot at Cambria for dispersal throughout the state. Yet the town was isolated from the best transportation of the day by nine miles of extremely poor road. Good travel time to the station was about an hour and a half. It was not unusual for the trip to take two hours, and three hours was not unheard of. A cry went out for a better Blacksburg road, but the greater energy went into hopes and pleas and plans for a railroad into Blacksburg.

On April 8, 1898, the Brush Mountain Coal Company (BMCC) was chartered at the Montgomery County Courthouse. A group of Christiansburg businessmen comprised the company, but the president was L. S. Randolph, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and an avid proponent of a railroad for Blacksburg. The BMCC, primarily a land company, bought coal lands on both Brush and Price mountains. Beyond that, it had a particular interest in the potential of the mine that eventually became the Merrimac. Even before other needed investors were found, timber was being cleared from Price Mountain's eastern end for mine supports and railroad ties. Rough grading proceeded, following surveys by Virginia Tech civil engineering students. The thinking behind this project was similar to the concept of today's shell manufacturing buildings, constructed to attract new industries to an area.

The big break needed for Blacksburg's railroad hopes came with the Great Coal Strike of 1902 in Pennsylvania. William J. Payne and his associates in Richmond had become persuaded of the good prospects in coal at Price and Brush mountains. They, in turn, persuaded men they knew within disgruntled coal and coal railroad management in the Wilkes Barre-Scranton anthracite fields. Soon both capital and expertise came to non-union Virginia through the efforts of Randolph and Payne, who became the driving force of two new sibling companies.

The first of these was the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company (VAC & Ry. Co. or VAC&R), chartered by Virginia's General Assembly on April 2, 1902. The very next day, the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company bought the already graded railroad right-of-way and other preliminary work at Price Mountain on BMCC land for $169,500. Nine months later, on January 8, 1903, in Richmond, the Virginia Anthracite Coal Company (VAC Co. or VAC) also received its charter. This company took over the building and operating of the Merrimac Mines from the BMCC, which returned to landlord status, charging royalties on VAC Co. coal profits. Randolph's VAC Co. owned 87 percent of the stock of his VAC & Ry. Co.

Meantime, on July 3, 1901, in Blacksburg, word was received that a horseless buggy, the first to be seen in the town, was approaching from Christiansburg. About forty cars were registered in the state at that time, and one of them was coming to Blacksburg! In the bigger cities of Virginia, most people had seen automobiles, although few had actually ridden in one. But in Blacksburg, where less than two years earlier the town council had voted to allow cows to roam at large in town provided they were dehorned, Main Street was lined with excited observers eager to see a spectacle pass by.

In April 1902, the same month as the birth of the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors voted to postpone for three months any discussion of the proposed "Blacksburg Rock Road." In other words, Blacksburgers' wails for better transportation were beginning to be acknowledged by the county, albeit with dragging feet. Early talks about macadamizing the Blacksburg Road had begun.

Railroad building was hardly going any faster. It took seven months merely to buy and go to court over the necessary right-of-way. Building finally commenced in mid-November 1902. Five months later, when the tracks were laid all the way to the Merrimac Mines, construction ceased. Building a large mining operation and a railroad at the same time was straining the resources of the sibling companies. Meantime, the April 8, 1903, issue of the Roanoke Times reported, "The long talked of macadamized road from Christiansburg [to Blacksburg] is an assured thing now as the $20,000 bonds are about ready to be floated, and as soon as that is done the work will be let to contract at once."

But by this time, Blacksburg's citizens needed convincing. Town council had long petitioned the county to no avail, and various companies had, for fifty years, promised-then failed-to produce a railroad. The town's people would believe in transportation when they saw it. In the spring of 1904, The Virginia Tech, a campus newspaper, mockingly commented that "a line of flying machines" had a better chance of fulfilling Blacksburg's transportation needs than a macadamized road or any of the several promised railroads.

A Town Names Its Railway

Meanwhile, at a time before radio, when entertainment beyond the homegrown was meager in the area, the biggest show around was just a buggy ride away: the building of the mining community at Merrimac Mines. The soil there is preferred by plants of the heath family, such as the wild-growing lowbush blueberry Vaccinium, which had become gloriously profuse in the new sunshine along the stalled railroad's right-of-way and up the stripped mountainsides at Merrimac Mines. These "huckleberries" rapidly gained a wide reputation for the most delicious of pies, cobblers, and jams. It became popular in the summer to buggy out to the site, see how the building was coming along, and pick the berries.

Newspapers called the stalled railroad "the Christiansburg-Blacksburg Railroad" or "the Virginia Anthracite Line." But after several summers of berry picking, the railroad became connected in people's minds to the famous "huckleberries." This was certainly true of the junior faculty members at the local college who wrote and edited The Virginia Tech in those years before the students did. For in May 1904, when the good news was announced that the railroad building would resume after all, one such writer could assume that his readership would know just what he meant when, in that time of such great railroad empires as the "Gould system" and the "Harriman system," his news item read, "It appears that the 'Huckleberry System' will certainly extend their line into Blacksburg."

Sure enough, it happened. The tracks were laid in Blacksburg by September 7. Blacksburg celebrated the opening of its railroad on September 15, 1904. "Only those who are compelled to travel the nine miles of almost impassable mountain road during the cold, bleak, dreary winter months can fully appreciate what the opening of this new road means," said several newspapers.

Six days later, students arriving for the 1904-05 school year joined in the appreciative cheers for the new service. "Everywhere 'tis the same story, praises of the 'Huckleberry.' . . . Why, we are two hours closer to Christiansburg," reported the first issue of The Virginia Tech that school year. It was an exciting, promising time for Blacksburg and the region.

A Railway's Woes

A time for celebration or not, the railway company's financial struggles continued, challenge after challenge. Early revenues were swallowed up by continued construction of the line, tipple, and trestle past the Blacksburg depot, a temporary shack. The improved quality of the road to the N&W depot and Christiansburg threatened competition after all, at least in good weather. At Cambria, the N&W seemed to be taking its time getting around to building its new passenger station, making the transfer to the Huckleberry unpleasant for travelers and forcing the VAC&R to build yet another temporary station. The new N&W passenger station finally opened in the fall of 1906. Then in March 1907, a stock-market crash ruined Virginia's anthracite market. The sibling coal and railway companies scrambled to survive.

During the more hopeful year of 1905, Mr. Payne of the VAC&R had tried to interest the N&W in investing heavily-but not too heavily-in the company's line in order to finance the original plan to build the railroad to Brush Mountain for its coal, and up Poverty Creek to Craig Creek and on northeast for iron ore. The local railway company had backed off when the N&W said it was only interested if the N&W would acquire the controlling share. By 1908 the VAC Co. needed capital so badly for recovery of its coal operation that it wanted to sell the railroad company outright to the N&W. With the economy poor for all businesses, however, the N&W was not prepared to buy a branch line at that time. VAC & Ry. Co. indebtedness to the N&W continued to increase throughout 1908. N&W officers and lawyers planned a strategy to collect what was owed them and also to keep any rival interests from buying the Blacksburg line.

The VAC and VAC&R's main creditor was the Virginia Trust Company in Richmond. The Brush Mountain Coal Company for the VAC, and Norfolk and Western Railway for the VAC&R were the other main creditors of the sibling companies. In January 1909 in Richmond, where their primary office was located, the coal company and railway company together were liquidated by the chancery court. The court appointed Richard H. Smith and Payne to run both companies under close supervision by the court, to the end that all creditors would lose as little as possible in the demise of both companies. Most miners lost their jobs as coal production was drastically cut back at the Merrimac. In August a flash flood filled the mine with water, ending operations there entirely. The coal property reverted to the BMCC for non-payment of royalties, and on October 19, 1910, the state revoked the VAC company charter because of two years of nonpayment of fees to the state.

At the start of Tech's 1908-09 school year, The Virginia Tech reported, "The panic is over. The Huckleberry has recovered from the recent industrial depression and given the station platform a roof and the station itself its first coat of white lime paint." The newspaper's optimism was unfounded. Improving the temporary shed had not been a good sign at all since the plan had been to build the town a "real" depot. Still, the little short line struggled to serve its customers with its familiar mixed trains that greatly benefited Tech's and Blacksburg's growth. There were special trains besides. The camaraderie on the college's "cadet specials" became an important part of the Tech experience. Cadets, whose uniforms made them look alike, entertained themselves by switching seats to confuse the conductor over paid or unpaid tickets. An oft-repeated high jinx that lasted for decades began early on: cadets not taking a given trip would grease or soap the rails so that the locomotive would lose traction on a grade. Disgusted officers would command every cadet to go outside to push the train. Watching the specials leave became a popular pastime in town. Cheering winning football teams returning from games became a major social entertainment, not only for the campus and town, but for the people in the country along the Huckleberry route.

The Blacksburg Branch

In the first quarter of 1911, the N&W was doing its research and planning its strategy for buying the Blacksburg line. President Johnson of the Norfolk and Western was sure that his much larger operation could run the Blacksburg railway profitably as a branch line. The travail of the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company ended on August 29, 1911, when the N&W bought all of the company's assets at auction with a winning bid of $100,000. "We'll call it our Blacksburg Branch," Johnson announced. The N&W commenced its operation of the line on January 1, 1912. The VAC&R followed the VAC into oblivion.

Transportation news in city newspapers from the VAC & Ry. Co. era reflects a widespread phenomenon in cities: a clamor for better roads. In rural areas, this "Good Roads" movement was viewed with suspicion, but Blacksburg's thinking was more aligned with that of the cities, where the concept of travel was truly taking hold. In 1909 when Montgomery County had only one automobile, that automobile was owned by a Blacksburg resident. Even with many passengers riding every train in and out of Blacksburg, the town was soon pressing its road needs before the county supervisors, just as it had before the coming of the railroad, because the Blacksburg rock road was not being maintained. But road decisions were made at the county level. Have a vote for road maintenance around Blacksburg and the rest of the county dug in their heels. If Montgomery County were to spend money on improving any roads, why should it be in the Blacksburg region? Thus, there remained only twenty-five miles of macadamized road in the county, and those stayed in poor repair.

When the N&W took over operation of Blacksburg's railroad, fares went down and the quality of service improved enormously. A year later the town finally had its "proper" depot, not in the same place as the original one, but down the tracks and over the tipple and trestle almost to Main Street. Blacksburgers were once again pleased with their railroad.

Blacksburg Embraces the Automobile

Traffic in Blacksburg increased sufficiently enough that by January 1913 the town voted against allowing cows to continue to roam in town. By September 1914, town council decided to impose speed limits. Several Blacksburgers owned cars, although most traffic still consisted of horseback riders or horsedrawn vehicles. Eight miles per hour was the maximum in-town speed imposed, except for turning corners, for which slowing to four miles per hour was required. Council minutes do not specify how the town sergeant was expected to make the judgment calls necessary to enforce these limits.

In these early years of Blacksburg's N&W presence, money was spent, on a small scale but steadily, to maintain, improve, and extend the town's streets. The money was raised by requiring town licenses for livery stables, automobiles, and garages for the hiring, storing, and selling of automobiles. Each year or two, Main Street was treated with one or two railroad-car loads of crushed rock. The year 1919 brought Blacksburg's first filling station, the only one between Roanoke and Bluefield, West Virginia, followed three years later by an automobile dealership.

As Blacksburg responded to a greater traffic load, so had the county. In 1916 Blacksburg benefited when the county macadamized the road running north from town toward Giles County all the way to the Coal Bank Hollow Road at the foot of Brush Mountain. As usual by this period, convict labor did the work.

Wide-ranging Roads

When a State Highway Commission was formed in 1906, a Blacksburger was one of its five members. At first, all the commission could do was try to educate voters and advise counties, many of which had no engineers or equipment, but in 1916 a new state law allowed Virginia to collect maintenance money from vehicle license fees. The highway commission then administered the fees in cooperation with counties that put up matching funds. The commission's vision of better-maintained inter-county highways could therefore be increasingly implemented and be more broadly supported. Meantime, Virginia's second road commissioner had organized the American Association of State Highway Officers. This organization's proposals to Congress in 1916 resulted in authorization of federal highway involvement. Federal assistance not only enabled the beginning of better state-to-state coordination of roads, but, importantly, it also enabled the upgrading of "any public road over which the United States mails now or may hereafter be transported." At the time only 11.4 percent of U.S. roads were "surfaced"-that is, were anything but rutted dirt trails.

By the 1920s in Blacksburg itself, motor trucks; horse-drawn wagons; and people riding horseback, in buggies or in automobiles were all commonly seen on the town's streets. By then "[e]verybody had cars," a man born in Blacksburg in 1903 was quick to explain, adding, "Nobody rode the Huckleberry." But he was raised in a faculty family; off-campus townspeople did not necessarily experience transportation in the 1920s as he did.

On Yellow Sulphur Road three miles south of town, a contemporary of the faculty son explained, "Everywhere we went started with a ride on the Huckleberry." She traveled on the train because most roads near Blacksburg in the 1920s were still no better than any of the area's roads had been in the 1800s. Some were worse; World War I had resulted in major road neglect. For this reason, the Huckleberry's passenger cars saw much service.

There was no doubt, however, that passenger use of the Huckleberry had declined somewhat. Freight business, mainly coal and building supplies for Tech, was healthy, but early in 1926, the Norfolk and Western successfully petitioned the State Corporation Commission for permission to eliminate the evening train. By the start of school the following September, the Tech yearbook, The Bugle, reported, "The first innocent rat boarded the Huckleberry at Christiansburg, and his slightly more intelligent brother rat boarded the taxi." This became the usual way anyone with a large amount of baggage got to Blacksburg from afar: arrive by train in Cambria with a train ticket through to Blacksburg. The Huckleberry would, therefore, transport the baggage, even though the people themselves arrived in Blacksburg more conveniently by taxi via a hard-surfaced road.

An Airport for Blacksburg

Blacksburg had early connections with another kind of traveler: the airplane pilot. After World War I, small open airplanes, most often powered by war surplus engines, were the great enthusiasm of a small fraternity of young men. These airplanes could be set down on any reasonably smooth field such as some of the farm fields near Blacksburg. If one had business at Virginia Tech or in town, the obvious landing choice was the recreation field on campus.

In 1926 the Air Commerce Act established a Secretary of Commerce to develop a National Airways System connecting cities for mail and commercial passenger flights. By 1927, when thirty-five emergency landing fields were authorized by the Virginia legislature along such flyways in Virginia, Blacksburg was in just the right place to receive one of these grass strips on the Washington, D.C., to Nashville, Tennessee, corridor. On campus Virginia Tech immediately announced plans for three new courses for the mechanical engineering curriculum: aeronautics, aerodynamics, and airplane design. The landing strip, built in 1929, was 1,800 feet in length and "large enough for the average commercial plane," all but "the large trimotors." Two years later, mostly due to Tech's interest in the technology of air travel, the emergency grass strip was granted airport status. Maintenance and fueling services were not offered at first, but the new status meant that barnstormers could offer airplane rides, stunt shows, and flight instruction there. Throughout the 1930s the airport at Blacksburg became a favorite destination of the flying enthusiasts of Roanoke. They thought of it as the best grass strip anywhere around, and Blacksburgers' patronage made their efforts worthwhile.

Numbered Routes, Better Signs

As the 1930s approached and travelers became accustomed to more connected and better roads, the need grew for standardization of directional and informational road signs as well as numbered routes. Montgomery County had two such roads within her borders in 1929, the Route 11 designation for the new Lee Highway and the later-developing Route 23, part of which was none other than the old Blacksburg Road. Route 23 entered Virginia from North Carolina and, when finished, would continue north and westward through Giles County into West Virginia and onward, adding up to 5,356 miles in length. Montgomery County had seventy-six-and-a-half miles of road administered by the state at this time. Of the forty-six of those miles that were hard-surfaced, most were parts of these two earliest numbered routes.

The building of Route 23 brought new, high standards to Blacksburg's most important road: wider curves and deeper cuts and a thirty-foot wide roadbed with an eighteen-foot "bituminous macadam" pavement. Virginia Tech and the town had grown rapidly the last ten years, so the improvements were sorely needed.

In July 1929 the nearby Route 23 work began with the Blacksburg Road at the Blacksburg end. The narrow, continuously winding Ellett Road served as the detour route to Christiansburg in 1929 and 1930. The actual designed connection to Route 11 straight ahead toward North Franklin Street to Main was not completed until several years later when the N&W main line could be bridged. By then the route's number had been changed from 23 to 8.

The volume of through traffic that was part of the Route 23-Route 8 phenomenon created the necessity for important changes within Blacksburg. In the spring of 1935, Main Street was strung with ten street lights from Roanoke Street northward to the top of the hill, where it now intersects the Virginia Tech Alumni Mall. In October the town's second stoplight was installed on Main Street at Roanoke Street and was synchronized with the original one at Main and College. The following summer, enough of the Virginia Tech campus was cut away from that corner to make Main Street-Route 8-straight rather than making a "dog leg" around Tech. The original jog in the road remains today as additional parking and access to downtown businesses.

More Competition for Railroads

In contrast to the new through-routes, Montgomery County had a worse time than ever trying to pay for maintaining its local farm-to-market roads. To rectify this difficulty for Virginia's counties, the 1932 General Assembly authorized a state secondary road system. A new era for local rural roads began when Montgomery County acted on its option of giving road responsibilities to the state. With these kinds of governmental changes continuing, the effects of the Great Depression resulted in less damage to travel by automobile than to passenger travel by rail. It had not been surprising when, in September 1930, the N&W eliminated its Blacksburg Branch's Sunday trains as part of a passenger service reduction program throughout the N&W system.

Two other significant developments in the local transportation picture occurred during the 1930s. One was the advent of buses as a competitive alternative to train travel. Consolidated Bus Lines advertised that "$1.65 is all you pay for a round trip ticket" to Roanoke. Also, Tech cadets' and children's shenanigans with the Huckleberry resulted in a much more serious attitude by the N&W. Safety and liability had become more critical issues for railroads as an unaccustomed general public kept getting their automobiles entangled with trains at grade crossings. Now, soaping the rails or tossing stones down onto the trains heading for Blacksburg brought out the railroad police.

World War II Travels to Blacksburg

As the 1930s drew to a close, the threat of war loomed. It cast its first shadow on local transportation at Blacksburg's airport. The Defense Department's Civilian Pilot Training Program came to the little airstrip in 1939, bringing with it the need for-and money for-a maintenance hangar and a paved runway well over 1,000 feet longer than the existing grass strip. The hangar, which remains the main hangar today, was completed in 1940, and the 2,850-foot paved runway was ready for service by 1941 alongside the grass strip, which remained important for training purposes. At first, fifteen aircraft were acquired for the training program. Additional classroom, shop and office spaces were completed in 1942. The flight training provided from 1940 to 1942 reached the level of commercial pilot and navigator. As the war progressed, first the army and later the navy were active in primary flight training here, and many more aircraft were brought in. High-school graduates recruited by the National Youth Administration lived in barracks at the airport and were trained to be aircraft mechanics, a hundred at a time.

After an era when flying an airplane was as freely entered into as riding a bicycle, the early 1940s brought a time of tightening regulations and requirements in piloting. Wes Hillman tells the following story. In May of 1942, an experienced flight instructor from Roanoke flew to VPI's airport to be tested for one of the new advanced ratings. Al Pressner, the Virginia Tech instructor who was testing him, was pleased to demonstrate the maneuverability of the powerful little open-air two-seater to an appreciative, knowledgeable colleague, so he took the controls. When he swayed the plane from side to side, his passenger realized that the straps of his parachute pack were cutting into him. The Roanoke man wanted Pressner, in front of him, to hold the airplane steady on course while he unfastened his seatbelt to adjust his pack. He therefore shouted ahead into the roar of the engine and airstream, "HOLD IT!" His pilot, delighted to respond to what he thought he heard, promptly obliged. Unfortunately, he thought he had heard "ROLL IT!"

While the plane was upside down and its passenger was on his way out of the rear cockpit, his foot hit a valve, cutting off the fuel supply. So as the little plane pulled out of the roll, the motor died. The pilot turned to explain that he would do the unpowered "dead stick" flying back to the airport, only to see an empty cockpit and a parachute suddenly blossoming below. "It took a neat bit of flying to bring the fast ship back to the airport and down with a dead motor," a Roanoke newspaper marveled. What it did not add was that the candidate for the advanced rating was, at the same time, trying to assure a local farmer that he was not an enemy spy dropped from the sky for some nefarious purpose.

World War II turned Blacksburg's transportation picture upside down and inside out, as it did all over the nation. In 1943 the N&W's passenger service increased 854 percent over what it had been in 1939, the start of the war in Europe. Though actual percentages are not available, in Blacksburg the Huckleberry was taxed to the extreme when the army ordered most of Tech's junior and senior classes into the army en masse. When the U.S. government "federalized" the country's railroads-the "seizure" of the railroads, the N&W called it-the Huckleberry, too, had been inducted into the army, right along with the entire N&W system. Then, throughout the war, the Blacksburg Branch served unending streams of servicemen-in and out, several hundred each week-arriving for training in Blacksburg as army engineers.

The war effort gave the railroads an enormous job with fewer employees to handle the burden. Poor maintenance resulted, and the Huckleberry was a case in point, as evidenced by a letter written by one of the numberless servicemen shuttled in and out of Blacksburg during the war. The letter's writer, Henry Wiss, became a longtime member of the faculty in Virginia Tech's School of Engineering and Architecture. He wrote:

At last we took the train (one car divided into two compartments for black & white). The seats were filthy and I hardly dared to sit for fear I'd ruin my clothes. There were a sufficient number of spittoons for all the seats and an old drum stove for heat--what a rattle trap!

The new Radford Army Ammunition Plant became the largest employer of the northern Montgomery County area. Commuter trains from Roanoke transported workers every day, as did buses from Blacksburg.

Postwar Repercussions

At the close of the war in 1946, the entire country threw itself into the game of transportation catch-up. The demand for civilian automobiles was tremendous. Wartime industries retooled, using prewar styles for several years to speed more and more cars onto the roads. Railroads were on their own again as the federal government returned them to their private corporations. On the other hand, great amounts of tax money went for airport building and road improvement. With such support directed at the competition, the railroads had to do some serious scrambling for their piece of the transportation pie. Locally, the N&W remodeled and enlarged the depot and installed a new heating plant in its Blacksburg station.

Once again, Blacksburg was proving itself a microcosm of the broader transportation picture. The Virginia Tech airport thrived, continuing to offer flight instruction. Because enormous numbers of veterans flooded the campus beginning in September 1946, many college students opted to learn to fly since the GI Bill paid 90 percent of the cost. The road to Christiansburg was relocated away from the airport eastward by following the Ellett road about a mile gradually downward. As that road curved into the Cedar Run dip to Ellett, a new section of road toward Christiansburg was cut into the side of the hill for about one-and-a-half more miles, curving back again to meet the original version of the road, as South Main Street now does. The original route was then renamed Airport Road. By 1948 Virginia's very busy highway commission felt that it had caught up with its wartime backlog of road maintenance and such improvement projects as this new road that is now part of Blacksburg's South Main Street. VPI added buildings to its overstrained, crowded campus at a faster pace than ever before. The school turned to the N&W's Blacksburg Branch to bring in the increasing amounts of building and other supplies.

While the Huckleberry's freight service flourished, its passenger service was a different story. In fact, a passenger trip from one end of the line to the other was a rarity by 1949. The overwhelming percentage of passenger trips were to and from various points in the country, a trend already evident in the 1920s. It was no longer adult Blacksburgers who were taking the train. Children enjoyed birthday parties that included lunch in Christiansburg by way of a ride on the train. School groups loved it when a ride was a part of their outings. But take the Huckleberry to actually get somewhere? It just was not done. To most Blacksburgers, there had not been a time in memory that the Huckleberry had been the way to go, and the Huckleberry had literally become laughable, if thought about at all. This kind of atmosphere, so vastly changed from 1904's grateful, jubilant Huckleberry welcome celebration, led to the fabrication of a mocking story about the origin of the line's nickname, and the story became accepted as fact and passed on. No, the Huckleberry was so named long before "it moved so slowly that passengers could jump off and pick berries . . . ."

Within the Norfolk and Western Railway Co., the question of eliminating one of the daily round trips on the Blacksburg Branch surfaced in June 1949. No opposition was expressed at the State Corporation Commission hearing. Effective December 19, 1949, the N&W eliminated the round trip of Blacksburg's afternoon train.

Too Many Automobiles!

The result in Blacksburg of the postwar rush to build and sell cars, on the other hand, was described in The Roanoke Times:

Problem number one for town officials and the three-man police department is traffic. Because the town is fairly evenly spread out from boundary to boundary, there is a fairly high ratio of cars per family. Then too, there are several thousand automobiles operating from the nearby institution. . . . According to Mayor Barringer, the problem is often "where to put the cars."

As the decade of the 1950s began, measures were called for to ease this traffic problem. Main Street from College Avenue to 200 feet north of the new VPI Mall at the top of the hill became a divided highway with extra wide lanes. College Avenue was widened twelve feet by taking land from the Tech campus. The "traffic circle" at College and Main, which had formed around a traffic light on a pedestal, was eliminated. At the time, Montgomery County had 66.6 miles of primary roads, including the new east-west U.S. 460, which had superseded the Blacksburg-Christiansburg link provided earlier by the north-south Route 8. Route 8 now ended at its northernmost point in Christiansburg. The county also had 442.4 miles of secondary roads. Greyhound, Trailways, and Consolidated bus lines traversed the county. But transportation remained inadequate in Blacksburgers' estimation.

At its April 1957 meeting, the Blacksburg Town Council formally requested the state highway department "to take prompt action" to relieve Blacksburg's serious inaccessibility problems. The solution sought by Blacksburg was a four-lane road from Blacksburg to connect with Route 11, completely bypassing Christiansburg, and a four-lane 460 bypass around Blacksburg.

A Missed Opportunity

In 1956 the federal government had mounted a major program designing and implementing a radically conceived, quality, long-distance network of super-highways, which would eliminate all but fast movement. These modern roads would be called the interstate system, and one road in the system, Interstate 81, would be constructed near Blacksburg as a modern equivalent to U.S. 11.

Besides a southern proposal for this road that more closely approximated Route 11, a northern proposal would have it cross east-west between Blacksburg and Christiansburg near the "powder plant road" (Peppers Ferry Road). The northern alternative would give Blacksburg its own direct access to the east and west, but the town's long-established tradition of strong commitment to campaigning for the best of transportation this time faltered. No such campaign was mounted. Newspaper accounts indicate that an August 1959 public hearing in Radford amounted to a hearing on why officials had already decided against the more expensive northern route. Not a whimper emanated from Blacksburg. Three months later, with all U.S. 460 improvements to the south of town on hold due to lack of funding, Virginia Tech President Walter S. Newman joined town leaders in stepping up traditional Blacksburg pressure for that long-important road south from town. The possibility of an east-west highway for Blacksburg had wafted away.

Meanwhile, at the airport during the time of the Korean Conflict, flight training for the Department of Defense continued at the rate of thirty-five to forty senior ROTC students a year. Blacksburg itself began to view the airport with new interest. In the same month, April 1957, that the town council eloquently pleaded for the desperately needed road to the south, it also initiated another transportation effort that stretched well over two years. Blacksburg sought Civil Aeronautics Board authorization to offer scheduled commercial airline transportation at Blacksburg's airport. The CAB eventually did approve the town's application, but neither Piedmont nor any other airline could be persuaded to provide air service for Blacksburg.

The Huckleberry Revisited

Blacksburg children still enjoyed their occasional Huckleberry rides-when their parents agreed to drive them home from Cambria. And increasingly, another kind of rider was taking the Huckleberry: the steam locomotive enthusiast. These people sometimes came from long distances to hear the sounds, smell the smells, see the sights, and take pictures of the increasingly rare steam engine phenomenon. When the National Railway Historical Society held its national convention in Roanoke in 1957, specifically because Norfolk and Western was a steam engine holdout, the convention included a sold-out steam-powered excursion to Blacksburg. The entire train-steam engines and all-was arranged in Cambria to back towards Blacksburg so that first in view at the Blacksburg depot were the three gondolas full of standing passengers, then the six passenger cars, and then the three engines with their tenders. Writing about the event, the Montgomery News Messenger called the Huckleberry Blacksburg's "pride and joy." Thus, nostalgia had replaced belittling stories, and use of the Huckleberry name brought forth warm affection and a sense of specialness once again.

The steam locomotive was not the only thing disappearing from railroads. Blacksburgers were seeing passenger trains disappearing as well. The Virginian, whose trains could be boarded at either Merrimac or at Price Station, ran its last passenger train in January 1956. Famous passenger trains on the Norfolk and Western main line were gradually being withdrawn. Then it happened to Blacksburg's own. The N&W wanted to cease all regularly scheduled passenger service on its Blacksburg Branch. The Virginia Tech special trains and the freight service so important to Blacksburg would continue. July 25, 1958, saw the last scheduled steam-powered trip that included a passenger car. A week later, the last mixed train of all, this one powered by a diesel, came and went. Council's only concern was that freight service remain. The date was August 9, 1958.

Airport Gobbles the Huckleberry

By early 1963 the town, VPI, and Norfolk and Western began conferring about "pulling the railroad back from Blacksburg." Although Virginia Tech received almost three-quarters of all freight the railroad brought in, the single, most compelling reason to remove the tracks came from Virginia Tech President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. In a July 1963 public hearing, he emphasized: The "technical and scientific industries which will locate here are not dependent upon a railroad but rather upon an airport." For an airport to meet future requirements, the tracks, located nearby, had to be removed in favor of a new, longer runway, better oriented for prevailing winds. Tech had already obtained a $275,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant to help pay for it. Meantime, flight training for the defense department continued at the airport, although now preparing Air Force fliers for the Vietnam war.

Before the N&W could remove the tracks into Blacksburg, the Interstate Commerce Commission stipulated that the railroad company provide a substitute coal tipple at Peppers Ferry Road (Route 114) for receiving coal destined for Blacksburg. The tracks were not taken up all the way to that point, however, because a new Corning plant had moved in, attracted to the area, in part, by the presence of the railroad. Corning intended to use the rails to bring in raw materials. In 1965, the same year that Corning arrived, Virginia Tech obtained its first executive aircraft for faculty and staff transport.

The last freight train into Blacksburg arrived on Thursday, June 30, 1966. The Blacksburg depot closed. The next day, a diesel picked up the empty cars. The tracks were removed immediately. "We are swapping outdated rail facilities for a good airport," a town council member remarked. Even before the depot was razed in March 1967, the new 4,200-foot runway at the airport was completed and put to use. It crossed the original road between Blacksburg and Christiansburg. The Blacksburg portion of that road was still called Airport Road, while on the other side of the airport, its name was changed to Ramble Road. Within downtown Blacksburg, the opposite was happening: a few dead-end streets were connected now that the tracks were gone.

Mounting Needs Outstrip Gains

By the mid-1960s, Virginia had an arterial road program in place to supplement Virginia's interstates by upgrading the old primary road system. Blacksburg's 1957 pleadings for U.S. 460 improvements southward and a bypass around town on the west fit into the arterial road program. When Interstate 81 was opened between Christiansburg and Wytheville in 1965, four-laning had been completed on 460 from Blacksburg to Christiansburg as well, and town council was meshing town plans with the department's Blacksburg bypass plans. The final design gained approval for construction ten years and one day after town council's strong request for the road. Spaces were reserved for interchanges at a road that would extend to the bypass from the area of Tech's athletic fields, where Prices Fork Road crossed the bypass, and at Toms Creek Road, but no interchanges were built as yet. Only a bridge for each direction of the bypass at its southern end and a bridge for Glade Road to cross the bypass were to be included in the original building.

From spring into summer 1967, the U.S. 460 Christiansburg bypass was added to the otherwise completed 460 improvements in Christiansburg. Also in the summer of 1967, the improved road over Brush and Sinking Creek mountains took form. Construction crews deeply notched the mountains to accommodate the road's widened and straightened new version. The Blacksburg bypass followed in short order. With the completion of the entire 460 project, Blacksburg became more readily accessible from the northwest as well as from the northeast and southwest. In the first half of December 1969, the last local link, the 460 bypass of Blacksburg, opened to traffic. Interstate 81 northeastward from Christiansburg opened at the end of 1971.

Soon, however, area leaders responsible for roads became dissatisfied with Blacksburg's I-81 connection. Complaints about stop-and-go traffic had already been heard in Salem district highway hearings before 1980. The main bottleneck occurred between the Blacksburg end of the Christiansburg bypass and the intersection of U.S. 460 with Route 114. Some suggested the need for an overpass or underpass-a "grade-separated interchange"-at that crossroads. Perhaps there should be six lanes, others suggested. This was eight years before the New River Valley Mall opened in the spring of 1988.

The desire for improved traffic flow to I-81 gained energy and focus in 1983 when the Greater Blacksburg Chamber of Commerce called for all interested jurisdictions to press for three grade-separated interchanges on the route: one at Route 114 and one at each end of the Christiansburg bypass. Newspapers urged governmental response and citizen support.

The road campaign continued throughout the following six months. A "working group" was formed to meet with state highway engineers. At the April 1984 highway commission hearing, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, Montgomery County Economic Development Commission, Greater Blacksburg Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the Christiansburg-Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce presented a united front to ask for the three grade-separated interchanges. But there were only funds enough to make at-grade improvements at two of the intersections. Between 1984 and 1985, the traffic count at the worst point of congestion increased 30 percent to 37,048 vehicles a day. Throughout 1985 and until the highway hearings of April 1986, the concerted, but unsuccessful, campaign for the three interchanges did not let up.

More Solutions Suggested

Meantime, in April 1986, a dream resurfaced that was almost as old as the routing of I-81 south of Christiansburg: Blacksburg having its own better connection to I-81. Ken Anderson of the Greater Blacksburg Chamber of Commerce developed a proposal, based on an idea of Roanoke's River Foundation, that a two-lane parkway be developed that would straighten county road 603 from Blacksburg to the Ironto interchange of I-81. By handling fifty-five mile-per-hour speeds, the route would attract some of the traffic that was overburdening U.S. 460-and at the same time benefit Blacksburg and Virginia Tech's Corporate Research Center, which needed a better connection with Roanoke. As a specialized road, the parkway could, perhaps, be eligible for funding other than that for which U.S. 460 competed. The idea gained a following among county citizens.

Then on August 26, 1986, Mayor Noel Taylor of Roanoke also proposed a direct link between Roanoke and Blacksburg. His interest lay in benefiting economic development in the Roanoke Valley by better access to Virginia Tech. With Roanoke behind the idea, Blacksburg Mayor Roger Hedgepeth and Virginia Tech President William Lavery responded with ready enthusiasm.

Later in 1986 yet another very important contribution added to the rising highway fever: much more federal and state highway money became available. Community imaginations quickly grew to match the new resources. Might money designated for the interstate system be applicable to a spur road to Blacksburg like Roanoke's I-581? The idea warranted further exploration; a high speed road could link Blacksburg and Virginia Tech with Roanoke. The parkway idea faded, and the three-year-old campaign for three interchanges on U.S. 460 disappeared. A new limited-access road could parallel U.S. 460, connecting Blacksburg's bypass with Christiansburg's. This new road would be the one with the interchanges. The idea won immediate support in Christiansburg and Montgomery County, but Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, accustomed to years of expecting less than might now be possible from the highway department and not getting it, feared that such an expensive solution south of town might mean that their expensive solution to the east would not see the light of day.

Throughout 1987, 1988, 1989, and half of 1990, the tough process of clarifying highway issues, of interests clashing with interests, of data-collecting, of weighing long lists of pros and cons, of persuading key politicians to support most-favored proposals, of wooing citizens who opposed either road-i.e., the process of sifting ideas and forming plans-continued through many variations of two basic ideas: a direct link from Blacksburg toward the east or a major new version of Blacksburg's original I-81 link to the south.

In 1987 Virginia Tech swapped its arboretum across U.S. 460 from the 460-114 intersection for a much larger parcel from a developer, and it became clear that yet another shopping center would soon add to traffic congestion on U.S. 460 and Route 114. Around the same time, Corning, which had ceased operations in Montgomery County, announced that it would reopen its plant, drawing predictions of even more traffic. On January 1, 1988, Christiansburg annexed much of the 460-114 area, leaving only one-half mile of U.S. 460 in the county between Blacksburg and Christiansburg. Yet the very long process of determining what highways would be built could not be hurried. Twelve to fourteen state agencies still needed to assess the proposed projects. It was expected that none of the new roads in question could relieve U.S. 460 congestion before 1998.

Blacksburg, Virginia Tech, and the River Foundation commissioned their own preliminary highway study in 1987. The highway department began its study in June 1988. The first suggestion that a direct Blacksburg link might be financed in part by research and federal "demonstration project" money surfaced in the spring of 1989. The "either-or" mindset, first questioned as early as 1987, only barely began to soften to a tentative, hopeful "both-and" in 1989; maybe both roads could be built. The first public hearings on the proposals from the state corridor study began in February 1990. Blacksburg officials and university leaders maintained pressure for Blacksburg's direct link, pointing out that Blacksburg was the sole significant municipality on Virginia's I-81 corridor that did not have its own direct access to the interstate.

Up-to-date: Big Highway Plans

On June 21, 1990, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the "3A" version of the new limited-access bypass-to-bypass connector with high-speed interchanges and a straight extension of the Christiansburg bypass beyond Route 11 to I-81. Furthermore, it decided that the Blacksburg-Roanoke connector would be included in the state's six-year plan in such a way that it would "meet all federal requirements to qualify as a federal demonstration project and/or be eligible for funds associated with federal, state, local, or private contributions to the 'smart highway' technology."

In Blacksburg toward the end of 1991, an organized "road busters" protest was staged at VDOT's "Smart Road" hearing, but the state transportation people already knew that local community leaders wanted the road. Two months later, Congress dedicated $5.9 million to the demonstration highway project, and in February 1992 the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the chosen route for the Smart Road. Before 1992 ended, Virginia transportation officials determined that increasing numbers of vehicles per day on the Blacksburg-Christiansburg road made both the Blacksburg link and the bypass-to-bypass connector to I-81 critical in moving vehicles to, from, and through Blacksburg. Another part of this picture included the expanding numbers of vehicles using I-81. In 1984-85 another climbing lane had been added on Christiansburg Mountain, but in 1992 the state's six-year highway plan included an expansion to six lanes of the entire I-81 corridor in Virginia. The proposed project would take eighteen years to complete. I-81 northeast of exit 118 would be the very first section six-laned in the new I-81 program. What is more, another future highway, I-73 from Detroit to coastal South Carolina, could possibly come through Blacksburg via the U.S. 460 corridor, threatening still greater volumes of traffic through Blacksburg. The Commonwealth Transportation Board was planning ahead for 70,000 vehicles a day in the problem area by the year 2010, and all local jurisdictions were again united, this time in wanting both the Blacksburg and the new Christiansburg connections to I-81.

Throughout the next five years, 1992 to 1997, the preliminary processes in gaining major highways continued. Of the two projects, the Smart Road continued to draw opposition from environmentalists whose view was that it would disturb a special rural part of the county. A contract for the first 1.7-miles of the Smart Road was awarded in May 1997. The ground-breaking ceremony was held on July 8, 1997. To date, land acquisition continues. Construction on the by-pass connector is scheduled to begin near the close of 1998. It is a good thing; back in 1995, the average daily traffic count at the worst bottleneck on U.S. 460 south of Blacksburg was already at 49,000 vehicles and was increasing every year.

Up-to-date: The Railway

As Blacksburg prepares for its 200-year celebration, work continues to extend the Huckleberry Trail on the old railroad right-of-way from downtown to the New River Valley Mall. The trail's existence resulted from a partnering effort among two towns, a county, state and federal governments, a university, businesses, student civil engineers, bicyclists, and individuals, all of whom contributed to a worthwhile and popular addition to the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area.

In February 1991 PATH (People Advocating the Huckleberry) was formed to organize volunteer efforts to extend the trail beyond the short original portion between the public library parking lot and the Margaret Beeks schoolground. Work parties cleared brush, carted away debris, and built bridges. A Friends of the Huckleberry was organized to raise funds. Virginia Tech and Corning each granted valuable easements through their land in places where the trail could not follow the old right-of-way. The Montgomery County Department of Planning and Inspections assumed duties such as applying for and administering grant money. State highway department and county improvement projects affecting the trail were expanded to encompass trail needs. Despite such broad support, years of costly delays created by bureaucratic entanglements doubled the projected cost of the trail from the 1993 estimate of $521,000.

On April 6, 1996, ground was broken for Phase I of the trail extension from Country Club Drive to Merrimac Road, and the section opened in the fall of 1996. The Phase II construction to the New River Valley Mall might be completed during Blacksburg's bicentennial year. Also, the Town of Blacksburg, as part of its bicentennial celebration, is planning an off-the-street pedestrian greenway that will connect the Huckleberry Trail at the public library with the Virginia Tech campus near Squires Student Center.

Up-to-date: The Airport

By 1997 use of the Virginia Tech Airport had begun shifting. Increasingly, corporations doing business in the area fly their executives in company-owned aircraft to Blacksburg's airport. Thus the airport has become more involved in the growing economy of the entire region. Meanwhile, Tech's training of fliers for the armed services has ended. Virginians still learn to fly at the airport, but their numbers cannot be compared with those of civilian-but veteran-student flyers of the past.

Since 1966 improvements have continued to increase the usefulness and safety of the airport. Runway and approach lights added in 1967 made night landings possible. An AM radio beacon, which followed in 1969, began emitting the airport's "T-E-C" Morse code identifier to guide fliers to the airport, allowing landings even in thick clouds when the ceiling was 1,000 feet or higher. A taxiway was constructed parallel to the runway in 1986. The following year brought a system of extra-bright, sequentially flashing lights that could be activated by pilots via radio as they approached from any direction. The latter 1980s also saw the addition of an automatic weather observation system, which uses satellites and computers to deliver full reports of weather conditions at Blacksburg's airport and at the destination points of airplanes leaving Blacksburg, and a localizer instrument approach that allows landings through a cloud cover with a 341-foot ceiling. In 1991 the runway was extended 350 feet to accommodate larger and faster aircraft, including small jets. A parallel taxiway for the extension was built at the same time. Currently, the planning phase to relocate the older, main segment of the taxiway has been funded, and upgrading to the same standards as the 1991 taxiway extension is anticipated.

Additional improvements have less to do with safety and more to do with the changing use of the airport. Such improvements have included a terminal, a parking lot, and terminal apron in 1996. Thus, corporate and private visitors find a more fitting gateway to the area upon arriving at the airport. Other amenities desired by the airport's changing clientele remain in a holding pattern as Virginia Tech seeks further involvement in the airport from communities in the region.

Up-to-date: The Turnpike from the Northeast

The Blacksburg story began with the road on which the town was founded: the 1746 Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike. Two hundred years after passage of the act creating Blacksburg, this 252-year-old road has acquired a broad spectrum of modern guises.

Approaching Blacksburg from the northeast today down the north fork of the Roanoke River, the two-lane road is wider now as it rises and dives and sways left and right, but Annie Mae Albert, born in 1912 along the river, says that all of those curves have remained in the same places during her lifetime. Evelyn McPherson observes from her farm in the valley that football traffic on game weekends proves the road is still "the road from Roanoke" that gave Blacksburg's Roanoke Street its name.

Proceeding toward Blacksburg, the 1746 route turns right at Luster's Gate. The road ascending the hill to town is called Harding Road today. There are other surviving old versions of the climb, some clearly discernible as wide tracks in the woods or fields for part of their length, while others are barely traceable. But the Harding Road version of the climb came early to predominate. Within the town limits at the crest, however, two routes for the descent into downtown remain clearly discernible, and old-time Blacksburgers clearly remember the older of the two routes. This road turned more leftward than the version used now-one thinks of it today as upper East Roanoke Street. Where that road curves abruptly toward Lee and Alleghany streets now, the original Roanoke Street continued down the hill to connect with the top of today's lower portion where it curves into Orchard View Lane. Part of the old connection is a driveway now, and the remainder, carved into the side of a hill, can still be walked in the woods. Not until 1924 was today's route built to the other side of the cemetery from the top of the hill. At the cemetery in 1924, open land stretched ahead toward town, but in that day it was considered important for a main route to take travelers through a town's main intersection-in this case, the one in Blacksburg's original sixteen squares now known as Roanoke and Main. The new road into town, therefore, curved around the cemetery to Roanoke Street. It took the Fincastle Turnpike name. Harding Avenue was then just a short road off Prospect Street. Forty more years passed before it cut through to the cemetery. To travel into town today, one arrives not by Fincastle Turnpike to Roanoke Street but by leaving Harding Avenue to take Owens Street to East Roanoke Street-the same road by different names.

Today's street-numbering system and such distinctions as East Roanoke Street and North Main Street still reflect the primary status with which the Roanoke and Main intersection began. Standing at this crossroads and looking along North Main Street toward the university campus, one can see North Main head downhill for two blocks and then rise straight up a cut into a somewhat steeper hill ahead to Virginia Tech's Alumni Mall entrance to campus. Earlier versions of the through-route had curved around the steeper campus hill, first to the left and later to the right.

When the Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike first came to what we now call the Roanoke and Main intersection, it met the road connecting the Montgomery County and Giles County courthouses. Toms Creek was the more local destination by which the road was named in town, so one had arrived at Toms Creek Road. This road only extended one block within Blacksburg's original sixteen squares-that is, from Roanoke Street to Jackson Street-before curving somewhat further westward to the left. The road then approached the hill ahead at an angle and curved left around its west side, avoiding the highest section. It continued, crossing the site of today's Alumni Mall and Virginia Tech's Shultz Dining Hall. It then proceeded, generally, along present-day Turner Street and Toms Creek Road, which originally lined up as one continuous road. Basically where Prices Fork Road lies between Turner and Toms Creek roads today existed a Y-intersection, where the Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike was the left fork, curving away to resume its southwesterly course.

In 1855 the Olin and Preston Institute erected its classroom building at the top of the hill around which Toms Creek Road curved. That placed the building where Business 460 now cuts into the hill. By 1874 the building and grounds had passed to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College-today's Virginia Tech-which already needed this extension of the town's business street moved eastward to give the college more growing space. Thereafter, as the town's main street approached the hill upon which stood the college's foremost building, it headed straight toward the building before cornering eastward around the highest part of the hill. The through-road, of course, moved with it. Reaching Turner Street, the through-route turned left to rejoin its earlier, straighter version. Until 1979 the last short section of Turner Street, after its elbow into the campus, had been known as Pepper Street, an allusion to its history as part of the road to Peppers Ferry. As for the portion of the route after it turned southwest from Toms Creek Road, it was still called Fincastle Road along the proposed McBryde Village in the 1930s.

Today, to find a practical through-road approximating the Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike, one must continue on North Main Street to a T-intersection, a busy, wide, divided highway coming in from the left: Prices Fork Road. The demographic changes around the heart of town and campus were so early and ongoing in Blacksburg that older locations of the Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike through town probably existed but are lost to us today. Consider that the 1746 road came through northern Montgomery County fifty-two years before Blacksburg came into existence. Then consider that there was a time when the town's single engineer worked at home because he was not given an office by the town. When he died, his widow threw out "his" entire store of old street maps, charts, and records. Much about this early road is not known.

Up-to-date: The Turnpike to the West

Near town, two-lane Prices Fork Road was becoming inadequate in 1969 following the addition of numerous residences west of the new Blacksburg bypass. Prices Fork Road, with just a stop sign at the bypass, handled 4,500 cars a day. By 1971 that intersection was surrounded by the largest amount of construction in Blacksburg. At year's end, the state still refused motorists' request for a traffic light at the site. The Red Lion Inn, the Marriott (now the Sheraton), and University Mall increased business traffic in the area. Hethwood added apartments by the hundreds and townhouses and medium- and high-priced homes every year. No sooner was a traffic light placed at the bypass than-in early 1974-a cry went out from the town's western population for an overpass.

Hethwood continued to grow. By 1977 Prices Fork Road traffic at the bypass averaged 9,000 vehicles a day. Construction of the four-lane bridge for the bypass intersection began in spring 1978, followed by the four-laning of the road eastward toward town. The new section of Prices Fork Road became operational in November 1979. A new kind of computerized traffic-light system replaced timed lights the full length of the new road, eliminating unnecessary stops at red lights.

Still, the western growth continued. In 1980 between five thousand and six thousand new residents moved into the Snyder-Hunt communities west of the bypass. By far the worst traffic jams in Blacksburg occurred on two-lane Prices Fork Road beyond the bypass, where, by 1983, an average of twenty thousand cars passed every day. In the mid-1980s Blacksburg gained the dubious distinction of having more traffic accidents than any other town in Virginia, with seventy-five on Prices Fork Road alone in 1984.

With 20 percent of the town's population living in the area by 1985, four-laning, curve-straightening, and leveling began from the bypass bridge to the Hethwood Shopping Center. In December 1987 the four-lane, divided highway was complete to the town line. In Blacksburg's 200th year, Prices Fork Road handles its heavy town traffic with much-improved dispatch and safety.

Blacksburg's original 1746 through-route can still be traced through Prices Fork and down narrow Price Station Road to a back gate of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, where it becomes a restricted private road. At the arsenal's front gate, the 1746 right-of-way emerges and may again be followed to Peppers Ferry Road and on to the New River. Here, over a mile and a quarter of four-lane road and bridges complete one's Fincastle-Peppers Ferry Turnpike journey, leaving Montgomery County where, a long time ago, Mr. Pepper's ferry plied the waters.

Meantime, east of Blacksburg, besides the "785" and "Catawba Road" signs, one sees today the "76" signs that announce that stretch of the route as a portion of a 4,300-mile-long national bicentennial bicycle route. To many travelers by bicycle or by automobile, the valley has not changed much, and that is its charm. Because of this attraction, about ten years ago, this stretch was also officially designated a Virginia By-way. Yet we have seen that the town named Blacksburg, established 200 years ago upon this pastoral road's beginnings, is a town that energetically insists upon very current connections with all that is up-to-date in the world today.


Patricia S. Neumann is a Blacksburg printmaker whose current project is her book, The Train to Huckleberry Junction, which she is illustrating with her wood engravings. If you have any old Huckleberry pictures or stories, she would appreciate hearing from you.

Blacksburg Educates
Its Children
The Transformation
of a Frontier
Political Culture


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