West Virginia Turnpike

West Virginia Turnpike


Historically, the West Virginia Turnpike was a two-lane road with treacherous curves and a tunnel (which has since been decommissioned). Construction began in 1952, several years before the Eisenhower Interstate System was funded. It was only in 1986 that the entire length of the Turnpike was upgraded to Interstate standards.

The road is often referred to simply as "the Turnpike" by locals, since there are no other toll roads in the state. Due to the difficulty and lives lost in construction, it has also been called "88 miles of miracle."


In the mid-20th century, in the years before creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System in 1956, superhighways in the form of toll roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Ohio Turnpike began stimulating economic development and enhancing transportation in the eastern United States.

"Turnpike that goes to nowhere."

Transportation has always been a vital link between the main southern and central cities of West Virginia. Originally serviced by railroads and then two-lane highways, by the mid 20th century the cities grew to the point where the roadways between these regions were becoming woefully inadequate. Heavier traffic loads and increasing traffic volumes made the existing roads dangerous with safety statistics to prove it. In 1949, Governor Okey L. Patteson oversaw the creation of The Turnpike Commission which was the start of the planning of what was to become the West Virginia Turnpike.Monday, CHristopher R. "The West Virginia Turnpike: 88 Miles of Miracle." March 2 2003 [http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs1121.html] .]

Two years earlier, the state legislature had appropriated funds to study the feasibility of building a superhighway comparable to similar projects being planned and constructed in other states. Early proposals showed a highway stretching from Parkersburg to Princeton, while another map diagrammed a route from Wheeling to Princeton. Both of these plans, however, were shelved in a 1951 study, citing the extreme costs of building a modern highway through very unforgiving terrain as the primary reason. The study recommended that the northern terminus be moved to Fairplain just outside of Ripley and that the southern terminus remain in Princeton. The study also suggested that the highway be constructed as a two-lane facility rather than a four-lane highway, with provisions for future widening when funding became available.

In November 1951, the final alignment was chosen. The route was convert|22|mi|km shorter than the original road mileage between Charleston and Princeton, but would save motorists over two hours of driving between those two points. Original cost projections came in at $78 million. According to the West Virginia Turnpike CAF Report:

:"The Commission issued $96 million of 3-3/4% revenue bonds in April 1952, and groundbreaking took place in August of that year. Due to the occurrence of large slides midway through construction that had to be corrected at additional expense, revenue bonds for an additional $37 million were sold at 4-1/8%. The year 1953 kicked off a period of intense earthmoving that at its peak reached a million cubic yards a week and totaled convert|30000000|cuyd|m3."CAF Report. West Virginia Turnpike. 20 March 2005.]

When ground was broken on the first segment of the Turnpike in 1952, the northern terminus had once again been moved south. This time it was placed at Charleston, citing cost as the primary reason. Cost was projected to be $133 million, to be funded through bonds that would be repaid through a system of tolls. This cost included $5 million for a two-lane tunnel to connect Dawes to Standard.

Construction took two years at the cost of five workers. The first section of the highway, the southern convert|36|mi|km from Beckley to Princeton, opened to traffic on September 2, 1954.Release Date Report. West Virginia Department of Transportation. August 2003.] In November, the remaining convert|52|mi|km between Charleston and Beckley opened. The new Turnpike had several nicknames, including "88 miles of miracle" and "the engineering marvel that beat the mountains." Five sided Turnpike shields were installed along the highway. Six interchanges were constructed. Initially, the road used a ticket-based tolling system. At each interchange, bridges and underpasses for the mainline had an extra set of graded lanes, indicating that the Turnpike was expected to be widened in the future. According to the West Virginia Turnpike CAF Report:

:"The $1.5 million cost per mile was only one of the staggering statistics used by journalists as far away as Michigan and New York to describe their 'amazement at an engineering achievement of such heroic proportions.' "

Three service areas, each served by an at-grade intersection, were constructed at Morton, Bluestone and Beckley. The service areas were originally referred to as "Glass Houses."

For the first few years, the West Virginia Turnpike was a desolate roadway. Although the northern terminus was at a large city, it connected to no other interstates or free-flowing roads. The highway lost some of its "marvel" when The Saturday Evening Post referred to the road as "the Turnpike that goes to nowhere."Massey, Tim R. "'Toughest, meanest job' ends as governor opens turnpike." Herald-Dispatch. 3 September 1987.]

Soon after the Turnpike was completed, the Interstate Highway System began. The new Turnpike, despite its lack of compliance with interstate standards, cut travel time considerably through the state of West Virginia and linked the southern states to the northern states. This new link, however, was overloaded with traffic by the late 1960s. Increased accident rates resulted in large numbers of fatalities. By 1975, 278 people had died on the road. In 1979 alone, nearly 30 were killed. The Turnpike became known as a death-trap, mainly because out-of-state drivers who were accustomed to driving four-lane highways with wide medians and gentle curves were faced with a two-lane undivided freeway.

Popular t-shirts proclaimed, "I survived the West Virginia Turnpike."

Modernizing the Turnpike


These connections brought more traffic to West Virginia than the 2-lane Turnpike could handle adequately. Congestion at the toll plazas was a major concern, along with the increased fatality rate.Barr, Greg. "Parkways Authority Approves Significant Long-term Turnpike Construction, Maintenance and Modernization Strategy." West Virginia Parkways Authority. 14 December 2005. 20 December 2005 [http://www.wvturnpike.com/news_release2.htm] .]

The gap on Interstate 64 between Sam Black Church and Charleston forced east-west traffic to use a scenic but treacherous section of U.S. Highway 60 known as the Midland Trail through Rainelle and Ansted before the road descended Gauley Mountain at Hawk's Nest to the Kanawha River Valley to reach Charleston. There were terrible accidents along this stretch and lengthy delays as trucks negotiated the major grades.


Studies were undertaken to upgrade the highway in the early-1970s. In 1974, the cost to expand the Turnpike to four-lanes was placed at $350 million. When the project had not started by 1975, articles in local newspapers attacked the state workers for their "laziness" in pursuing the upgrade of the highway. Turnpike officials worried, as the costs for upgrading the toll road were increasing dramatically.

In 1976, contracts totaling well over $200 million were awarded, and construction began. A construction time-line follows:

* 1979: First section of modernization completed in Mercer County from milepost 10.60 (just north of Exit 9, US 460) to milepost 35.52 (south of Exit 40, Interstate 64) in Raleigh County.

* 1980: A segment from milepost 46.70 to milepost 47.95 (Exit 48, To US 19) was completed just north of Beckley.

* 1981: Fayette County completed a brief segment from milepost 56.15 near Long Branch to milepost 59.63 (Exit 60, Mossy) and from milepost 62.27 near Kingston to milepost 66.51 (Exit 66, Mahan).

* 1982: The modernization of the Turnpike from milepost 52.20 just south of Willis Branch to milepost 56.12 near Lively was completed. A second Kanawha River Bridge near Malden and the Kanawha City neighborhood of Charleston was built to carry an additional two lanes of traffic between mileposts 94.96 to 95.87).

* This four-lane upgrade was extended southward to milepost 90 (Exit 89, WV 94, Marmet) in 1984.

* 1983: A segment between Fayette and Kanawha Counties was dualized from milepost 66.51 (Exit 66, Mahan) to milepost 74.96 (Exit 74, Standard). Traffic just to the west of this interchange used the two-lane Bender Bridge and Memorial Tunnel.

* 1984: The Turnpike was dualized from milepost 90 (Exit 89, WV 94, Marmet) to milepost 82.55, including construction of a new Toll Plaza "C" near Sharon.

* 1985: Work continues on a segment south of Mossy from milepost 59.63 (Exit 60, Mossy) to milepost 62.27 near Kingston. Also, a segment from the southern terminus of the Turnpike at milepost 8.97 (Exit 9, US 460) to milepost 10.60 in Mercer County was reconstructed. A Raleigh County segment from milepost 40.73 (Exit 40, Interstate 64) to milepost 43.83 (Exit 44, WV 3) was dualized. The segment from milepost 47.95 (Exit 48, To US 19) to milepost 52.20 (Toll Plaza "B" at Pax) was completed.

* 1986: The segment from milepost 35.52 to milepost 40.73 (Exit 40, Interstate 64) was dualized.

* 1987: Work finished the dualization from milepost 43.83 (Exit 44, WV 3) to milepost 46.60). The last segment was completed when the Memorial Tunnel and Bender Bridge were bypassed with a massive road cut.

Bypassing Memorial Tunnel

By 1987, upgrading of 87 of the convert|88|mi|km of the Turnpike were essentially completed. The only remaining segment, the Memorial Tunnel, once hailed as "state-of-the-art" and the "most majestic feature of the highway," was becoming a bottleneck in the otherwise four-lane highway. By 1986, the Turnpike Commission was spending over $500,000 per year to maintain the lights and the automatic exhaust equipment in the tunnel.

Several options were considered, including dualization of the tunnels, addition of two lanes through a large road cut in the mountain, leaving the other two lanes in the tunnel, and replacement of the entire tunnel with an open cut to the north. Citing the high maintenance costs of a tunnel, the replacement option was ultimately chosen.

: "The biggest relief will be from our utility crews, who had to maintain the electrical systems and so forth in the tunnel," Turnpike Commission Chairman George McIntryre said. "It will make all of our jobs easier as far as traffic is concerned on the turnpike."

The convert|1.72|mi|km|sing=on bypass would bypass both the tunnel and the Bender Bridge which crossed Paint Creek just to the east of the tunnel portal. On July 6, 1987, the Memorial Tunnel officially closed, and two lanes of the open cut just to the north of it were opened. The other two lanes of the open cut were completed in late August."Turnpike's Memorial Tunnel closes." Herald-Dispatch. 6 July 1987.]

State Trooper W.D. Thomson became the last motorist to drive through the tunnel. It was not meant to be that way. Originally, Tommy Graley of Standard and his two daughters were picked to be in the last vehicle to pass through the tunnel, but his pickup truck was followed by a car carrying Turnpike officials and the state trooper.

The new Memorial Tunnel bypass cost $35 million and required years of work. Ten million cubic yards of earth were removed and used as fill with drainage tiles for Paint Creek. 300,000 tons of coal were extracted. The Bender Bridge was demolished. The former Memorial Tunnel was used for storage until the mid-1990s, when it became a testing center for tunnel-fire suppression for Boston's Big Dig project.

The tunnel is still being used today for military and other testing uses. The bypass was not the first of its kind on a toll road, as the Pennsylvania Turnpike bypassed the Laurel Hill Tunnel in 1964 in similar fashion, and later bypassed two more tunnels with a single stretch of highway in 1968.

Final Cost

at milepost serves southbound motorists.

The Turnpike displays many cuts through mountains as well as lanes that are separated from each other by substantial difference in elevation. With the completion of Interstates 77, 79, and finally 64 by 1988, the Turnpike has again become stressed, especially during peak holiday seasons.

On June 1, 1989, The West Virginia Legislature created The West Virginia Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority to replace the Turnpike Commission.

In 1991, the Morton and Bluestone "Glass Houses" were replaced with larger, more modern travel centers. In 1993, the Beckley Glass House was also replaced. Morton and Bluestone service plazas were available to northbound travelers only, while the Beckley service plaza was accessible only to southbound motorists.

In May 1996, Interchange 45 was renovated to serve the Beckley travel plaza, Dry Hill Road, and the newly constructed Tamarack.The Best of West Virginia. Tamarack. 24 March 2004 [http://www.tamarackwv.com] .]

In 2004, a concession stand and new restroom facilities were constructed at the rest area at milepost 69, serving southbound travelers.



Bond Troubles

At one point in the Turnpike's history, the Turnpike Commission was not able to pay off even the interest on its bonded indebtedness, and the first bond was not retired until 1982. When the original bond expired on December 1, 1989, the Turnpike Commission had difficulty determining how to refinance it.

Total revenues from 1954 through 1986 totaled $309.3 million, with interest of $170.7 million. In 1986, total annual revenues were $30.4 million. The Commission predicted that when Interstate 64 was completed from Beckley to Sam Black Church in 1988, 6,500 more vehicles would travel the Turnpike daily. In the previous 10 years, the Commission noted, traffic increased 100% and annual gross revenues increased from $11.4 million to $30.4 million.

The refinancing plan was ultimately completed about six months later, with a new debt approaching $50 million. Consequently, tolls were held at former rates, ranging from $3.75 to $12 per one-way trough-trip.

Future of the Turnpike

, but a state judge found the hike to be illegal, rescinding it a few days later. The state legislature subsequently affirmed the judge's decision, and removed the Commission's power to set rates, reserving that power to itself.

Greg Barr, General Manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, has said that while other states have dramatically increased their tolls over the past few years, the West Virginia Turnpike has not experienced any rate hikes in over two decades. "

Turnpike today

From its northern terminus at Charleston, to the southern end at Princeton, the turnpike travels a total of convert|88|mi|km. At first, the Turnpike parallels the Kanawha River and is mostly level. After Exit 85 (WV 61 to US 60, Chelyan/Cedar Grove), the road takes a sharp right turn and then arrives at the first tollbooth. Proceeding south, the Turnpike traverses rugged terrain and features several sharp curves and grades greater than 6%. The speed limit of convert|60|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on is vigorously enforced by a toll-paid force of state police. This stretch of the Turnpike has seen no greater accident rate than similar sections with higher speed limits, and in fact was signed at convert|65|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on from 1987 to 1995 with no change in its accident rate. The middle section of the Turnpike (roughly between Exits 60 and 28) mostly runs along ridge tops and more level areas near the city of Beckley, allowing for a convert|70|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on speed limit. The last segment (roughly from Exit 28 to Exit 9) has both mountainous and level sections, and retains the convert|70|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on speed limit. The Turnpike officially ends at Exit 9 (US 460, Princeton/Pearisburg). I-77 continues south from this point as a freeway, and crosses into Virginia through the East River Mountain Tunnel near Bluefield.

North of the Turnpike, I-77 continues as a freeway through northwestern West Virginia and exits the state across the Ohio River near Parkersburg.

There are three toll booths along the Turnpike. As of March, 2007, passenger cars pay $1.25 at each toll booth. Additionally, there is a toll booth at exit 48 (to US 19, North Beckley/Summersville), which charges $0.25 for automobiles. Rates for larger vehicles are higher. The southernmost toll booth is south of the split with I-64, so east/west basic traffic pays $2.50. The West Virginia Turnpike is a member of the E-ZPass electronic toll collection consortium, allowing members to use express lanes and pay electronically.

Turnpike trivia

*Free for a day

The "free ride" on the West Virginia Turnpike occurred on September 2, 1987 from 8 AM to 3 PM. Motorists who utilized the highway did not have to pay a toll. By this time, the Turnpike commission owed $70,618,000 on the 33-year-old toll road.Miller, Tom D. "It'll be four lanes all the way... and a free ride for almost a day." Herald-Dispatch. 1 September 1987.]

*Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. cut the ribbon with gold-colored shears at 10 AM to open officially the improved Turnpike and Interstate 77. Interstate 64 did not exist in this area and was signed temporarily on US 60 from Charleston to Sam Black Church until the last segment from the latter location to Beckley was completed. The ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by over 1,000 people, was held at the big open cut near the Memorial Tunnel.

*Dr. Carl Starks, mayor of Wytheville, Virginia, said that if the Turnpike was not in place in 1954, the completion of the interstate would have taken 15 to 20 years more to complete. I know many people were unhappy that it was a two lane road but it was a vital link."

*U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), who attended the ceremonies, was governor at the time the Turnpike was constructed, played a major role in the construction of the highway. Another former Senator, Jennings Randolph of Elkins, authored the amendment that allowed existing two-lane toll roads to be included in the interstate system and upgrading them to four-lane interstate standards. "This is a happy day for me," said Randolph as he walked off the stage.

*The Marriott Corporation, today's provider of services at the service areas, served a free box lunch for all. Motorists traveling the highway on September 2 received a commemorative certificate indicating that they drove the Turnpike on the day it was fully upgraded to interstate status. Persons that attended the ceremonies were also given a special commemorative mementos, including a brochure that had the history of the Turnpike titled, "From Conception to Completion."

*Moore stated that he outlined plans for a $20 million project to upgrade the Turnpike's restaurant and rest stop facilities to interstate standards. He stated, "We can't afford to have the nation's safest highway with the lousiest food." The service areas were demolished and rebuilt in the late-1980s.

*The first motorist to utilize the completed Turnpike in 1989 was Don Williams of Bluefield. He states, "I think it is really good for West Virginia and maybe people won't badmouth the West Virginia Turnpike anymore.""First traffic bypasses now-closed tunnel." Charleston Gazette. 8 July 1987.]

*The first accident occurred on November 5, 1955 at 12:05 AM at MP 55. Ray Gould dropped off the road, soared off a cliff, and then to the streets of Milburn on Paint Creek beneath the highway after he fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle. The accident left him with a fractured back, fractured skull, fractured face, crushed shoulders, and assorted dislocations. Because of the accident, Gould said he is still a "big fan of the highway but won't drive after dark." Thankfully, Gould did not have any lasting injuries as a result of the accident."First turnpike wreck victim still a big fan of roadway." Herald Dispatch. 3 September 1987.]

He adds, "It's a wonderful highway. Turnpike was a fantastic feat. But people abused it and foreigners didn't understand it."

Gould was heading to Charleston to pick up an employee of C&P Telephone who was flying from Wheeling to Charleston for training. He adds, "I did not want her staying there alone. My wife and I came in our personal car to pick her up. I had to take a company car back. So I drove the company car and she and my wife followed me."

Gould said he awoke briefly during his fall.

"I woke up in midair noticing the headlights weren't shining on anything and it was extra quiet. That's all I remembered for three weeks."

On his way down the embankment, Gould said his car hit a rock. He adds that, "if I had not, I could have smashed into a house where seven children were sleeping."

He later learned that he was strapped onto a board by coal miners who saw him come crashing down into their town.

"The miners saw me trying to walk. I took a few steps and fell. They grabbed me and strapped me to a board. I attributed my survival to mine safety training."

Gould said that his wife and the employee did not see the accident. "They thought that I had gone around the next bend. She went on home thinking I had gone on."

*The West Virginia Department of Transportation's Office of Communications produced a 47-minute documentary about the history of the West Virginia Turnpike in 2004. Named The Road to Opportunity, the documentary features vintage film footage of turnpike construction, photos and modern aerial videography of the convert|88|mi|km|sing=on highway. The film uses footage from "West Virginia Turnpike Progress Report," a film made in 1954 touting the achievement of the initial construction of the highway, and the entire content of that film is an extra on the DVD of the documentary.

The documentary features interviews with Senators Robert Byrd and John D. Rockefeller IV, Congressman Nick Rahall, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, and former governors Cecil H. Underwood, Hulett C. Smith, Arch A. Moore, Jr. and Bob Wise, among others. The documentary was written and directed by David Marcum, and is shown daily in the Hulett C. Smith Theater in the Tamarack facility.

Exit guide

From North to South, the exits are as follows:


External links

* [http://www.wvturnpike.com West Virginia Parkways Authority official website]
* [http://www.tamarackwv.com/ Tamarack Official website]
* [http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs1121.html West Virginia Culture website]
* [http://www.roadstothefuture.com/WVa_Tpk_Photos.html Roads to the Future website]

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