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West Virginians fear a road meant to help their towns could destroy them

The Appalachian highway project, expanding to the scenic Blackwater Falls area, has been 60 years in the making

The town of Davis sits in the high mountains of the West Virginia panhandle. A former timber hub, it has seen its economy evolve in recent decades. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

DAVIS, W.Va. — West Virginia transportation officials plan to move quickly to extend a new bridge and highway over the north fork of the Blackwater River near this small Appalachian town, using a chunk of money provided by Congress’ recent infrastructure bill.

State highway officials say the completion of another segment of Corridor H — an interstate in everything but name stretching across the panhandle — will bring economic development that has been promised for nearly 60 years, along with easier access for visitors headed to nearby state parks, ski slopes and bicycle trails.

“It’s been our number-one priority,” Jimmy Wriston, West Virginia’s transportation secretary, testified earlier this year before a state legislative panel. “We are going to build that road.”

But a protest movement almost as old as the highway plan has reemerged here, and in neighboring Thomas. Opponents fear the planned four-lane road and bridge will ruin the mountaintop vistas around Blackwater Falls, part of a region the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd called a “wilderness jewel,” and destroy the allure of the chill country vibe and grass-roots tourism in their communities.

More than 2,200 people have signed an online petition opposing the current route and advocating for an alternative that would run north of both towns. A survey by the Tucker County Chamber of Commerce of its members, including nonprofit organizations, found that a majority of respondents favored the northern alternative, according to an email sent out to members.

If built as the state plans, opponents say, the road will transform the two distinctive towns, each of which has about 600 residents, into another off-ramp of American interstate clutter.

“The reasons why people like to come and live here, why people have chosen to stay here for generations and why people come to visit, is because of what this area offers: the wild beauty and the feeling of history and culture here,” said Linda Reeves, who owns the Studio Gallery in Thomas. “It’s just unfathomable. And it doesn’t have to be done that way.”

Others worry the proposed bridge and highway will intrude on nearby Coketon, whose beehive-style coke ovens and other industrial ruins speak to the way people, including many Italian immigrants, labored when West Virginia boasted of vast timber, coal and railroad operations in the late 19th century. The area — part of the Blackwater Industrial Complex stretching between Thomas and Hendricks — has qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“So you might be looking at a big bridge up there with trucks and noise and lights and smells,” Judy Rodd, director of Friends of Blackwater, said on a recent tour of Coketon. “There will be no more peace in the valley.”

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Rodd, who has worked to preserve the natural landscape in and around Blackwater Falls since the 1990s, said the nonprofit organization has been raising money to extend existing bike and walking trails along the North Fork of the Blackwater River, past Douglas Falls and into Blackwater State Park — right below the planned site of the bridge crossing.

She and other opponents complain that West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) officials have given short shrift to environmental and historical preservation. They say the massive highway project is the sort of state and federal highway project that sometimes split neighborhoods and created other harmful, unintended consequences reaching far into the future.

“The DOH is still back in the 1960s with their Appalachian Highway mentality, and we’ve all changed here,” said Nancy Luscombe, who lives in Davis and whose daughter owns a boutique in town. “We’re all in a different century.”

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But others are more than eager to finish a project that’s been around since Congress authorized the creation of an Appalachian Development Highway system in 1965. Supporters say the road will usher in high-paying jobs that vanished with the coal mining and lumber industries.

“Corridor H is probably the only hope that this town ever has of becoming anything again,” said Dave Stevens, who recently opened the Music Center store in Parsons, a hard-luck town in the valley just west of here. He said his hometown has yet to recover from a devastating flood in 1985, a situation worsened by the loss of coal mines, sawmills and factories.

The controversy over Corridor H has revived talk about the way West Virginia has historically been exploited by powerful interests keen on transforming its natural resources into cash. It has rekindled long-standing class divisions, too — between those who live or play in the mountaintop villages and their attendant ski resorts, bicycle trails and other attractions, and those who make do in the surrounding county or valleys below.

“Most people that I talk to are keenly interested in the road being built,” said Alan Tomson, the mayor of Davis and a retired U.S. Army colonel. “They’ve anticipated its finished construction for decades, and they want to see it get done.”

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Tomson said he hopes the new road will bring national restaurant and hotel chains and big-box stores like Walmart that would be closer than those now 45 minutes away.

“We believe in competition and capitalism,” he said. Tomson said he studied the proposed route using a topographical map and disagrees that the road will be visible from Blackwater Falls overlooks, and he doesn’t believe the arched bridge that will cross the North Fork will interfere with the ruins below or irreparably divide the two towns.

“It’s a road. It’s not a wall that’s being constructed,” Tomson said.

Davis and Thomas once hummed with the sort of intensive industry — timber in the former, coal in the latter — that helped build America into a world power in the 20th century. But after the coal was spent and the trees were cut — some referred to Davis as “stumptown” over the years — the towns drifted into decline.

Only in the past few decades has a new economy evolved around the brewpubs, fine restaurants, twee gift shops and a pricey coffee shop that would fit in Brooklyn. The Purple Fiddle, a music venue this newspaper once described as “a magical oasis in a desert of nowheres,” is also a big draw.

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“We have created a wonderful little niche of business here that didn’t take a highway to create. And I’d like to see us keep that and keep the charming aesthetics of this little town,” said Walter Ranalli, a former mayor of Thomas. He said the impact could spread beyond the towns and their economy.

Although the Division of Highways emphasizes that the road will not cut through Blackwater Falls Canyon, Ranalli said the road will run close to scenic areas nearby while crossing the North Fork of the Blackwater River.

“So you’re edging the canyon and you’re looking down into it, not over it,” he said.

Wriston, the state’s transportation secretary, expressed little patience for what he said was “a small minority” spreading “misinformation” on the need to find a northern alternative. He said moving the planned route northward would have more severe environmental impacts, delay the project and cost more.

“We’ve been working on Corridor H for three decades now,” Wriston said in a brief interview after testifying before a congressional panel last month. He had expressed to that panel his frustration with federal micromanaging of state projects and environmental concerns about a species of bumblebee recently found near Corridor H that could delay construction. “There’s nothing left to study,” he said. “It’s everything I talked about today.”

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But Hugh Rogers, a board member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said the state’s refusal to pursue alternatives probably will delay the project, if only because opponents will renew the sort of complex litigation that led to previous route changes.

“Those towns used to look left behind, and now they’re thriving. It’s just really a different situation,” Rogers said. If Corridor H proceeds, he suggested, “You’re liable to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”