from Eyewitness News Online
July 15, 1988 - Opening Of Glade Creek Bridge Marks Completion Of Interstate System In WV
By Heath Harrison
December 15, 2013
Towering 700 feet high and carrying Interstate 64 above Glade Creek east of Beckley, the Phil G. McDonald Memorial Bridge rivals the New River Gorge Bridge as a West Virginia engineering marvel, but few motorists realize the scope of the structure when crossing it.
Built in a remote location and lacking the overlooks of the New River Gorge Bridge, clear views of the bridge are hard to obtain.
When the bridge was dedicated in 1988, it served as the opening of the long-awaited eastern portion of I-64 in West Virginia and marked the completion of the Interstate Highway System in the state.
The Interstate Highway System
Heralded as “the largest public works program since the pyramids,” the federal Interstate Highway System was first conceived under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939, when his Bureau of Public Roads Division of Information chief Herbert S. Fairbank wrote the report "Toll Roads and Free Roads" forming the blueprint for modern U.S. highways.
It would gain its greatest champion two administrations later with President Dwight Eisenhower (for whom the system is named), who had seen the efficiency of European highway systems such as the Autobahn and sought to modernize America’s roadways. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed during his time in office and authorized the construction of the federal highway system.
Construction of I-64 begins
Construction of the state’s east-west Interstate highway began in 1960, with a segment from U.S. 60 at Huntington to Ona. Two years later, the highway was lengthened to Milton, and reached the St. Albans exit by 1963.
To the west, I-64 reached the Kentucky border by 1965. The first bridge across the Kanawha was completed between the St. Albans and Nitro exists in 1966, and the highway reached Dunbar in 1968.
Path through Charleston
The Interstate ended just outside of Charleston’s city limits from 1968 to 1974, due to a debate over the highway’s proposed route. Controversy surrounded the decision on whether the interstate should pass through the city, or go around it (as was the case in Huntington).
After officials decided I-64 would go through town, opposition mounted to the planned route through the city’s Triangle district, an area that was home to city’s black population. Residents fought the proposal, but eventually lost.
Construction in Charleston began with the massive earth moving of the Fort Hill project on the south side of the Kanawha River, as hundreds of homes were demolished to make way for the road.
In 1974, construction began on the bridge to South Charleston. By the next year, the highway was completed to its junction with Interstate 77, following the construction of another bridge crossing the Kanawha River in Charleston.
In 1976, the highway’s construction through the city was complete and it joined the existing West Virginia Turnpike just east of city limits.
Routing the eastern segment
I-64 was originally intended to run parallel to U.S. Route 60 across the state, which would have taken the highway through scenic areas such as Hawk’s Nest, Gauley Bridge and the New River Gorge, a proposal that was met with fierce opposition.
In 1969, Gov. Arch Moore delayed construction of the highway east of Charleston until a study could be done on the matter. Five years later, it was decided that the highway would join the West Virginia Turnpike at Charleston, run concurrent with it for 60 miles and, just south of Beckley, would be routed east to Virginia.
Completion of the first segments of the eastern half of I-64 in West Virginia occurred in the early 1970s. The highway extended from the Virginia border to Alta in 1971. It reached the community of Sam Black Church in 1973, which would serve as its endpoint for the next 15 years, pending completion of the final stretch to Beckley.
The last portion
During the wait in the 1970s and 80s, east-west travelers through West Virginia would exit I-64 in Charleston and follow U.S. Route 60 through the Kanawha Valley to Gauley Bridge, then winding through the mountains past Ansted, Hico, Rainelle, Rupert and other communities.
The heavy traffic, which included locals, Virginia Beach-bound tourists and truckers, frequently backed up on the two-lane road, and many a motorist can recall the near standstill that would occur if one got behind a tractor-trailer on either Gauley or Big Sewell Mountain.
Construction of the final 35-mile length of I-64 was a slow process. Built through mountainous terrain, the $300 million dollar project was the most expensive per mile of the entire federal highway system.
Construction had to be halted at one point, so engineers could reroute the highway to minimize damage to the area’s sensitive wetlands.
Glade Creek bridge
A major hurdle in the highway’s completion was the construction of the bridge at Glade Creek.
Built at a cost of $29 million and spanning 784 feet in length, the structure includes one of the tallest piers in the U.S. and is the highest truss bridge in the world. At 80 percent of the New River Gorge Bridge’s height, it is the second highest bridge in the state, the fifth tallest in the nation and the highest on the Interstate Highway System.
With construction on highway the completed, Moore (now serving in his second stint as governor) invited the public to a gala grand opening ceremony at the bridge on July 15, 1988.
The ceremony, drew a larger than expected crowd of thousands to the ribbon cutting for the new highway. In addition to Moore, the dignitaries on stage included a “who’s who” of West Virginia political leaders from the ‘60s, '70s and '80s, including U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, U.S. Reps. Nick Rahall and Harley Staggers Jr., Treasurer A. James Manchin and former Govs. Hulett C. Smith and Okey Patteson.
"It is a highway of today, but most importantly a highway of tomorrow,” Moore told the gathering. “Congratulations, West Virginia. This is your highway."
The crowd, so large that people had to park miles away, was given a one-time opportunity that morning to walk the length of the bridge and take in its scenic views.
The highway opened to its first traffic later that evening.
A major travel corridor
The opening of the highway marked not just the completion of its path through the state, but was also the last portion of Interstate 64 as a whole.
With the West Virginia portion opened, the completed highway ran uninterrupted for 954 miles from St. Louis, Mo. to Norfolk, Va. President Ronald Reagan noted the milestone, and said in a statement that the opening of I-64 was "a major achievement for West Virginia and an important step in the continued expansion of the entire interstate system."
I-64’s completion removed virtually all out-of-state travelers from U.S. 60, which had served as the state’s east-west corridor until that point.
U.S. 60, particularly in Fayette County, was known for its sideshow-esque roadside attractions, such as the Mystery Hole, the Snake Pit, and with numerous roadside craft vendors and gift shops. With traffic reduced to mostly local traffic, these attractions were hard hit and most had disappeared by the early 90s (though the Mystery Hole remains a roadside staple to this day).
Towns such as Ansted and Gauley Bridge had relied largely on dollars from the heavy traffic on Route 60 before the interstate’s completion and saw decreased revenue as the amount of drivers passing through dwindled.
The area saw something of a rebound in later years with the state’s promotion of U.S. 60 as the Midland Trail and the booming whitewater rafting scene.
At the same time, the rerouting of travelers doubled the traffic on the West Virginia Turnpike, which had undergone a major modernization project in the 1980s, and the state saw a financial benefit from the increased toll collection.
With a seven percent grade downhill, the portion of the newly-opened road near Sandstone Mountain proved especially dangerous, with several accidents, including a fatality, occurring in the weeks after the highway’s opening. Within months, trucks weighing more than 30,000 pounds were subject to a 45-mph speed limit for a five-mile stretch of the road.
The mountain has seen many fatalities in the years since, and an electronic speed system has been installed to advise trucks hauling heavy loads.
The completion of I-64 in West Virginia cut the driving time from Charleston to White Sulphur Springs from two and a half hours to 90 minutes and provided faster access to communities in the southeastern part of the state, such as Hinton, Alderson and Lewisburg.
- Only accessible by a hiking trail, the underside of the Glade Creek bridge is seen by few. Some photos of the view can be found on this website
- American Bridge, based out of Pennsylvania and responsible for the bridge’s construction, has section on their website dedicated to the project, featuring photos of the construction and providing in-depth information.
- More information on Phil G. McDonald, the Medal of Honor recipient for whom the bridge is named, can be found here.
This week's video, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, consists of three WCHS reports from 1988, all by Steve Levine. The first two show the final days of work on eastern portion of I-64 and preparations for its opening. The second contains coverage of the ribbon cutting at the Glade Creek Bridge and the crowd’s taking in the one-time chance to walk the bridge.
NEXT WEEK As promised, it’s the “Remember When” Christmas special, with holiday-themed offerings spanning the decades.
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