Moving mountains

“They filled it in from mountaintop to mountaintop. To look down, you’d never know there was anything had ever been there.”

— displaced homeowner Lucille Babbitt

In a quiet hollow in eastern Madison County, there once was a house whose owners never locked the door. (In fact, it’s doubtful that they even had a key.)

Lucille and Howard Babbitt Sr. bought the house and the surrounding 160 acres near Mars Hill in 1972, intending to raise their younger children there and “live off the land,” as she wryly told me during an interview earlier this year. And because the property rose up from a creek bed and opened into a cove surrounded by the Walnut Mountains, they named their new home Hidden Valley Farm.

After trying several farming ventures that didn’t quite pan out — Lucille says she jokingly dubbed their spread “the funny farm” — they eventually planted a 40-acre apple orchard in the sheltered valley. That endeavor proved more successful, and the Florida transplants spent about 10 years selling their apples both wholesale and to folks who wanted to pick their own.

It wasn’t all work, however. Their house, built many years earlier, boasted an inviting wrap-around porch where family and friends would gather on rocking chairs and a porch swing. The Babbitts had gotten to know their neighbors in the Sprinkle Creek community — many of whose families had been there for generations — and took delight in spotting red fox pups and other wildlife on their land. One of their sons, Howard Jr., grew up and started his own family there in a house built on the upper part of the property.

But after more than 20 years there, the Babbitts learned that their cove was not as removed from the rest of the world as they’d thought. In 1993, the state approached them about buying their land so the N.C. Department of Transportation could build the last leg of a roughly 600-mile corridor of four-lane roads linking Charleston, S.C., and the Ohio Valley.

Three years later, the deal was done. Forced to sell their land to the state, the Babbitts relocated to Henderson County in June 1996. An estimated 42 other families had to move, too.

Today, the house is gone — and the whole cove went with it. The house was burned down, and the hollow was filled up with ton upon ton of rock blasted off a nearby mountain, casualties of one of the largest earth-and-rock-moving projects in the state’s history.

Lucille, now widowed, says she’s accepted the road and the changes it brought to her family — even to the point of embracing it all as a blessing. Yet the soft-spoken grandmother betrays a glimmer of loss in describing the altered contours of a landscape that was once so familiar.

“If you go from the upper part and look down, it’s just — they filled it in from mountaintop to mountaintop,” she says quietly. “To look down, you’d never know there was anything had ever been there. Just like it was obliterated.”

The nine-mile section of Interstate 26 will be dedicated Aug. 5 with considerable fanfare (although it’s uncertain whether the road will be ready for traffic on that date). Starting at Sams Gap (on the North Carolina/Tennessee border), the new six-lane highway will offer a freeway alternative to the winding, two-lane U.S. 23. Descending through the spectacular Madison County landscape, the new road will tie into 19/23 at Mars Hill, which will then become “future I-26” until improvements are made between Mars Hill and Asheville to bring the four-lane up to interstate standards.

The governor may even come for the ribbon-cutting, to be held at the $6.1 million welcome center/rest area perched atop the broad plateau created by the 220 feet of rock and fill dirt that now smother what was once Hidden Valley Farm. The new facility will feature a wraparound porch with rocking chairs and a handsome rock fireplace inside to ward off the chill — strangely echoing the Babbitts’ former home place.

“A lot of money”

“This is what the heart of a mountain looks like when you get 500 feet deep,” DOT Resident Engineer Stan Hyatt explained during a tour of the nearly completed project in late May, pointing out a massive rock face hewn open and scored with tidy rows of drill marks.

The new road slices through a series of ridges, some of which the Mars Hill DOT office identifies only by their survey number. A drawing posted on a conference-room wall at Hyatt’s office depicts a profile of the original terrain. It resembles a jagged, upward-sloping roller-coaster track punctuated by the occasional gray hump of a mountain. A gradually sloping line through the middle marks the interstate’s route.

It’s been more than a billion years since the rocks at the core of the Appalachians formed. About 270 million years ago, the huge masses that we now know as the Appalachians were created when the ancestors of the North American and African continents collided, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Web site. (As a frame of reference, the Age of Dinosaurs began about 240 million years ago — and human beings became associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains only about 9,000 years ago, notes the same Web site.)

But thanks to the I-26 construction project, the prehistoric patterns made in the biotite-granite gneiss at Buckner Gap in Madison County have now been laid bare in a half-mile-long open cut.

And though these mountains were ages in the making, remodeling them went considerably quicker. Once the political will and the funding were in place, contractors hired by the DOT got down to work in the fall of 1996. They spent about five years blasting holes in the mountains, filling in hollows with rock and dirt, and otherwise preparing the roadbed. Paving and adding the finishing touches consumed the final 1-1/2 years, reports Hyatt, who served as the DOT’s contract administrator for the project.

The reason there was so much “rearranging” of material (as Hyatt puts it) on I-26 has to do with the engineering challenges posed by trying to build an interstate-quality road through extremely rugged terrain that rises from a 2,200 foot elevation (where 19/23 splits, near Mars Hill) all the way up to 3,800 feet (at Sams Gap).

Federal highway standards dictate that interstates can’t have more than a 6 percent grade, Hyatt explains. So besides blasting holes through mountains and enlarging existing gaps, the contractors also had to curve the road and blast deep enough holes in those mountains so the roadbed would satisfy the grade requirement.

“A road can only be so steep and still be an interstate,” says Hyatt. “And it can only be so steep and still be able to get cars up and down it in the wintertime, with ice on it and that kind of thing. So that was the problem we had with trying to build this interstate — why it’s so expensive.”

No doubt about it, it’s a pricey stretch of highway.

“This is a quarter-billion-dollar project,” he states. “A quarter-billion, with a big B with a dollar sign in front of it. And that is a lot of money for a road. That’s why it’s not like most roads you’ve ever been on.”

(To be more precise, the road cost $230 million, he explains later: $209 million for construction, $11 million for engineering, and $10 million to acquire the right of way.)

Cut it out

Back in the 1930s when U.S. 23 was built, roads followed the contours of the mountains, notes Hyatt. That means they didn’t shift the landscape around much, but they also had much steeper grades. Starting at the state line, he reports, U.S. 23 has about 1-1/2 miles of 9 percent grade on Sams Gap, followed by another two miles of 9 percent grade on Murray Mountain.

Modern mountain roads, on the other hand, typically employ a more extensive “cut and fill” method, the engineer explains. The hill or mountain is cut away on one side, and that material is filled in beside it to create a level driving surface.

The I-26 project took the cut-and-fill technique to epic proportions. In places, says Hyatt, the distance from where the cut starts on one side of the road to where the fill ends on the other side is a quarter-mile across (the average width is more like 600 to 800 feet). That’s in order to accommodate a 112-foot-wide thoroughfare with six lanes of traffic, a concrete median wall and asphalt shoulders.

The new road, notes Hyatt, is also far less likely to suffer the kind of rock slides that have plagued Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge. That’s because new “controlled blasting” techniques use smaller charges around the edges of the blast and larger charges in the middle, he explains, making for more stability in the remaining rock. By contrast, the blasting techniques employed 40 years ago on I-40 used too much explosive on the outside edges, damaging existing rock crevices and creating new ones. That, says Hyatt, enables water to repeatedly get in, freeze, and thaw — causing pieces of rock to break off.

Although I-26 had been planned as a four-lane highway (with two extra lanes graded for future expansion), field engineers helped convince upper-level DOT officials that it would be more cost-effective — saving $8 million in the long run — to build the six-lane road now. Otherwise, the guard rail, ditches and drainage boxes would all have to be either torn up or moved, Hyatt reports. And in contrast to the battle that has raged in Asheville over the number of lanes a widened Interstate 240 should have, in this case, DOT officials simply agreed — and the six-lane design became the official plan.

All told, the project ate up 500 acres, says the engineer — plus significant additional acreage that had to be acquired because the interstate cut off the owners’ access to their property, he notes.

“When you do an interstate through the mountains nine miles long, it takes a lot of room to build it,” Hyatt observes.

“You cannot stand in the way of progress”

The Babbitts weren’t the only Madison County family affected by the road’s massive footprint. Forty-two families had to move, and an additional 160 land claims were generated, according to research by Madison County photographer/writer Rob Amberg. And 42 of those 160 claims were ultimately settled in court, he says. Hyatt, meanwhile, notes that two churches were torn down and three cemeteries were relocated.

“We didn’t affect near as many as you would think. If you did nine miles around Asheville, you would probably have to relocate 500 homeowners,” Hyatt observes.

Still, change of that magnitude is bound to leave some scars.

When the Babbitts’ house was burned down to make way for the road, Sprinkle Creek resident J.D. Thomas lost a little piece of his family history, too. His father had bought the mountaintop farm back in 1936, and J.D. spent much of his boyhood there. Years later, his mother sold the property to the Babbitts.

From their cozy home far below the arc of the interstate, J.D. and his wife, Lela Thomas, show me a photo taken at the house back in 1951. A young J.D., dapper in his Marine Corps uniform, stands in front of a rock fireplace adorned with his mother’s crochet work.

Although J.D. doesn’t dwell on it, Lela says it was hard for him to see his former home place go up in flames.

“He was walking back from the house, tears streaming down his face,” Lela recalls. “It was sad … it was sad.”

“It was something,” allows J.D. “But you’ve got to accept the fact that you cannot stand in the way of progress. … You know it’s going to go, but it takes a lot of memories and other things away.”

Eternally grateful

The imminent completion of the long-awaited roadway is bringing smiles to the faces of folks whose lobbying efforts helped make it happen.

Last September, Asheville attorney (and former mayor) Lou Bissette, co-chairman of what’s now called the Western North Carolina Highway Corridors Association, hosted a bus tour of the nearly completed road with other members of the group, narrated by Hyatt.

“There are plenty of people out there [who are] against road-building,” Hyatt told the group at a dinner held at the then-unfinished welcome center, “but these folks are as solid as rocks. We’ll be eternally grateful to you.”

Over barbecue and hush puppies, Bissette told Xpress that the main reason he’s supported the project is its potential as an economic-development engine. Back when the lobbying efforts were getting off the ground, Asheville wasn’t exactly hopping. And Madison County (whose leaders were also very supportive) had actually been losing population, he noted.

“It’s been a 15-year process. So we’re all pretty excited to see [the road] open next year,” Bissette observed.

Tennessee representatives who joined the tour seemed equally eager.

“I can’t believe this is getting this close. It’s going to be a great day,” declared Erwin, Tenn., Mayor Russell D. Brackins. “We think it’ll have a tremendous economic impact on our little town of Erwin and northeast Tennessee in general.”

Blasts from the past

J.D. and Lela Thomas have seen more than a few changes in the character of daily life during their more than seven decades. Back in the early 1930s, local residents — including the men in both their families — had to donate so many days of labor per month to maintain the then-unpaved Sprinkle Creek Road, which runs right by their house.

As a boy, J.D. recalls riding on the dirt roads that crisscrossed the mountains before U.S. 23 to Tennessee was finished in the 1930s.

“I would have never thought, when I was growing up, of an interstate,” J.D. remarks.

That idea would have seemed equally foreign to Lela, who recalls making a hooked rug every summer so she’d have money to buy school supplies — and studying by kerosene lamp before her family got electricity in 1941. (Indoor plumbing came later.)

Both Thomases grew up in farming families. And at least until World War II, some locals earned extra money through bootlegging, notes J.D., adding: “Revenuers didn’t come in here, because if they come in, they didn’t go out. So they didn’t come in here.”

The couple left Sprinkle Creek to live in Georgia for about 15 years, returning with their children in 1965 to move into Lela’s family home.

For the Thomases and their Sprinkle Creek neighbors, however, the massive project brought other changes, too.

During the heavy-construction period, there was blasting every day at 5 p.m. sharp. The explosions rattled the windows; one even knocked their family pictures off the wall. And with crews working around the clock, the racket from the heavy equipment made it hard to sleep, remembers J.D.

On another occasion, a detonation made their well suddenly run dry, although J.D. says the DOT geologists attributed it to dry weather. (The well has since rebounded.) Meanwhile, other neighbors complained of cracked foundations.

“During the summer, all the dust — you couldn’t believe the dust!” exclaims Lela.

The couple often took walks up on the mountain to check out what was happening.

“We’d walk around the road and see all the trees being torn up and all the houses being torn down and the barns being torn down,” Lela recalls.

J.D., however, downplays the inconveniences, noting that noise and dust are part of any construction project.

“We can praise the road or we can condemn it,” he says simply, adding, “I wouldn’t do either one.”

Things change

“Mountains probably look better in their natural condition, with trees on them, than chopped away for roads. But you have to do things in life.”

— DOT Resident Engineer Stan Hyatt

DOT staffer Hyatt is a Madison County resident himself. He enthusiastically points out the project’s imposing features, including several mountain cuts, two scenic overlooks, three runaway-truck ramps and a $14.5 million bridge that towers 220 feet above Big Laurel Creek.

During construction, concerns about the bridge freezing in the winter prompted the installation of a high-tech anti-icing system, according to Project Design Engineer John Lansford‘s unofficial Web site ( The $437,000 system (the first to be installed on a new bridge in North Carolina) will be activated by phone, Hyatt reports. An anti-icing salt will be pumped from a nearby 700-gallon storage tank through lines in the bridge’s railings to nozzles that will spray the road surface. The salt, calcium magnesium acetate is billed as environmentally friendly by the DOT and is not supposed to harm the creek below, which is a trout stream. (Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of the environmental-justice group Clean Water for North Carolina, confirms that the substance has less environmental impact than conventional road salt — provided it’s used in the correct quantities.)

Hyatt even takes me on a tramp up to a three-acre monarch-butterfly sanctuary (a first for the DOT) created in a mountaintop meadow overlooking the interstate, a huge mountain cut and the houses in the Sprinkle Creek community far below. Calling attention to the naturally occurring milkweed, he explains that having the sanctuary 500 feet above the highway will be better for the butterflies (which tend to get killed by cars at road-level preserves).

The engineer also points out the purple martins zipping by; these cliff dwellers have now taken up residence in the mountain cuts made by construction crews. (And though Hyatt repeatedly scans the skies for an albino red-tail hawk he’s seen in the area — “a beautiful thing,” he says almost reverently — the bird never puts in an appearance.)

From Hyatt’s perspective, the new interstate is an engineering feat the state Department of Transportation can be proud of — and a much safer road than the one it’s replacing.

“So it’s an accomplishment for the DOT,” Hyatt says contemplatively. “It’s an accomplishment for us personally that have been out here seven years working with it. And overall, we’re glad to have been a part of it.


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