The Murray Mountain section of U.S. 23 is the most treacherous. Each year, there are about 40 wrecks — and one fatality — on U.S. 23 between Mars Hill and Sams Gap, DOT Resident Engineer Stan Hyatt reports. About a half-dozen times a year, a trucker loses his brakes and jackknifes, closing the road until the mess can be cleaned up.
Back on Jan. 6, a trucker lost control of his tanker truck on U.S. 23 and dumped 7,000 gallons of propionic acid into California Creek, killing everything in it for miles and forcing Weaverville’s water-treatment plant to close, according to media reports and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It would have been physically impossible to revamp U.S. 23 and its 9-percent grades to interstate standards, Hyatt reports, which is why a new route was chosen. Back when highway boosters were first mobilizing, however, the DOT’s own focus was mostly on retooling the existing road, rather than building a very costly new one, according to an April 1988 memo written by the state’s design-services engineer.
Once the new road opens, local traffic will still be able to use the winding U.S. 23; it will tie in with its Tennessee counterpart at Sams Gap via an underpass (which will also accommodate the crossing of the Appalachian Trail). Through traffic, however, will be funneled onto the new interstate.
— Tracy Rose