Corridor of Change: Rob Amberg Photographs the Coming of I-26

Samuel Gray

Vol. 20, No. 2, 1998 pp. 10-13

In 1994, the state of North Carolina began construction of a seven-mile section of road in northeastern Madison County, North Carolina, that will eventually complete an Interstate highway link (I-26) between the Ohio Valley and the South Atlantic Coastal region. The completed highway will be a twenty-first century version of an ancient trans-montane corridor that possesses abiding historical significance. On the North Carolina side of the mountains, the route joins the legendary "Drovers Road," the early nineteenth century trading path that connected Western North Carolina and East Tennessee mountains to low-country markets.

At that time, the road followed the fabled French Broad River in a tortuous route that was subject to scouring by flood waters every few years. In the Civil War era, this region was the scene of numerous atrocities and skirmishes that characterized a complex border region at war. Located in the geographic heart of the Confederacy, the mountain farmers of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee possessed few slaves and scant sympathies for the Southern cause. The result was a bloody war within the greater war that left indelible scars on the mountain communities.

In the later 1800s, the region's scenic beauty attracted tourists arriving by train and stagecoach from Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Richmond, who were as often entranced by the "otherness" of the southern mountaineers as by the scenery. Travel descriptions of the gracious hotels and rugged country north of Asheville became a popular literary genre around the turn of the century. The tourists were followed by missionary ladies and folklorists. The rural, isolated quality of these predominantly Scotch-Irish communities made the area a rich trove of traditional craft, music, and story from the settlement period to the present. Francis Goodrich, a teacher from Ohio, organized the first of many cottage industry cooperatives for mountain craftswomen at Allan's Stand along the Drovers Road in 1895. Cecil Sharpe first collected ballads in the area in 1916. He documented a folk music tradition that stretched back into eighteenth century England and continues to thrive today.

The construction of the interstate highway through this mountain corridor portends drastic economic and social changes for indigenous populations of plants, animals, and humans. The road will slice through family farms, pure springs, rural communities, orchards, creeks, and wildlife habitats. One church will be relocated and the graves in three cemeteries exhumed for reburial. Entire mountains will be moved, altering the scenic and ecological character of the landscape.

Construction on the Tennessee side of the mountain began in the late 1980s and was completed to the North Carolina state line at Sam's Gap in 1995. At the same time, North Carolina Department of Transportation survey and core drilling crews were working their way through the thick woods on the slopes of the Walnut Range laying out the path of I-26 as it tracks southwest into the future. By the beginning of 1997, the road's rights of way had been secured, timber cut, barns and homes razed or moved, and the last gardens harvested. Bulldozers began gnawing at massive slopes of Reed Mountain and Ramsey Ridge. The work of moving dirt, shaving off upland, filling in the valleys, channeling streams and springs, and making a road bed will go on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until the road is finished in 2002.

In 1993, the Museums' Cooperative Committee of the Appalachian Consortium, a regional educational organization, began to discuss the dramatic changes taking place along the I-26 Corridor. The committee, consisting of representatives from various Southern Appalachian regional museums, undertook the project of documenting, wherever possible, the impact of the road on the families and communities in its path. The committee began working with photographer and local resident Rob Amberg, as well as Mars Hill College students and area residents to produce a video, still photography, and oral histories of the road.

The goal of this undertaking is to record the sequential events along the construction right-of-way and their effects on the communities and people in its path. A second aim is to initiate a dialogue among regional historians, humanists, planners, and people of the local communities about the consequences of Interstate Highway development on indigenous rural cultures in order to bring into focus the shifting definitions of progress, regional identity, land use, spiritual values, and tradition.