Road trips through history – US Route 50

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I’ve been selected as a presenter at this year’s “Preserving the Historic Road” Conference (www.historicroads.org) in September in Indianapolis. I have attended this conference twice in the past (it’s every two years) and it’s one of my favorites. Maybe it’s my engineering background, or the fact I worked at a state department of transportation for 6 years, but I think the history of roads and roadside architecture is fascinating. After all, most of us don’t visit architectural landmarks every day, but we do drive on roads. My paper this year is about using historic travel guides as research sources, and I’ll give you a sneak peak of some of the interesting things I found while doing research.

It all started when my friend Jay form New York sent me a nice gift of the Works Progress Administration 1946 Guide to West Virginia. As part of the New Deal during the Great Depression, the WPA created the Federal Writers’ Project to provide work to teachers, historians, writers and other academic types. The program produced 300-700 page guides for every state in the US. I quickly discovered that the West Virginia guide contained all kinds of great historical information for towns of all sizes in West Virginia, and I do mean all sizes. One of the biggest challenges of working in such a rural state is the lack of recorded information about all the small communities. The WPA guide had at least a few sentences for a lot of small towns that are nothing more than a couple of houses today. When the call for papers came out for the Historic Roads conference, I decided to try some larger exploratory road trips using historic travel guides, just to see what was out there then and now.

One of the routes I chose was US 50 in West Virginia. I actually grew up in Aurora on this road, which was built as the Northwestern Turnpike in the 1830s. At that time, it was one of the most important east-west routes into the frontier. I had not only my WPA Guide, but also a sweet little book called Over the Alleghenies by the Northwestern Turnpike¬†written in 1926 by John Randolph Schaeffer, who lived in Gormania, which is not far from where my mother grew up in Bayard, WV. Schaeffer was extremely enthusiastic about the Northwestern Turnpike, Gormania and West Virginia, and it is contagious. Example: “As you pass over the Alleghenies and continue on your western tour your fevered brow may be cooled by gentle and refreshing breezes. The awe and wonder of the spectacular are momentarily changing until you reach Parkersburg on the Ohio.” Now, aren’t you excited for your road trip through history on the Northwestern Turnpike? Ready to be awe-inspired and cooled by gentle breezes? Below are a few photos from my drive this June:

The Koolwink Motel is a really cool 50s’ era hotel in Romney, WV. I have it on good authority that it’s a super nice place to stay (with reasonable rates!) (I did not get paid to write that.)

According to the WPA Guide, Gravel Lane (which runs parallel to US 50/Main Street in Romney) is one of the oldest roads in the Fairfax Land Grant. It’s still there… imagine horses and wagons traveling down this 200 years ago! Wait a second… who is that walking down Gravel Lane ahead of us…?

Why, it’s Stonewall Jackson! What luck! We chatted about his boyhood home, Jackson’s Mill, which I have visited frequently. He was in town for Romney’s 250th Anniversary celebration.

The New Century Hotel, built in 1914, was on the corner of Main and Grafton in Romney. The Bank of Romney is there now. Well, you can’t win ’em all.

Easing on down the road, I stopped by the former Knights of Pythias campground (now privately owned), which has a really cool old rustic pavilion. It’s in need of some TLC, but my mom (Stacy) and I have always admired it.

My mom and I are also fascinated by these roadside water fountains/ wells. It seems so nice that there were places like this scattered throughout the landscape for anyone to get some water, free of charge. They seem to be slowly dwindling in number. Who built these, when and why? Sounds like another research topic!

The birthplace of Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, is pointed out along Route 50 on brown historical point-of-interest signs. It was also listed in the WPA guide, which noted that 57 other places also claimed to be the birthplace of Nancy Hanks. I just Googled “Nancy Hanks Birthplace”, though, and it seems this spot in West Virginia may have won, or at least stuck it out the longest. The cabin was built in the 1920s, so it might not be the most authentic historic site in the world, but it’s still a nice drive back some country roads and evocative of the frontier mountains.

Finally, I stopped by Gormania, John Randolph Schaeffer’s hometown. It’s not quite what it used to be, but there are still some interesting old buildings, including this Gothic country church.

I don’t know if you can call yourself a true history nerd until you’ve traveled using an 80-year-old travel guide. ¬†The above is only a small sampling of the buildings and towns I saw along this 50 mile stretch of Route 50. I highly recommend giving it a try… just remember to take your time and fill up on gas!

 

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Courtney is the owner and principal of Aurora Research Associates, LLC, an historic preservation consulting firm.

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