One ride in a sparkling new electric automobile should be enough to convince the skeptical that transportation is no longer as it used to be.
Q: My father, who was born in 1900 and grew up at Algoma in Franklin County, often spoke about the difficulty of the 11-mile trip from Boones Mill to Roanoke on the road that followed Magodee Creek for part of the journey. Why was such a drive so hard? I think that most people today have no idea what roads were like just a short time ago.
Sam Guerrant, Roanoke
A: With a vast geographic footprint including a range of features from piedmont to mountain peak laced with a network of waterways, the county’s citizens have faced and overcome transportation challenges throughout its history.
The back road from Boones Mill to Starkey in Roanoke County, Naff Road on the Franklin side of the line, once crossed rocky Magodee Creek multiple times and apparently was actually part of the creekbed for stretches.
Saunders Guerrant, the father, claimed there were 22 crossings in all, his son wrote. Another authority on the county’s history, retired physician and 1986 county bicentennial chair Francis Amos, offered a smaller but still formidable estimate of the crossings
“I’ve seen several different descriptions, anywhere from 13 to 15 as the road basically followed the creek,” he said.
To continue with the geographic particulars, the modern road slants northwest out of Boones Mill before diverging from the creek and heading north along the foot of Cahas Mountain. From there, it’s a short ride to the county line and on to Starkey.
Piece of cake.
Years ago, travel was not so sweet anywhere in the county, particularly once travelers left the main north-south artery tracing the corridor now described by U.S. 220.
The year before the start of the Civil War the “relative prosperity of Franklin County farmers was in spite of, rather than because of, the transportation systems used to market their produce,” according to “Franklin County Virginia 1786-1986: A Bicentennial History” by John S. and Emily J. Salmon.
This was so during an era in which the national internal improvement movement had been moving along smartly in other parts of the country. Not so much in Franklin County.
“Poor roads, hilly country, frequent streams, and long distances to major markets such as Lynchburg and Danville frustrated farmers no matter their economic class.”
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the picks and shovels of the internal improvements trend reached the county “and even then its residents benefitted little, regardless of occupation.”
In other words, heaven help you when traveling by horse or wagon in bad weather, across any body of water, or at night.
One 1835 traveler from Campbell County to Franklin County described the condition of the road in a letter to his wife as “intolerably bad,” in the Salmons’ telling. In some sections the roads “were so muddy, and the mud so stiff, that it seemed as though our horse would stick fast.”
There was no state road system in those days, construction and maintenance of roads being up to the counties. Various improvement plans were advanced then withdrawn. In 1796, major Franklin County landowner James Callaway initiated a petition to the General Assembly in favor of a plan to dredge and deepen the Pigg River from its mouth to the Washington Iron Works in present Rocky Mount.
The petitioner wrote that others of similar sentiment had helmed a craft loaded with “nineteen hundred weight of Iron” from the forge to the confluence with the Staunton (Roanoke) River “with but little obstruction.”
The assembly approved the plan and appointed fundraising trustees. Investors balked, though, potential costs no doubt a sobering reality. Another group made a similar proposal for the Blackwater and Staunton in 1799 with an eye to smoothing agricultural transport. That effort also foundered on the shoals of expense.
The impracticality of waterway travel made room for another transportation solution that was working elsewhere in the state.
“The toll road was one method of coping with the inadequacy of the county road system,” Nathaniel Mason Pawlett wrote in “A Brief History of the Roads of Virginia 1607-1840.”
Such pay-as-you-go routes were in use as early as 1772 near the end of the colonial period. The General Assembly in 1816 established a transportation fund and a group chaired by the governor called the Board of Public Works to supervise expenditures. The board was authorized to invest in private companies engaged in public works as long as three-fifths of the stock was in private hands.
The Franklin County application of the system began in 1838 with a company that developed the Pittsylvania-Franklin-Botetourt Turnpike that began in Danville, cut through Snow Creek, Rocky Mount, Boones Mill and Big Lick (Roanoke) before terminating in Fincastle.
The route survey followed quickly that year but it took three years for the road to be built at a cost of $26,000 $808,266.14 in today’s money, according to officialdata.org). The Rocky Mount to Big Lick leg went for $292.52 per mile, according to Salmon and Salmon.
Other projects followed after the 1851 incorporation of the Bedford-Southside Co. and the Union Hall Co., according to Marshall Wingfield’s “History of Franklin County Virginia.”
The struggles and failures of these private enterprises were legion, which eventually led to the statewide public highway system. The troubles of the Pittsylvania-Franklin-Road outfit was illustrated in a Salmon and Salmon vignette.
With just 5 miles of road left to be built in Franklin County, Dr. Richard M. Taliaferro , president of the company, wrote to the board in 1841 complaining that toll collection had grown tedious because the gatekeepers were having trouble in the collection of fees based on 1 and 5 cents. For instance, people were charged 5 cents a head and hogs a penny a snout.
“We are at a sad loss for pennies for change,” Taliaferro advised.
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