By Jim Buchanan
Complaining about the condition of roads (and the traffic on them) is as American as apple pie.
Potholes need to be filled. Stripes need to be painted. Lanes need to be widened.
Thus it ever was, thus it will ever be. Or so it seems.
But roll the clock back a century or so and the complaints we have today pale into comparison to the complaints about the roads of yore in Jackson County.
The biggest problem is that there hardly were any roads to complain about, as there were hardly any roads, period.
In more forgiving topography roads could be relatively easy to build by taking the path of least resistance. The paths in Jackson County all offered resistance. Some were likely originally game trails later worn by centuries of Cherokee traffic and then turned to wagon trains and eventually more or less modern roads.
Community members were often tasked to build roads, with the state government not getting in on the action until 1901 with the establishment of the first State Highway Commission. The commission had no budget and responded with a volume of work that pretty much matched that budget, filing all of one report.
The commission was recreated in 1915 and again in 1919 and with the issuance of a $50 million bond in 1921, had teeth and a mission that included connecting all county seats with decent roads.
At least in theory.
In practice that wasn’t always the case, certainly in Western North Carolina. At that time contractors would show up, start a project on a road and leave, or severely understaff work crews. Instead of potholes and painted stripes most of the road rage of the day was directed at contractors and highway commissioners.
And so it was that the Jackson County Journal mounted the ramparts in a state of high dudgeon on March 14, 1924 in an editorial that backed up abuse piled on commission member J.G. Stikeleather, echoing previous abuse meted out by the Haywood Journal:
“One of the most ringing denunciations of the policy of the state highway commission in this district of allowing contractors to tear up the roads and leave them impassable for months that we have seen appeared in the last issue of the Haywood Journal.
“The Journal took Mr. J.G. Stikeleather severely to task because there are state highways from Waynesville to Canton, connecting the Southwestern counties with Asheville and the east, and both of these roads are in such condition that Commander Quinn, of The American Legion, had to abandon his plan of visiting Waynesville a few days ago. The Journal states that the Woodrow road was let to contract more than two years ago, torn up by the contractor, and left in such condition that it is impossible to use it and that it will be some time yet before it is concluded. The Woodrow road is but a community road, which should now be in use as a detour while the main Waynesville-Asheville road is under construction and should never have been adopted as a part of the state highway system. If it had been left in the hands of the commissioners of Haywood County, where it rightly belongs, it would have been completed long ago.
“But it is a notorious fact that contractors on the state highway projects throughout the district are allowed to dilly-dally on the job, taking many months more than necessary to complete the work, and the people of the district have suffered patiently. If the state highway commission or the district commissioner are unable to force the contractors, or their bondsmen, to complete the project for which they have assumed responsibility, within a reasonable time, there must be a weak place in the contracts. If the contracts are so drawn that the commissioner can force reasonable speed on the construction work, he is to blame for allowing construction to be held up. Anyway you figure it, the people expect their commissioner to look after their interests, and to see to that the contractor does his work in such manner as to get it completed within a reasonable time, and to inconvenience the people as little as possible while the work is under way.
“If the people and the newspapers of this district will insist upon action in road building, we believe we get it; otherwise the contractors will fool along with a one-legged (racial epithet) and a blind mule, as some of them have been doing. So far as Haywood is concerned, she isn’t in any worse fix than the rest of us, and by the end of this year will have a hard-surfaced road almost all the way across the county. Slowness of construction is the only legitimate kick Haywood has.
“Swain, Cherokee, Graham are all bottled up this winter, and if the Woodrow road had been finished during the fall, they would be unable to get to it. Jackson folks can’t get to Swain, neither can they go to Macon. The contractor on the Tuckasegee-Glenville road has quit; the Cullowhee-Tuckasegee contract has never been awarded; there is no hard surface road to the only state institution in this district, the Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School, and unless there is some hustling done this spring, summer and fall, these counties will be in as bad fix next winter as they are this.”
To be sure, there are issues with roads these days.
But at least we can get out of the county.