Friday, May 1, 2015

Toll Gate and the Northwestern Turnpike

It was gray and rainy last Saturday as I drove home from the WV storytelling guild's spring retreat, where I had taught a class on blogging. I was tired and thinking about the workshop when I saw this historical marker off the side of US Route 50.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen it. We'd passed the place many times but when Larry is driving he's not as willing as I am to meander. This day I was alone, and so...

I turned around, and caught this incredible bank of redbuds in bloom. The roadsides on this trip were truly gorgeous, even in the rain, with the dogwood, wild cherry, sourwood and redbud all in bloom.

I had not realized that Toll Gate was the name of an actual community, and I wanted to see the place. A one-lane road led me along a creek to a small settlement of homes, nestled in green.

A sign atop the hill proclaims you have arrived in Toll Gate.

This store, along with so many other old country stores, inspired my poem "Vacancy" last week.

This white building beside the road looked like a railroad station to me--or maybe it was a toll building? I didn't find out its history; maybe next time.

And that was about all there was to Toll Gate. I stopped to ask directions of two women, and told them I had just wanted to see what Toll Gate looked like. One remarked, "Not much to see!" but I have to disagree. It's one of those hidden, lovely little places that dot our state, only found by turning off the four-lane and exploring.

So where did Toll Gate get its name? According to the sign, it was an actual toll booth on the Northwestern Turnpike. The Northwestern Turnpike was the brainchild of George Washington who envisioned this east-west route from Winchester, Virginia to what is now Parkersburg, WV on the Ohio River, but the road wasn't built until the 1830's when the Virginia legislature voted to fund its construction. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia (vol 17, pages 3527-3529) the statute creating the route stated that no wagon should pass over this road between November 1 and May 1 or any time when the road might be soft from rain,snow, etc. The law also established weight limits for wagons and set up "viewers" to inspect reported bad road conditions.

"Dis Debar2" by Joseph H. Diss Debar (1820-1905) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Saddle Mountain. Route 50 passes by the overlook of this scenic gap
Funds for the construction, in addition to a loan taken out by the state, were collected from subscribers along the route. Since certain towns gave more than others, the route was designed to travel to these towns rather than seeking a more easily traveled path. This led to some major construction issues, especially in Preston county where the road had to cross some very steep mountains--and still crosses them to this day.

Wikipedia quotes the following from J. M. Callahan's Semi-Centennial History of West Virginia "It was macadamized from Tygart Valley River to Parkersburg in 1848. About 1852, it was further improved by construction of new bridges across several streams at important crossings. In 1840, facilities for travel and news were increased on the western end of the road by the establishment of a daily line of stages, and a regular mail service, which made connection with the Ohio steamers at Parkersburg. By 1845, there was a line of fast tri-weekly stages at Romney to the Ohio at Parkersburg. It connected at Romney with stages from Winchester, from Moorefield, and from Green Spring at which connections were made with Baltimore by trains of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. The fare from Green Spring to Parkersburg (210 miles) was $10.00."

Gormania, along Route 50 at the WV/Maryland line.
The bridge is new,
built after the terrible flood in 1985.
For all of this effort, the road was only in use as a toll road for 30 years or so. The tolls were abandoned during the Civil War, and the coming of the railroads further reduced the value of the old road. In its heyday, many important statesmen, from Henry Clay to Zachary Taylor once traveled across the Northwestern Turnpike. Even today it is easy to envision the wagons and stage coaches traveling the more remote section of the road, and people on horseback making their way from one town to another.

So much history, and all because I was curious about a little sign along the way.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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