North Carolinians for many decades thought of them as the Lost Provinces. Prior to the early 20th century, Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga counties were hemmed in and separated from the rest of the state by the Eastern Continental Divide— average elevation 2,500 to 3,000 feet— which forms their eastern and southern borders.
Lowlanders joked that the only way to get there was to be born there. Commerce and society were forced to circulate between these three counties and Grayson and Smyth Counties, VA to the north, and Johnson and Carter Counties, TN to the west.
Archibald D. Murphey (1777-1832), a lawyer and judge remembered for his vision of how the state’s internal affairs could be improved, was far ahead of his generation in his comments about the region’s transport: “The roads have been badly laid out; they are badly made, and the population in many parts is too weak to keep the roads in even tolerable repair. All these roads should be made at the public’s expense.”
The idea of getting state aid in building roads finally took hold in 1887. Up to then citizens worked on the roads on a rotating basis. A road out of Ashe County to meet the Wilkes road system was impractical at that time because of the sheer difficulty and cost of such a road. Instead county officials decided to build, with the help of state convicts, a road from Jefferson, past Healing Springs, to the nearest railway terminal, in Marion, VA.
The upper New River Valley continued to remain extremely isolated into the early part of the 20th century. In 1911 the Blowing Rock Turnpike began construction. It effectively connected the High Country with Lenoir and its prosperous network of farmers’ markets and railroad depots. The Blowing Rock Turnpike not only served cars but horsedrawn wagons and could be used, free of charge, for Watauga County residents bringing their goods to market.
The High Country’s first railroad appeared in 1914. It connected Ashe County with Abingdon, VA, to facilitate the region’s short timber boom. The first narrow gauge railroad line rolled through in 1918, and followed the pattern: it came not east from the Piedmont but rather from Tennessee to the west.
Beginning about 1920 Ashe County undertook a local road building program, during which approximately $1,500,000 in bonds were issued. The expected number of resulting county roads never materialized, however, due to the high prices at which contracts were let for the construction of these roads, and the fact that most of the county projects were later taken over by the state.
North Carolina’s 1921 General Assembly finally established the state highway system. Early on there was official recognition of the need to “rescue the hillbillies.” Frank Linney, D.D. Dougherty, and Mary Martin Sloop were prominent High Country influences in the political scramble to develop roads. The Assembly approved a $50 million road bond, paid for by a one-cent tax on gasoline, and the brand new Highway 16 finally connected the central piedmont with Ashe County.
Robert Doughton, of Alleghany County, U.S. Representative from 1910 to 1953, was a key player in creating road access into the region. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1933 to 1953, he was the major force in promoting the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which further opened the former Lost Provinces to jobs and tourists.
The Papers of Archibald Murphey, Vol. 2, William Henry Hoyt, Editor (1914)