The Valley Turnpike
by Don Silvius

One of the main courses through the Shenandoah Valley for many years has been U.S. Route 11. Even before the days of the Interstate highway, Route 11 carried more traffic through the Valley than any other road. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart realized the importance of the road. So how did this road come to exist, and why was it located here?

Generally, Route 11 follows the same course as an old Indian trail, which, as early as 1746 was known as the Indian Road. At this time, the Indian Road was just a rutted dirt wagon road through the Valley. It passed through the small settlements and forded the streams, while in some cases paralleled the larger ones, such as the forks of the Shenandoah River. There were no bridges in those days and rains and melting snow made the ruts even worse.

In 1753, twelve Moravian brethren (part of a religious movement that migrated south) traveled through the Valley on their way to North Carolina from Pennsylvania. The road they traveled was very rough in places, but it was passable. One of the brethren kept a journal that contains many descriptive notes. From these it can be determined that they followed the course of the old Indian Road. Some of the places they passed were Joist Hite's, Bowman's Mill, Frank's Mill, the Narrow Passages, the Shenandoah River and Thomas Harrison's (later Harrisonburg).

Exactly when stage coaches began running on the road through the Valley is not known. In 1825 Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, traveled by stage from Harper's Ferry to the Natural Bridge via Winchester, Woodstock, Harrisonburg and Staunton. Some of the places he mentions in his published narrative include Stephensbury (Stephens City), Middletown, Strasburg, Shryock (Edinburg), New Market and Big (Lacey) Spring. All these are on Route 11. In his narrative, Bernhard complains of the uncomfortable vehicles and the rugged road.

On March 3, 1834, the Valley Turnpike Company was incorporated by Act of Assembly and authorized to build a pike from Winchester to Harrisonburg, a distance of 68 miles. This was funded by shares that sold for $25.00 each, which totaled $250,000. Three-fifths of the stock was public and the other two-fifths were bought by the State Board of Public Works. The company was empowered to use as much of the old Indian Road as could be determined desirable for its use.

The resurfacing of the Indian Road to create the Valley Turnpike was not accomplished easily or quickly. Remember that this was not the modern age of heavy earth-moving machinery. The crushed stone that made up the surface of the road was carried in wagons by horses and shoveled by hand onto the road. Any excavation was done by sweating men with shovels. The weather probably had more of an effect on construction at that time, as the incomplete road was still dirt which rain and snow could turn into a quagmire. At a stockholders meeting in June of 1838, more than four years after the charter had been granted, the work was still in progress.

Before the turnpike was completed, construction of a similar road from Harrisonburg to Staunton began. These two roads connected and the two companies merged. This made the complete macadamized highway from Winchester to Staunton a total distance of 93 miles. This began a new era in travel through the Valley. Now, a regularly maintained road existed, although at a cost to the traveler. Every five miles was a tollbooth at which the traveler would stop, pay his toll, and proceed on to his destination.

By the Civil War the Valley Turnpike was the main artery of the Valley. It was an easy, although visible way to move the heavy artillery and masses of soldiers. Military leaders used it to their advantage. Stonewall Jackson stole the B & O Railroad's engines from Martinsburg and pulled them down the pike with horses. Evidence of its use is apparent by the number of Civil War battlefields located along the Turnpike.

On September 1, 1918, the Valley Turnpike Company sold the Turnpike itself and all its equipment to the state of Virginia at a cost of six cents on the dollar invested. This was hardly a big dividend for the stockholders. Since that time, the maintenance of Route 11 is paid for by tax dollars.

For residents of the Valley, the turnpike remains a major route of travel. Though the part of Route 11 which was the Valley Turnpike is but a small part of Route 11, it would be hard to find another stretch so rich in history. In its time, the Valley turnpike was the great highway, winding like a thread through the heart of the Valley. Crossing the Shenandoah River's tributaries or running alongside them, climbing the rolling hills, passing through the towns, villages, forests and the fertile farmlands, the old Indian Road has seen many a traveler. Even though it's no longer the primary road to travel, it's still the best way to see the Valley of the Daughter of the Stars.

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Originally published at An Appalachian Country Rag June 20 1997
Created March 29 2001
Updated April 14 2006
© 1997 - 2006, Don Silvius