"Good roads take people both ways," said a Madison County resident, anticipating the completion of I-26 from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Tennessee Tri-Cities area (Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City). Starting in 1994, I began photographing, interviewing, and collecting objects to document the cutting of a nine-mile stretch of I-26 through some of North Carolina's most spectacular vistas and some of the world's oldest mountains. During the surveying, mapping, core rock sampling, removal, and construction phases, I made over ten thousand negatives and hundreds of finished prints, gathered more than two dozen oral histories, and collected boxes of information and artifacts. I wondered what something so materially "real" as the coming of I-26 might evoke through the framing, detail, and texture of photography. The result was not a pro- or anti-development project, but one that voiced a range of emotion and opinion, often from the same people (whether newcomers or natives).
When I arrived in Madison County, North Carolina, in 1973, I possessed every stereotype possible about mountain people. And I am certain that my new neighbors had equally suspect notions about me and the small wave of people moving into their midst. At first, I intended to produce the definitive book of photographs on mountain culture. I had very preconceived ideas of what that meant. I was taken with the romantic idea of wizened faces, old women in doorways, men plowing into the sunsets, hog butchering in the misty morning light. That's what I thought the place was about. Those early photographs, as I look at them now, feel like clichés. Given time, my increasing personal involvement, and the challenges of earning a livelihood, I was able to overcome my preconceived notions and try to understand the county's people for who they were and are.
Like all newcomers, I was often greeted by, "You ain't from around here?" And, people were right to ask, to question my motivation. Why was I here? What right did I have to assume that I could represent in my documentary work a culture I knew little about? I was sometimes embarrassed that my photographs offered no tangible benefits in a place that seemed to value useful things that aided survival: firewood, bean seeds, a cut of cloth. Then, as I grew more certain of my photography, I felt that pictures offered memories full of historical and personal detail, conveying the texture and feeling of the life around me. Rather than seek the perfect photograph, the longer I lived in Madison County, the more I became interested in recording the process of events, and in documenting social and environmental change.
To comprehend the costs of something as transformative as I-26 we must value intangible, but real concerns often dismissed as "nostalgia" — heartbreak for times past and beauty lost — joined with an awareness of environmental degradation, and anger over the direction in which our society often moves. But how do we place a value on a story? Or on a grave marker? How do we choose the narratives that affect our future? What price do we pay for allowing our memories, our environment, our places to be dismantled one step, one mile, nine miles at a time?
About Rob Amberg's Work
I have been photographing, interviewing, and collecting along the site of the I-26 Corridor since 1994. This has involved coverage of the mapping, core rock sampling, removal, destruction, and construction phases of the project.
Highway work, and my documentation of it, continued until 2003. To date, I have produced over 10,000 negatives, 110 finished prints, 25 oral history interviews and collected boxes of other narrative information and artifacts from the Corridor.
About Madison County
Madison County is a rural, agricultural county located in mountainous, northwestern North Carolina. Throughout its history, the county's rugged terrain has prevented easy access to outlying cities such as Asheville or Knoxville. Winding mountain roads and insular hamlets have meant long bus rides for school children and extended trips for basic services such as food and health care. Twenty-five percent of Madison County's land is federally owned, which, coupled with a small manufacturing sector, has meant a minimal local tax base. Historically, the county has had one of the lowest per capita incomes and educational levels in the state. Home to small-farm families growing a diversity of household crops and livestock, and sustaining a variety of traditional culture forms (music, foodways, religion, storytelling, handicrafts), Madison was also the state's leading producer of burley tobacco.
Interview with Mars Hill mayor Raymond Rapp about the prospects for planned development. (November 17, 2000. Approx. 1 1/2 hours. Streaming audio and transcription of interview. Source: Documenting the American South, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
In the latter part of the twentieth century, like rural counties across the United States, Madison experienced rapid change. In the 1960s, a significant number of newcomers entered Madison County from outside the Southern Appalachian region. The earliest of these were back-to-the-landers and individuals seeking a slower pace as well as a sense of community and belonging in the mountain culture. Adjustments in the federal tobacco program and an aging population took a toll on the county's family farms. The majority of Madison residents now work away from home and their grown-up children are choosing to live elsewhere. Access to higher-paying jobs has often come with the severing of deeply-rooted local connections.
Interview with Richard Lee Hoffman, Jr., a real estate broker who expresses his ambivalence about Madison County changes. (November 8, 2000. Approx. 1 1/2 hours. Streaming audio and transcription of interview. Source: Documenting the American South, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Since the early 1980s, a steady stream of new residents has arrived, including retirees and young professionals, with no ties to the area and, often, with little interest in its past. Tourism plays an increasing role in the county's economy through river rafting, hiking, and events such as music and craft festivals. In the early twenty-first century, life in Madison County combines the persistence of established local networks with the transformations accompanying new technologies, a diversifying and more transient population, new money, and the effects of I-26, a transportation corridor that connects the Ohio Valley with the Atlantic Coast.
The Arrival of I-26
With construction of the Tennessee portion of I-26 nearing completion in 1995, the North Carolina Department of Transportation surveyed the route the road would take across Madison County. The I-26 Corridor was promoted as a safe alternative to the existing road and as an economic boon to the area. Old US Route 19-23 was a steep, winding, unimproved two-lane shared by school buses, elderly residents, and tractor trailers, where accidents and fatalities were a regular occurrence. By early 1997, the project was underway with rights-of-way secured, timber being removed, and bulldozers chewing on Reed Mountain and Ramsey Ridge. The blasting of mountainside and the filling of valleys for this link of new highway displaced more than forty families, and forced the relocation of three churches and their cemeteries. From the three thousand foot elevation of Sam's Gap on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, engineers designed I-26 to descend at a maximum six-degree grade to the college town of Mars Hill (at 2,200 feet). Construction of the six-lane, $230 million section of road was finished in 2003.
The I-26 Corridor was the largest earth-moving project (fifty-million cubic yards) ever contracted by the state of North Carolina. It includes the tallest bridge in the state and the largest single order for culvert pipe ever recorded in the United States. The nine-mile section of road cuts through some of the most rugged country in the eastern US, along centuries-old routes used by Natives and settlers. Construction required the removal of hundreds of acres of hardwood forests, high upper pastures, and farmland. The highway cut through National Forest land as well as prime black bear habitat, and crossed the Appalachian Trail.
Interview with Jerry Lee Plemmons, a Madison County native, about the highway construction's effects upon the environment. (December 10,2000. Approx. 1 1/2 hours. Streaming audio and transcription of interview. Source: Documenting the American South, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Interview with Taylor Barnhill, an environmental activist with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, who expresses distress for how the I-26 project affects North Carolina communities and wilderness. (November 29, 2000. Approx. 1 1/2 hours. Streaming audio and transcription of interview. Source: Documenting the American South, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Most Madison County residents remain skeptical about the promised economic benefits. While I-26 provides a direct link between the southern Ohio Valley, the mountains of western North Carolina, and the coastal plains of South Carolina, given the county's topography and history, job growth is likely to be minimal, beginning with fast food franchises, and chain motels, and the service jobs that accompany them. Land prices, however, have already markedly increased, as have taxes, and residential growth. Priced-out of the purchase of land, longtimers struggle to keep what they have, and find it difficult to pass land on to their children.