Route 11: Scenic Byway, Historic Crossroads

By: Tim Saunders
By: Tim Saunders

It's a scenic byway. The road many of us take when the hustle and bustle of 81 gets to be too much. Today, Route 11 is home to a slower way of life.

But it hasn't always been that way.

"A lot took place along the road. In fact, just about everything took place along the road, if you can imagine," said Warren Hofstra, Professor of History at SU.

In its heyday, Route 11 was the Valley's main highway, the best, and sometimes only route for travelers.

"It?s always been used as a link between the cities like Winchester and Harrisonburg," said historian Nancy Bowman.

The road started as just a dirt trail carved out by Native Americans. It wasn't long before settlers began coming to the Valley, transforming that path into a wagon road.

?The road was so important because it went along the full stretch of the Valley and connected the Valley to Pennsylvania and to Philadelphia, which were its primary commercial connections," Hofstra said.

As traffic picked up, some began to see the wagon road as a way to make money. By 1834, the dirt path had become a toll road, known as the Valley Turnpike.

"That toll was to help pay for the upkeep of the highway," Bowman said.

Less than 30 years later, the Civil War transformed the turnpike into a battle zone.

"It was paved with gravel paving, it was very serviceable. It could be used during all times of the year, winter included, so it was the primary route by which the armies moved up and down,? Hofstra said.

By the early 20th Century, wagons were replaced by cars. The toll gates came down in 1918 and the road was widened to three lanes. But there wasn't much traffic at first.

"During World War II, people didn't have the gasoline for transportation," Bowman said.

That soon changed. By the 50's, Route 11 was the Valley's gateway to growing business and tourism.

"It meant there were more trucks on Route 11 and it was much, much nosier and more dangerous," said Bowman.

In the 1960's, most of Route 11's traffic went to the interstate, where it remains today. But the old highway isn't deserted.

Today, Route 11 moves at a different pace.

"It?s much more relaxing. It's much more scenic and it's much more enjoyable, so I should imagine that Route 11 will always provide an alternative to the interstate," Bowman said.

A place where history will always be along the path.

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