Nov. 21–The mere presence of Interstate 77 in Stark County — all 18.54 miles of it — has helped to determine where many of us live, work, shop and play.
“The entire interstate system … is how we’re able to move people and goods in this country,” said Doug Sibila, president and chief executive of Canton-based Peoples Services, a third-generation, multi-state logistic services company. “We’re so fortunate to have it. It’s one of the reasons China is still trying to play catch-up.”
There’s an old saying that “if you bought it, a truck brought it.” In Ohio, 68 percent of all freight, by weight, and 88 percent of all freight, by value, is transported by truck, and about 40 percent of truck travel-miles in the state are via interstate, according to studies by the U.S. and Ohio departments of transportation.
“But it’s also about being connected to (Lake Erie, rivers, airports),” said Sibila, who’s also chairman of the Ohio Trucking Association. “Ohio truly is the heart of it all.”
Although President Dwight Eisenhower is often credited with creating the interstate system, official planning for the country’s interstate highway system began in the 1930s, nearly two decades before he took office in 1953. He was, however, responsible for championing the 1956 Highway Revenue Act, which earmarked gas and user taxes for construction and provided the funds needed for such a plan.
The interstate system was billed as a way to move traffic from congested cities. An added bonus in the Cold War era was its potential use for national defense; the connected web of roads could double as airplane runways or missile launch sites in the event of a foreign attack.
The Canton to Charlotte, N.C., section of I-77 was not part of the original 41,000 miles of interstate designated in the Highway Act. It was, however, included in the 2,102 miles added in 1957 by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks.
Canton officials were prepared for inclusion.
According to Repository archives, the city hired a consultant to design a master highway plan in 1950. Part of that study was to detail how Canton could tie into other highway projects in surrounding counties, such as a planned I-77 leg in Summit County.
In 1954, Canton voters approved a 0.4 percent income tax to fund the city’s $1.7 million share of a $7.4 million local I-77 project.
Construction on the first piece of the four-lane divided interstate in Canton began in 1958. It took two years for contractor Great Lakes Construction to build the trek, which stretched from Navarre Road SW, north to 13th Street NW.
“That was really a joy to work on,” said Mike Pierry, Jr., who served as an assistant to Superintendent Carroll Nelson on the project. “This was in an era before everyone objected to everything.”
Pierry, now 88 years old and living in Abingdon, Va., was fresh out of Duke University with a civil engineering degree when Great Lakes hired him in 1958.
“One of the biggest challenges was a giant, old watch factory (on the planned route),” Pierry recalled, referring to the largely dormant Dueber-Hampden building, which sprawled from Tuscarawas Street W to Sixth Street SW, in the path of the future interstate.
In its heyday, more than 3,000 people worked at the factory. But watch-making there had ended in 1930, though portions of the complex still were leased for offices and businesses.
Pierry said an agreement was reached to demolish only a portion of the complex. He recalled the work being done with steel cables and bulldozers, to “saw” apart the building. A fire ignited, however, and ultimately all of the old building was razed.
“We were able to work year-round,” Pierry recalled. “(Superintendent) Nelson knew geology … when it came to moving earth, all the material was sand and gravel, laid down by the glacier, so we could move earth in some pretty nasty weather.”
Pierry continued to work for Great Lakes until he retired as a vice president in 1986. He still has photos he snapped from the Canton I-77 job — his first major project. They include shots he took from the ground, as well as aerials from a plane.
“When you’re working on a project like that, it’s so satisfying,” Pierry said. “You’re not destroying … you’re building. The crews … can look back at the end of the day and see their accomplishment.”
The rest of I-77 in Stark County was built in subsequent phases. By 1964, it reached state Route 241 in Summit County. In 1969, the section south of Navarre Road SW was completed.
Beth Borda, vice president of commercial development for North Canton’s DeHoff Development, said I-77 is critical to business development throughout the area.
“It was instrumental in development of the city of Green,” she said. “The majority of businesses, they want to know if you can be seen from 77, and how far away the site is.”
Ray Hexamer, president of the Stark Economic Development Board, said the commercial benefits of I-77 go beyond its use to move products via truck, or the visibility it provides retail businesses. The route also widens the pool of potential employees for companies nearby, because it can reduce travel time for workers.
“We received a God-wink as a community with the interstate,” he said.
The busiest section of I-77 inside Stark County is near 12th Street NW. An average of 96,040 vehicles per day travel that piece, according to a study by the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Today, I-77 is one of 20 numbered interstate highways in Ohio. In size — 1,577 center line miles and 8,313 lane miles — the state is home to the fourth-largest interstate system in the country.
All interstates are interconnected. Odd-numbered roads run north-south, while even-numbered roads are east-west. Routes with two-digit numbers are considered major highways; those with three digits are loops, typically bypasses.
After Eisenhower had finished his second term in 1961, he was asked to look back on his accomplishments, and said, “More than any single action of the government since the end of (World War II), this one would change the face of America,” he said, according to information from the Federal Highway Administration.
To the north, I-77 begins in Cleveland at I-90, and stretches 611 miles south to Columbia, S.C.
In Ohio alone, I-77 is connected by other interstates to four dedicated air cargo terminals, eight commercial airports and three main inland water ports, 12 intermodal facilities, along with the 5,338 miles of rail line that meander through the state.
Over the years, as traffic patterns and populations changed and truck traffic increased, interstates, including I-77, had to be widened with additional lanes.
“The design (of interstates) was to accommodate trucks safely … but the development of the motor carrier industry was not anticipated,” explained Jonathan Gifford, director of the Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy at George Mason University.
Gifford said today’s interstate system of about 47,000 miles looks similar in many respects to the “Pershing Map” of 1922.
The map was created by U.S. General of the Armies John J. Pershing, upon the request of Thomas MacDonald, head of the country’s Bureau of Public Roads. Pershing had been asked to detail a list of needed roads, should the nation be attacked.
Pershing’s post-World War I proposal included 78,000 miles of roads. Most eventually were built, with some now recognized as interstates.
Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @tbotosREP
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