EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series.
Today, residents of the Tuscarawas Valley take it for granted that they can jump on I-77 and be in Cleveland in a little more than two hours. Or that they can head south on the four-lane and be in Myrtle Beach or the warmth of Florida in a couple of days.
Sixty years ago, that mobility was just a dream.
Until 1969, U.S. Route 21 was the main north-south highway in this part of Ohio, stretching from Cleveland to Beaufort, S.C. In Tuscarawas County, it ran through Strasburg, Dover and New Philadelphia. It then continued down to what is now Stonecreek Road to Newcomerstown. From there, it followed what is now a county road to Cambridge.
Route 21 was winding, hilly and dangerous. Motorists hated it.
So on Oct. 28, 1953, a group of civic leaders, including representatives from Dover and Newcomerstown, met in Cambridge to form the Route 21 Association to lobby for improvements to the highway. They faced an uphill battle.
Federal officials, who were planning the interstate highway system, were cool to the idea. They believed that Ohio was not a big growth state. When routes for the new system were put in place, U.S. Route 21 was not included.
Then in 1957, the intense lobbying by Ohio officials and the Route 21 Association paid off and the federal government relented. It approved construction of a 431-mile I-77 that would link Cleveland with the West Virginia Turnpike and then continue on to Charlotte, N.C.
"It would seem that the people of Tuscarawas County should be very happy about this development," John W. Toland of the Dover Chamber of Commerce said. "Perhaps a new, modern highway may be considered by the whole area as almost as important as new industry."
The first step in the process was determining what route I-77 would take.
A heated controversy arose over the Dover-to-Newcomerstown link. Some favored a so-called "ridge" route, while others backed the "valley" route. The "ridge" route is the route I-77 takes today. The "river" route would have gone from Newcomerstown, through Port Washington, Gnadenhutten and Tuscarawas and then continued on to New Philadelphia.
A series of public meetings was held in 1960 throughout Tuscarawas County to allow residents to express their views on the issue.
Proponents of the "river" route, who included Uhrichsville Mayor Jess Dempster and the Dennison Chamber of Commerce, argued that the "ridge" route could "dry up" the cities and industries in the eastern part of the county.
The Tuscarawas County Chamber of Commerce also supported the longer route. In a brief filed with the state, chamber officials said the "river" route would facilitate industrial development along the Tuscarawas River.
"In comparison, the 'ridge route' lacks space and water and obviously is not suitable for industrial development, especially in view of the fact that construction of I-77 would eliminate potential industrial sites," the chamber said.
State officials and the engineers who designed the highway said the "ridge" route was the more economical route. The "ridge" route would be 18.1 miles in length and cost $26.8 million to build. In comparison, the "river" route was 20.7 miles long and would cost $32.6 million to build.
Eventually, state officials decided to go with the "ridge" route, but promised to build a four-lane highway between New Philadelphia and Uhrichsville as a compromise.
Construction on the first portion of the highway — between New Philadelphia and Strasburg — began in 1962.
In the summer of 1963, five residents living just west of New Philadelphia found that their water wells had gone dry. Each of them had to pay $1,500 (the equivalent of $12,000 in 2018) to drill their wells deeper because a barrow pit operation used by I-77 contractors had lowered the water table to an all-time low.
The Dover Daily Reporter reported that the contractors were pumping an estimated 17 million gallons of water per day out of the ground and into the Tuscarawas River so shovels and earth movers could excavate fill dirt.
A week later, residents living in Columbia, between Dover and Strasburg, found themselves in the same situation because pumps used in construction of the highway also caused their wells to go dry.
State officials said they had no jurisdiction over the barrow pits.
A total of 26 Dover-area residents eventually filed suit against the contractor, J.A. Jones Construction Co. of Berlin Heights. Each resident sought $5,000 in compensation, but their suits were all dismissed by Common Pleas Judge Raymond Rice with prejudice. One of the 26 cases went to trial, but a jury ruled on Nov. 5, 1965, in favor of the construction company.
Meanwhile, work progressed on the section from New Philadelphia to Strasburg. Area residents couldn't wait to experience the pleasures of freeway driving.
NEXT WEEK: A completed I-77 opens to traffic.