EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series.
On Oct. 14, 1964, a crowd of about 300 people, including the entire senior class of Strasburg High School, gathered at the I-77/U.S. Route 250 interchange west of New Philadelphia for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of the first 7.2 miles of the interstate highway in Tuscarawas County.
The main speaker was Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes, and Max Krantz of Dover served as master of ceremonies.
"I think it will bring people here — to work, see our countryside, enjoy the recreational facilities of our lakes and view historical points of interest," Krantz said in his remarks.
The ribbon for the ribbon-cutting was made of Golden Memories roses from the Endres Floral Co. of New Philadelphia.
That night, hundreds of Tuscarawas County families jammed the $11.4 million highway, which ran from New Philadelphia to Strasburg, "giving the family 'jalopy' a taste of super highway travel," the Dover Daily Reporter said.
That moment was 11 years in the making, the culmination of efforts by the U.S. Route 21 Improvement Association to provide an alternative to travel on windy, hilly, dangerous Route 21, which ran from Cleveland to South Carolina. Local backers were certain the interstate would bring prosperity to the Tuscarawas Valley.
It took another five years before the freeway was finally completed, but it did spark almost immediate economic development.
On May 26, 1965, J. Roger Wilkin, a North Canton developer, invited newspaper and radio reporters to a press conference at Fort Laurens in Bolivar to announce his plans to build a "dream community" between Bolivar and Zoar.
His plan had support from Rhodes and the director of the Ohio Department of Development.
"The plan, which has been a dream of Wilkin and two other Stark County men for some time, was apparently inspired by the new expressway route which will reduce the traveling time between this area and Stark County to a matter of minutes," the Dover Reporter said. The other men were well-known auctioneer Russ Kiko and an associate, William H. Gill.
They had placed 10,000 acres under option for 10 years for the development, which would include houses, apartments and a shopping center.
"The tract now under consideration lends itself admirably to intelligent development from the ground up," Wilkin told reporters. "No bulldozer or wrecking crew would have to erase congested old buildings and no condemnation proceedings would be necessary."
His "dream community" eventually became Wilkshire Hills.
A year after the interstate opened, it saw its first fatal crash. On July 1, 1965, a vehicle failed to negotiate a curve at the northern end of I-77, just south of Strasburg, and hit a guardrail. A 21-year-old Wilmington, Pa., man was killed in the accident.
About that same time, bulldozer operators moving equipment for construction work near Bolivar discovered what was believed to be a 14th century Indian burial ground. Three skulls and two femurs were uncovered, along with arrowheads and a tomahawk. According to the Dover Daily Reporter, the items were taken away by unidentified people.
Work on a 4-mile section of the highway from Stone Creek to County Road 54 (Mathias Raceway Road) and a 4-mile stretch just south of Newcomerstown began in 1966. The section near Newcomerstown included two bridges, one carrying Wheeling Township Road 218 in Guernsey County over the freeway and another carrying the interstate over Tuscarawas County Road 3 (Post Boy Road).
After another three years of work, the interstate opened to traffic from Fairlawn, near Akron, all the way to Marietta on Oct. 6, 1969. More than 100 state and federal officials attended a ribbon-cutting on the south edge of Canton that day. At the same time, 13 miles of the highway opened from Stone Creek to Kimbolton in Guernsey County.
Sadly, in the 10 months preceding the opening of I-77, nine people were killed in car crashes on Route 21, just in the Newcomerstown area, demonstrating a need to replace the two-lane highway. The last crash occurred on Sept. 27, claiming the lives of a Newcomerstown woman and her brother, who died in a head-on collision 3.4 miles south of Newcomerstown.
With the opening of I-77 to traffic, The Times-Reporter paid tribute to the people of the U.S. Route 21 Improvement Association who had been working since the group was organized in Cambridge in 1953 to make the freeway a reality.
"A new day has dawned for the Tuscarawas Valley," the paper said in an editorial. "Hopefully, Interstate 77 will bring to our doorstep new neighbors, new industries and the progress envisioned by those who met in Cambridge on Oct. 28, 1953.
"Many persons worked tirelessly for a new Route 21. The end result isn't exactly what they sought initially. In some ways, it is even better than their dream. But to all of them the community and Ohio owe their thanks. Through their efforts the door has been opened to a brighter day."