By Jody Brumage
For decades, Senator Robert C. Byrd succeeded in passing legislation which designed and constructed West Virginia’s 424 miles of the Appalachian Corridor Highways. The documents and photographs in the Robert C. Byrd Congressional Papers Collection illuminate the difficult task of achieving congressional approval for these massive infrastructure projects and reveal his first unsuccessful attempt to win approval for a proposed scenic highway in eastern and southern West Virginia. The lessons of this decade-long battle undoubtedly helped to prepare Senator Byrd for his later successes in winning the support of the federal government for major infrastructure improvements in West Virginia.
Senator Byrd sponsored four bills in the 87th, 88th, 89th, and 91st Congresses to gain federal support for the construction of the Allegheny Parkway, a scenic highway originally conceived to link Hagerstown, Maryland to Cumberland Gap, Kentucky. Designed to connect major U.S. highways, the parkway was described as a key solution to bringing the Appalachian Region out of an economic depression which had existed for decades. For Senator Byrd, the parkway’s intended route through West Virginia would open the door for tourism to flourish among some of the state’s most celebrated attractions.
On May 3, 1961, Senator Byrd introduced Senate Bill 1798, “A bill to provide for the establishment and administration of the Allegheny Parkway in the States of West Virginia and Kentucky and Maryland.” The bill was sent to the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and scheduled for hearing in the spring of 1962. Senator Byrd testified in the hearing, declaring the project to be “a roadway to the regeneration of many areas of economic distress and chronic unemployment.” By the summer of 1962, the Department of the Interior proposed a 1-year study of the feasibility of the parkway, a measure which was supported by Senator Byrd. While the study was taking place, the first of many problems for the project arose when it was discovered that part of the route for the highway conflicted with the planned Highland Scenic Highway which had been proposed by West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph. The study was also underfunded due to the striking of additional funding for the Department of the Interior by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
At the end of the 88th Congress, the Allegheny Parkway’s future remained very much in question. Despite the problems from the Interior Department and the Bureau of the Budget, the project was endorsed by the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission. With the passage of the Appalachian Regional Development Act in early 1965 and the unveiling of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Senator Byrd recognized another opportunity to push for approval of the Allegheny Parkway in the upcoming 89th Congress.