The Mountain Parkway, now undergoing a widening and rejuvenation, is still a revolutionary road.
A pet early-1960s project of then-Gov. Bert Combs, dubbed "Toll Road Bertie" for his determined road building across the state, the Mountain Parkway did everything but physically move Lexington closer to Eastern Kentucky.
The story that it was once called "a road from nowhere to nowhere" — in this case, from near Winchester to near Prestonsburg — might be apocryphal, as such language seems to pop up whenever a controversial road project is developed anywhere in the United States.
Longtime Republican politician and attorney Larry Forgy called the Mountain Parkway "the jugular vein of Lexington, not only the business conduit for Lexington, but what brings in these new, vibrant people."
Forgy once practiced law with Combs.
"It's unimaginable to me what each person in Eastern Kentucky went through trying to get to Lexington on Ky. 15," which runs from Whitesburg to Winchester, Forgy said. "It wasn't an adequate road. It took five or six hours."
But there is little question that the Mountain Parkway forever changed life in this half of the state. Will its widening, now being seen in huge chunks of dirt and stone west of Salyersville, do the same?
Combs might have been guilty of only slightly overtalking the parkway when he proclaimed "the barriers of isolation have been pierced by these rapiers of concrete." Still, it took some solid political will to get it done.
Before the parkway opened in 1963, getting from the Winchester area to Eastern Kentucky was a lengthy whirl down a winding road. The Mountain Parkway, 72 miles long, cost $60.6 million to build. Initial estimates for the upgrade were about $753 million, although in 2016 a more formal estimate is expected to be calculated.
Salyersville Mayor Pete Shepherd remembers his dad driving the family home once every two months from Western Kentucky, where he was working for Ashland Oil.
"We drove in once every two months to see our family," Shepherd said. "As they kept getting it completed, we started getting in a lot quicker."
The road also made it easier to make the trek from Salyersville to Lexington and back, Shepherd said, cementing Lexington's hold on the affections — and spending power — of area residents.
The expanded parkway will not only give Magoffin County an off ramp for its new industrial park, Shepherd said, "it's going to let all of our businesses on restaurant row grow immensely."
"Restaurant row" refers to the 90 businesses along a Mountain Parkway stretch through Salyersville and includes such businesses as McDonald's, Lee's Fried Chicken and Subway. The parkway also allows Salyersville to pitch the Dawkins Line rail trail.
Shepherd has heard that the parkway will add 10,000 more cars a day by 2024, nearly double the number it carries now, he said.
"They have to stop somewhere and get gas and eat," Shepherd said of all those vehicles. "This will open up Eastern Kentucky, not just for us, but elsewhere, to tourism."
Tolls on the last leg of the parkway were lifted in 1985. Then, some legislators said they would support retaining the tolls if the money was used to widen the road from two to four lanes. (Oddly, the toll buckets always seemed too high, so drivers had to toss the coins left-handed and underhanded up into the bucket.)
That idea went down quickly.
To the west of Salyersville, construction is at work on the first of the spots to get attention — a bridge at the Gifford Road interchange. When the expanded and upgraded parkway will be finished depends on additional work to be done in Wolfe County and the area between Sal yersville and Prestonsburg.
Next year comes the widening of the Mountain Parkway through Salyersville's "restaurant row," due to cut down on direct access to the parkway from the nearly 90 entrance points through a series of frontage and backage roads. That will smooth the traffic flow through Salyersville, planners hope.
A final decision has not been made on how to extend the road into Prestonsburg: The state Transportation Cabinet had asked area residents if there was interest in a new cross-country road, although the standing plan has been to widen the existing Ky. 114.
Although tolls had been discussed as a way to recoup costs, there has been no recent discussion of reinstating the tolls that Mountain Parkway drivers paid for more than two decades.
When Republican Forgy of Lexington ran for governor in 1995, he and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, pledged to expand to four lanes the 54-mile section of the parkway between Campton and Prestonsburg. Forgy lost. In 1999, Gov. Paul Patton launched the widening of Ky. 114 on the Prestonsburg end of the parkway and said that four-laning the entire road would start within four to five years.
The parkway has always raised strong emotions, from gratitude for its existence — making trips between Eastern Kentucky and Lexington something that can be done in a day rather than an entire weekend — to the simpler joy of getting a rest area.
At Slade, there's a rest stop that is notable for two reasons: first, because it escaped an attempt to shut it down in 2004, and second, because the story behind its naming is downright sweet.
The Junior Williamson rest area is named for a Pikeville man who campaigned for it, who was known for providing shoe shines at the Pike County courthouse and buttonholing legislators in Frankfort.
When the rest area was dedicated in 1988 as the Junior Williamson Rest Area, Williamson said: "This is the happiest day of my life."