Steve Clark helped build the East River Mountain Tunnel. He is interviewed by his nephew, Kevin DeHart.(rghs 95)
Kevin: I 'm Kevin DeHart and am with Steve Clark who was one of the many important people who helped build the East River Mountain Tunnel. Steve, before the tunnel, what was the route to get to Bluefield or anywhere else on the other side of the mountain?
Steve: Route 52.
Kevin: Route 52. That went over the mountain, right?
Steve: Right, yeah.
Kevin: That's near Rocky Gap and it ends where it is now called the Geo Truck World or whatever in Bluefield.
Kevin: Were there stores and service stations any where on the mountain?
Steve: Well, as well as I can remember, there was one store going up the mountain. A bunch of the stores and filling stations were at the bottom part, you know, in Rocky Gap. This (the tunnel) hurt the business a lot then.
Kevin: Just when the tunnel came in, the traffic just slowed completely down.
Steve: Yeah, it did.
Kevin: Certainly the decision to build the tunnel was the right one because of the increasing traffic through the two Virginias? Did you or anyone else have any opposition in the coming of the tunnel now that you look back on it?
Steve: No, not at that time I don't think.
Kevin: How long did it take to approve the tunnel to come in?
Steve: I think they started back like in '65, and it was like '69 before we ever started the tunnel, because of all the roads that they had to bring together, you know to make everything happen. You had one going out to I-77 going all the way to Pearisburg down through there. On the other side of the tunnel you had what is 52 now, but it used to be the old 290, it run out through there. They had to bring that all together. It was one of the biggest jobs around that time.
Kevin: What year did construction begin on the tunnel?
Steve: In '69.
Kevin: Was it in the summer or fall?
Steve: I can't remember exactly because I didn't work up there till about... till the later part of '71 then worked into '72.
Kevin: What had to be done first before they even could start to build the tunnel? Did they dig all the dirt from the mountain at one time, or did the dig and build a little at a time?
|Steve: That's what they had to do. They had to go in...they had all the grade work...They come in and they bought like a 300 foot strip all the way across the mountain. There is a 300 foot right- of-way all the way across there. Then there were grade stakes they set, but they had a lot of trouble with them. They were comin' in and tearing them down and then having to go back. Then they got that all done and they started into the tunnel...it was a little bit at a time and then they would set steel.(So it would not collapse)
Kevin: What did they do with all the dirt and rocks that came from the mountain?
|Steve: I'd say eighty percent of the dirt came for filling on the Virginia side for the grade coming up into the tunnel...you know there next to Laurel Creek where the big bridge runs in there.
Kevin: Did they have to build that bridge?
Steve: Yeah, they had to build...all that was built up.
Kevin: I didn't know that they had done that.
Steve: See, all that was built at the same time
|and they would bring dirt out of the tunnel and bring it down there and fill.
Kevin: So while people were working on the tunnel, they were building that?
|Kevin: What specifically did you work on in building the tunnel?
Steve: Mainly the arch forms was what I was hired on for. We went and set...which the arch form base lays above the ceiling that you are looking at now is the arch of the tunnel up where all the fans set at in the ventilation system. We set the form and they came in and poured the concrete.
Kevin: Was the labor hard?
|Kevin: How many hours did you work a day?
Steve: Well, most of the time we just worked five hours, but we could go in some days and work eight hours and sometimes ten hours. It's according on how long it took to set the concrete and get ready to pour the concrete. There was just two forms and you would set one of them and pour it one day while the other was being set.
Kevin: Did you work all week?
Kevin: What was the pay?
Steve: Well, at that time it was pretty good. You know, let say, $4.95 at that time was pretty decent money.
Kevin: Describe for me a typical day while building the tunnel?
Steve: Well, can I tell you about my first day up there. When I went in there I was used to hard work because I had worked in the timber and stuff. We went in and we had a change house where you went in and got you old clothes on, you work clothes you know and drove the truck in. We went in there and I guess we went in at four and we didn't do anything till about 8:00. I thought this was going to be a good job. Then all of the sudden you hear all the concrete trucks coming up to the tunnel and after that you really had to get ready. You were just pouring concrete one right after another. It got pretty tough...anytime you mess with concrete it's pretty tough.
Kevin: Were there any accidents or deaths while working on the tunnel, and if there were, did this cause any apprehension in the people of the surrounding towns?
Steve: The only death that I remember was outside the tunnel. The guy was bringing dirt from the tunnel for the back fill and he went over the hill. That's the only one I can remember. As far as accidents there was a few small ones. In fact, I was involved in one with a guy who was working with me. We was setting the arch forms and he falls off what we call the jumbo. He falls of and hits about twenty foot and bounces like a rubber ball in the road. Now that got right scary.
Kevin: Did he get hurt really bad?
Steve: Yeah, he was messed up. In fact, it was his last night of work and we were setting a form. He had this pipe and he pulled it out. Instead of turning it loose he holds onto it and drops it plum off the jumbo, which is about a twenty foot drop. I just sat up top and watched him and he just bounced like a rubber ball. He got hurt pretty bad.
Kevin: Have they replaced any major things in the tunnel that you know of, such as lights, tiles on the wall, etc., since the tunnel was built?
Steve: A far as I know, and I haven't kept up with it, the light system has been changed and a lot of the tiles. There could be a lot of other stuff that has been changed, but that is all that I know.
Kevin: Mainly because of that accident and fire. They would have to replace the tiles.
Steve: Before hand we had a lot of water that got in behind the tile, and they had to replace where it came in behind the tile. They would pop off and they had to go in and replace some of them.
Kevin: Do you have any idea how much it cost to build the tunnel?
Steve: I think it was some where around thirty-five million dollars.
Kevin: Was that one of the biggest projects at that time?
Steve: Yes, it was the biggest project at that time because now there is a lot that go over that by a long shot. At that time it was a lot.
Kevin: What year did construction finally end of the tunnel?
Steve: About the end of '74. I don't know exactly what date it opened up but it was in '74.
Kevin: So it started in '69 through '74. About five years.
Kevin: Were you really excited to go through the new structure? Did you go up and take pictures of the tunnel?
Steve: I didn't take any pictures, but I guess maybe I wished I had. I went throughout it so many times before hand...working there, backwards and forwards, in and out of it. I guess I was just driving through it all the time, because I went through it everyday.
Kevin: Do you take it for granted now, or do you think about that I helped build this?
Steve: Yeah, and a lot of the times with the kids when I drive through, I will show them and tell things that I done there. Yeah, I take it for granted. First of all, I had to go across East River Mountain. It made a lot of difference in the traffic. With East River Mountain Tunnel and Big Walker Mountain Tunnel, it cut out a lot of traffic.
Kevin: In the middle of the tunnel there is a break in the tunnel. It's the break between the West Virginia and Virginia line. They say it's in the tunnel, but I haven't really seen it. It's this big line. (Have you seen it?)
Steve: There probably is but I haven't noticed it. They've got a lot of crossovers through there. One thing about the tunnel is the phone system too. If you break down in there, there are phones all the way up the tunnel. The state would be down there in a minute to get you out of there. They don't let you set there very long. I remember I went to work one morning and run out of gas right there. I pulled over to the side and the big tractor trailers didn't slow down; they rolled right past me. It wasn't five minutes and the state was down there and pushed it right out of there.
Kevin: Well, that's about the end of my interview. Do you have anything else to add?
Steve: No, not really.
Kevin: I thank you for your time. You helped me a great deal.
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