Historic Ashley River Road is South Carolina’s oldest existing road and a cultural treasure of the Lowcountry. Its survival through the last century of commercial and population growth is simply astonishing.
Ashley River Road has been recognized as a National Scenic Byway and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register Listing, which was written in 1983 by the S.C. Department of Archives and History and supported by the state Department of Transportation (the road’s owner), outlined its fascinating history and stated that, “the road’s historic integrity” has been saved because the ancient tree canopy has been retained. Many of the trees along Ashley River Road today are believed to date from the founding of the South Carolina colony.
When I experienced the road for the first time, I’ll never forget the feeling that time stood still here. I still get that feeling today, and I’m sure many of you have similar experiences and memories of the old road.
But the Ashley River Road that we’ve all known, loved and largely taken for granted is threatened with a DOT resurfacing and widening plan that will forever change its rural and historic character.
In Dorchester County, the road has deteriorated with large cracks, potholes and uneven shoulders. The development of new neighborhoods south of Summerville has caused exponential increases in traffic volume, and the once present S.C. Highway Patrol has neglected the road since municipalities began annexing the historic district. Statistics reveal high rates of serious injury and fatal accidents due to inadequate maintenance, increased automobile volume and the absence of law enforcement to reduce speeding.
Now the DOT plans to resurface and widen the road under the Rural Roads Safety Program. This well-intentioned program is based on national templates developed for improving safety on rural roads, but it largely ignores the importance of cultural resources and it cannot provide comprehensive solutions combining sensitive design, enforcement and other elements such as reduction of speed. Under Rural Road Safety Program guidelines, Ashley River Road is slated to have 4-foot paved shoulders and wide clear zones. The width of the clear zones will vary from 12 feet to 25.5 feet. The section of Ashley River Road from the Charleston-Dorchester county line near Middleton Place to Cooks Crossroads would lose 341 trees with a diameter of 18 inches or larger. If the smaller trees were counted the number would surely reach into the thousands.
Ashley River Road is a scenic highway and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the very proximity of the trees to the road and the resulting canopy. If resurfaced with the current plan calling for paved shoulders and wide clear zones, the road’s canopy will be a costly casualty.
DOT will present the plans to resurface and widen the road at a meeting from 5-7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Ashley Ridge High School, which is on Highway 165). DOT officials also will listen to public comment and record written feedback from concerned citizens. Please contact your local highway commissioner and state senator and representative to voice your concern for the future of Ashley River Road.
While DOT owns the old road, the people of South Carolina own DOT. If you have fond memories of driving on Historic Ashley River Road, and you want to save this important link to our history, now is the time to act. Let’s ask for a comprehensive management plan for the historic road that will bring multiple state agencies together to find solutions for traffic and safety concerns, and resurface the lanes in a way that keeps the road’s historic integrity.
M. Tracey Todd is president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation.