Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 17, 2014

Freezing, thawing cycle cause for rock slides

ELKHORN — The repeated cycle of freezing and thawing and freezing again can add to the challenge of traveling through the mountains of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia during the winter months.

“You might want to ask a geologist about whether or not this year is any worse than any other year,” Tom Camden, manager of District 10, West Virginia Department of Highways, said. “But the consensus among the highway engineers that I have talked with is that the extreme fluctuations we’ve had this year of freezing, thawing and freezing again has made this a very difficult year.”

District 10 of the DOH was forced to contend with two major rock slides on I-77 during 2013 — one early and one late — as well as a major slide on Route 3 in Raleigh County in late December 2013 that totally closed that road for a week.

“That freezing and thawing action that we see in the winter is like driving a wedge into a log to split it,” Camden said. “The first freeze may cause a crack to form in the rock, and when it thaws, water will fill the crack. During the next freeze, that crack may grow into a crevasse and may eventually break off. That’s the nature of our seasons living in the mountains.”

Riverside Drive in Welch has been partially closed since Feb. 19, when a wall that held a portion of the road in place gave way to the forces of nature.

“That was not a slip up there,” Camden said. “It was a rock wall, but the reason that it fell is caused by the same natural forces.”

Riverside Drive in Welch is an interesting road that has been serving the community for more than 120 years, according to Danny Barie, attorney for the city of Welch.

“Isaiah A. Welch built Riverside Drive to give people from that part of the county access to the county seat,” Barie said. McDowell County was established by the Virginia General Assembly in 1858, and its first county seat was in Perryville, the present site of English. Welch, the surveyor who mapped the Flat Top Coalfields for Jed Hotchkiss in 1873, knew the strategic importance of the confluence of Elkhorn Creek and the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, so he proposed to locate the county seat at that point.

“In 1891 or ‘92, Welch laid out the road from the Elkhorn Bridge near the present site of the Welch Post Office,” Barie said. “It is built on a stone bench on the hillside. A lot has changed since he built that road.”

In the best of times, Riverside Drive is a narrow two-lane road with rocks on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

“The DOH is putting in some steel slabs and pilings to stabilize the wall up there,” Barie said.

Camden said that there are other smaller slips on roads throughout District 10. “I was on the West Virginia Turnpike recently, and they have some huge rock falls that they have to remove,” he said. “We have a big rock up on Route 52 at Elkhorn Mountain that we’ll have to deal with. We’ll probably have to get a (jack) hammer up there to deal with it.”

Still, Camden said that motorists should still be cautious when driving in the region. “That’s the nature of spring in the mountains,” he said.

— Contact Bill Archer at

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