This is another installment in the FreightWaves Classics series on various highways that make up the U.S. Interstate Highway System.
Interstate 26 (I-26) is located in the southeastern United States. It is a diagonal interstate highway that runs primarily northwest-southeast from the junction of U.S. Route 11W (US 11W) and US 23 in Kingsport, Tennessee, to US 17 in Charleston, South Carolina.
To date I-26 has been extended twice from its original western end at Asheville, North Carolina, first in 2003 to I-81 and in 2005 to US 11W.
I-26 in Tennessee
As noted above, I-26 originally ended in Asheville, North Carolina. The extension of I-26 to Tennessee was first planned in 1987. It extended the highway northward from Asheville to I-81 and I-181 near Fordtown, Tennessee. The extension provided a more efficient route to access I-81 for northbound truck traffic that had been banned on U.S. 19/23. The extension opened on August 5, 2003, providing a nine-mile, six-lane freeway from Mars Hill, North Carolina to the Tennessee state line.
The extension took seven years to complete and cost $230 million. It has no more than a 6% grade (compared to a 9% on the old US 23 route). In addition, there is a 215-foot tall bridge, which is high enough in the mountains that a de-icing system that can be activated by telephone was installed. There is also a fog detection system with warning lights and three runaway truck ramps. The Appalachian Regional Commission provided 80% of the funding to build the I-26 extension.
In addition to the improved route for trucks, it was hoped that by extending I-26 local economies in the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee would be enhanced. The jury is still out on that issue. However, that did not stop local leaders in Kingsport, Tennessee and nearby areas from lobbying the Tennessee congressional delegation to extend I-26 further north to the Virginia state line near Morrison City in an effort to boost the area’s economy. Their efforts paid off; Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) highway bill on August 2, 2005 with the I-26 extension included.
I-26 in Tennessee was formerly US 23 and then I-181. In March 2007 the remaining I-181 signs north of I-81 were replaced with I-26 signs. In addition, I-26’s entire length in Tennessee shares its route with US 23. The route is named the James H. Quillen Parkway, after Jimmy Quillen, a past member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee.
I-26 in North Carolina
North Carolina’s first section of I-26 to open was 14 miles near Hendersonville, which went into service in January 1967. The highway between the South Carolina/North Carolina border and Asheville was finished in 1976.
Near the Tennessee/North Carolina border, I-26 crosses the Bald Mountains while running through a relatively high-elevation rural area. At Buckner Gap, I-26 reaches 3,370 feet in elevation. It hits its highest elevation of 3,760 feet at Sam’s Gap. For two miles on each side of the state line, its elevation is at least 3,000 feet.
On a clear day travelers can see Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak of the Appalachian Mountains chain at 6,684 feet. Two scenic overlooks and a welcome center at the state line were constructed to enhance travelers’ experiences while on I-26.
North of Asheville I-26 was designated a Scenic Byway by the state of North Carolina. It was the first interstate in the state to be recognized in that manner. I-26 is a Scenic Byway between its interchange with US 19/US 23 N and the North Carolina/Tennessee border. In addition, at Sam’s Gap, the Appalachian Trail crosses under I-26 and northbound travelers can see the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I-26 and I-240 combine at a major interchange in West Asheville and cross the French Broad River. After being combined for over 4 miles they meet I-40 near Sand Hill and then split. The interchange with I-40 was the original western end of I-26 before it was continued to Tennessee. South of the I-40 interchange, I-26 runs north toward Hendersonville. It enters the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Walnut Mountains and Bald Mountains of the Appalachian range, while also passing through the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests.
I-26 crosses the eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,130 feet and then crosses the Green River on the Peter Guice Memorial Bridge, which is North Carolina’s highest bridge – 225 feet above the river. The interstate then runs eastward to Howard Gap and Columbus before approaching South Carolina at Landrum.
I-26 in South Carolina
Once in South Carolina, I-26 runs southeasterly through South Carolina. The freeway travels through the “Upstate,” approaching the Spartanburg area from the west. Continuing southward from there, I-26 and I-85 share an interchange. Then I-26 combines with I-385 from Greenville, moves through Sumter National Forest on the way to Columbia. Within South Carolina’s capital city, I-26 expands to the “Malfunction Junction” cloverleaf interchange with I-20. In addition I-126 is an eastern spur to downtown Columbia; I-26 stays to the west and passes Cayce, where there is an interchange with I-77.
Continuing its southeastern route, I-26 passes Orangeburg and then has an interchange with I-95. Rural areas become more suburban as I-26 passes Summerville on its way to North Charleston and the junction with I-526. The last section of I-26 passes through an urban area north of downtown Charleston.
In South Carolina I-26 is a hurricane evacuation route. During a hurricane evacuation, lane reversal on I-26 occurs between its junctions with I-526 in Charleston and I-77 in Columbia. For example, I-26 lane reversal occurred during the evacuation due to Hurricane Florence in September 2018.
Interstate 26 was part of the original plan for the Interstate Highway System (in North and South Carolina only). The funding for I-26 in South Carolina came from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Construction on the first section of I-26 in South Carolina (between Columbia and Charleston) began in 1957 and ended in 1969. The first 11-mile section opened to traffic on September 7, 1960. Also in the fall of 1960 I-26 was completed from Spartanburg to Columbia. I-26 from the South Carolina/North Carolina border to Columbia was completed in February 1969.
Interstate 26’s total length is 328 miles. It is 54 miles long in Tennessee, 53 miles long in North Carolina and 221 miles long in South Carolina. So while it is a relatively short interstate highway, it serves an area that is diverse in scenery, topography and population.