Conquering Mercer County’s mountain

Last updated: August 30, 2021

Ever visited Mercer County? You might have without even realizing it, thanks to East River Mountain’s picturesque but unobtrusive thoroughfare.

Still, looks can be deceiving. For decades, commuting from Mercer County, West Virginia to Virginia over East River Mountain wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Then, an interstate tunnel changed everything.

Here’s what happened.

East River Mountain: a biography

Looks can be deceiving. On a map, southern West Virginia and the Old Dominion neatly touch.

But in reality, a barrier splits the two states for 35 miles: East River Mountain. Named after a New River tributary, the lofty range runs from Tazewell, Virginia to lower portions of the Mountain State. It’s also tall. Elevation hits 3,000 feet or more in some locations.

That’s where Mercer County comes into the picture. East River Mountain’s highest point, Buckhorn Knob, is found right here, all 4,069 feet of it.

Features like these made commuting a trial, and East River’s sandstone crest deterred erosion and road construction alike. Even then, the best mankind could do was carve a narrow switchback from one state to another. Known as Route 52, the high-altitude passage didn’t have any guardrails. Conditions on the mountain were often foggy and windy, and snow and ice in the winter would shut down traffic entirely.

Clearly, there had to be a better solution … but what? The answer would come on an August day in 1969.

Start digging

Both states realized that going over the mountain wasn’t feasible. Going through it, though, made much more sense.

By 1969, the West Virginia Division of Highways and the Virginia Department of Transportation had decided on a tunnel. It would be 5,412 feet long and 1,077 feet below the mountaintop.

On August 12, construction crews got to work. East River Mountain fought back. As engineers dug into the soft limestone base, they hit mud and underground springs. Crews had to stop, fetch concrete and plug the holes. Caverns caused even longer delays.

Engineers persisted. Eventually, the East River Mountain Tunnel grew steel arches, supports and shiny ceramic tiles. It was a modern triumph, too. Sensors analyze the atmosphere and adjust the ventilation system, while 24 fans circulate fresh air. The conduit also has generators, emergency equipment and traffic lights.

Still, East River Mountain didn’t yield easily. Construction took 5 years. By the time the tunnel opened on December 20, 1974, it encompassed two major roads: I-77 and US 52.

Despite the high cost— $40 million— the project was worth every penny. Just ask the folks who had to snake over the mountain without safety rails! Today, the commute from Bluefield, West Virginia to Rocky Gap, Virginia (or vice versa) takes just under 15 minutes.

East River Mountain Overlook

What was yesterday’s headache is today’s blessing. All that altitude provides one of Mercer County’s most picturesque backdrops: the East River Mountain Overlook.

Poised 3,500 feet above sea level, the rest stop gives you an airplane’s perspective of West Virginia. There are patchwork valleys, rolling mountains and— far, far below— Bluefield.

Perch yourself by the rail and soak up the view. Sometimes, you can watch a storm roll from one horizon to the other. Or bring a picnic; the refreshing breezes and seasonal wildflowers make lunchtime delightful.

Your next scenic drive

If your family has had enough of the pool, pack them into the car and head for East River Mountain. It’s just off the beaten path— the ideal road trip.

What’s more, Princeton, Bluefield, and Exit 9 are conveniently located off I-77. After you’re done touring, venture deeper into Mercer County! You’ll discover quirky towns and cities with rich history and intriguing shops and attractions.

The curvy landscape is popular with motorcycle riders, too. So saddle up and point that engine towards East River Mountain. An invigorating journey awaits!

Take a drive through the East River Mountain tunnel with this video! Have you ever driven through East River Mountain or visited the overlook? What do you remember most?