Business 40 Changing Lanes: The Highway's History
The final phase for the Business 40 improvements project begins next year in the downtown Winston-Salem area: replacing old ramps and bridges, expanding shoulders and laying new pavement. But all this renewal has some people looking back. Winston-Salem writer-producer Frank Elliott’s upcoming documentary Highway to the Future covers the history behind Business 40. In the second installment of our series Business 40 Changing Lanes, Elliott speaks with WFDD’s David Ford.
On the roadway’s significance:
I call it ‘Highway to the Future’ because once this highway was built, it determined how Winston-Salem would grow for the next fifty years. Because we had Business 40, we then got Silas Creek Parkway, we got the Salem Bypass, we got what they called the North-South Expressway which is now 52, we got Peters Creek Parkway, we got University Parkway. All of these things fed off of the spine of Business 40 which was the first part of the puzzle.
On why an East-West highway was needed:
It mostly was: ‘Do something about the traffic!’ Part of it’s because, you know, Winston and Salem grew haphazardly. There was Salem, and they had their road system, and there was Winston, and they had their road system, and in 1913 they smooshed the two of them together, and nothing really worked very well.
Downtown in the early 50s [and] late 40s was an absolute wreck. Winston-Salem was the major manufacturing hub in North Carolina, with more highways coming into the city than anywhere else in the state. And that was because of Hanes and Reynolds and Western Electric, and all of that manufacturing going on here, but there was no single street that would take you from one side of Winston to the other side of Winston without you having to make turns. And everything came into downtown. It was your classic wheel and spoke pattern. Combine all this traffic trying to get through Winston having to go through downtown with Reynolds — all of their factories were downtown. Hanes factories were downtown. Think about all the trucks bringing in tobacco, taking out product. All the people coming to downtown, because that is where all the employment was — there weren’t suburbs yet — and you have this absolute, practical gridlock.
On the public’s reaction to the newly opened Business 40 (then East-West Expressway) back in 1958:
It was such a novelty that the newspaper ran a series of stories with diagrams of each interchange [showing] how to use the new expressway.
Because there wasn’t this thing called an on-ramp and an off-ramp, and no one knew what to do with them. So, you know, here’s the headline: ‘Here’s How You Can Use The Expressway’ and it shows the Cloverdale interchange with the East-West Expressway. And it’s got little arrows on the aerial photo showing how the traffic runs, and telling you what you have to do, and reminding you that you can’t do a U-turn in the middle of the expressway. Because this was a beast that people had not dealt with before!
On the painful legacy of Business 40 within the city’s communities of color:
[City planners] thought they could do a twofer. They could get the road, and they could accomplish what they called "slum clearance." And how much of that was a euphemism—'Well, we’ll put the road through their neighborhood so it doesn’t go through the white folks’ neighborhood’—and how much of that was sincere, I don’t know.”