The New I-26 Virtual Tour
Tennessee and North Carolina

Old US 23 and Flag Pond Road

By 1995, Tennessee had built a new four-lane limited access highway south from Johnson City to the North Carolina line at Sams Gap. This route carried US 23. It replaced a winding, mountainous route as the highway climbed from the Nolichucky River valley southward to the state line. North Carolina was also slowly expanding the four-lane US 19-23 route north from Asheville. The Tar Heel State's improvements extended as far north as Mars Hill, where US 19 splits from US 23 and heads northeast toward Spruce Pine, Burnsville and eventually into Tennessee on a split US 19W/19E route. As you've seen from earlier pages, US 19W comes back onto the US 23 route at Ernestville and follows the freeway to Johnson City. The section of US 23 replaced by the new I-26 in North Carolina is a good, modern road by many definitions. It offers a third passing lane on hillclimbs, with gentle curves. Still, trucks often had problems negotiating the route if they were headed southbound, prompting North Carolina to issue some truck restrictions. The recently-replaced section of US 23 is comparable in alignment to other Appalachian Regional Commission corridors in Tennessee and Kentucky.

The issue of what to do with US 23 is still very much in the air. North Carolina officials have stated they intend to keep US 23 on the surface route. However, Tennessee moved US 23 off the surface route and onto the freeway, and co-signed I-26 and US 23 when the road south of Johnson City got its interstate designation. There are only two logical spots for Tennessee to take the US 23 designation off the freeway and put it back onto the old route. They are at Exit 12, at Ernestville, where US 19W leaves the route, or at Exit 5, the mislabled "Flag Pond Rd." exit. An acceptable compromise would be for the US 23 designation to remain on the route until North Carolina's Exit 3, the Wolf Laurel exit, then route US 23 onto Bear Branch Road and then back to the old highway. But if North Carolina insists upon keeping the US 23 designation on the old road all the way to the state line, and Tennessee refuses to take US 23 off the freeway, US 23 will be a discontinuous route. It will disappear southbound at the state line on the freeway, and will disappear northbound at the state line on the old alignment.

Even though the exit signs at Exit 9 on the freeway point only to US 19, signs at the end of the ramp also indicate the route US 23 follows, along with a destination sign for Johnson City.

Although this is US 23, these two signs placed opposite each other on the old road declare the route to be "NC 23." These are errors that were in place before the freeway was opened.

These two photos show the spot near the state line where the new four-lane route crosses the old route. This is looking north and you can see how the old alignment of US 23, where it tied into Tennessee's four-lane, has been closed off. This area was realigned several times during the construction, and now there is no connection between the old and new routes. The green sign faintly visible to the right of the bridge designates Sams Gap and gives the elevation.

This is looking south, down the hill with the the sign bearing what might seem to be redundant language -- "No Permitted Trucks Allowed" for the time when the surface route was the through route. You'll note a small "begin project" sign affixed to the left post.

This photo is of the back of the assembly depicted above, with an "end project" sign. The wooden rail fence is for a parking lot constructed for Appalachian Trail access. This is the spot where the trail crossed US 23, and now it runs along the old route, underneath the bridge carrying I-26 over the old highway.

Once into Tennessee, the old alignment of US 23 descends down a mountain with more than a few switchbacks. Portions of the old route have been realigned to make way for the freeway. This is looking back toward the south, at a retaining wall for both the interstate and a relocated portion of the old road. This is adjacent to the scenic overlook for eastbound I-26 traffic just before crossing into North Carolina. At this point, the old alignment of US 23 does not carry a Tennessee route number, and the local highway name is "Old US 23."

At Upper Higgins Creek Road, this sign on southbound old US 23 directs motorists toward the freeway. There is no similar signage for northbound travelers on old 23. Just north of this intersection, along old US 23, is the community of Flag Pond.

This is a view of Upper Higgins Creek Road , looking east as you travel toward US 23. The route is narrow and crooked, and is probably not a viable candidate to carry the US 23 designation should the federal route number be moved off the freeway.

These views are from Upper Higgins Creek Road , approaching the freeway and Exit 5, signed for Flag Pond Road. The first photo shows the unctions isgnage and the bridge underneath the freeway; the second also shows the bridge which carries the ramps for Exit 5 across the freeway.

At the intersection, signage directs traffic to the on-ramps for the freeway. The day I visited was the first weekend the new route was open, and a lot of traffic drove west on I-26 (north on US 23) as far as the first exit in Tennessee, then turned around and headed back to North Carolina. The vehicle shown in this photo (you can see the top sticking out above the concrete barrier) was just one of several that I saw make such a U-turn.

These signs show that Tennessee has co-signed I-26 and US 23 all the way south to the state line. The signs shown in the background of the first photo are shown in detail directly above.

Again, a sticker on the back of one of the I-26 signs shows no installation date, but a fabrication date of July 2003.

Page 5 (Westbound I-26/Northbound US 23)