ROAN MOUNTAIN — Former state Sen. Bob Burleson has received many honors over the years for his distinguished public service, including 14 years in the Senate and House of Representatives in Nashville, but probably none of those honors mean more to him than the one he received Friday morning near the front door to his home.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Sen. Rusty Crowe, former Rep. Ralph Cole, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey and many other former and current officeholders gathered near the beginning point of Tenn. Highway 143 in the village of Roan Mountain to name the highway in Burleson’s honor.
“I can’t begin to explain to you what this means to me and my family,” Burleson said as several of his grandchildren pulled off the cloak away from the new road sign that designated the highway as the Senator Robert “Bob” Burleson Parkway.
While Burleson was visibly touched by the honor, he had long resisted it. Both Ramsey and Crowe said Burleson’s name is still respected in Nashville and the honor was “long overdue.” Cole also remembers Burleson as a very respected legislator.
Burleson’s brother, Tom, said he was one of many who wanted to provide him with the honor of naming the highway for him, even though Bob continued to resist being honored. “I finally told I wanted him to be alive when he receives the honor,” Tom Burleson said. Humphrey said the County Commission agreed. “There is usually some controversy in naming roads, but this one passed unanimously.”
Despite his resistance, Burleson said he can enjoy the honor every time he drives down the highway, which runs only a couple of hundred feet from his house.
Highway 143 is more than just another highway to Burleson. It passes through one of his greatest accomplishments as a senator, the creation of the beautiful and immensely popular Roan Mountain State Park.
The highway also comes within a few feet of Shelving Rock, one of the few landmarks in the nation that would still be recognizable to Revolutionary War soldiers. The Overmountain Men kept the Mary Patton-made gunpowder out of the rain by storing it under the massive rock.
After leaving the park, the highway makes a steep and panoramic climb to Carver’s Gap on the North Carolina border. According to Brian Terrell, a GIS technical manager with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the 5,512-foot elevation at the gap is “according to our GPS-collected data for East Tennessee, that section of road has the highest elevation collected in East Tennessee.”
By comparison, Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains only reaches 5,046 feet.
His brother Tom said it was fitting to name it a parkway instead of a highway. “It is so beautiful. It goes through one state park and connects to another.”
To all of these superlatives, the road also has many highlights in the senator’s life.
He remembers when the road was built. “I helped survey it as a boy,” Burleson said. That was in the early 1950s. He and former Roan Mountain neighbor Floyd Storie remembered men who died in its construction, including one who went over the edge of the road in a steam shovel.
Despite its costs, Burleson and Storie agreed the highway and the park helped open up the area to tourism. They remember when thousands used to drive up the steep road in long lines of cars during the annual Rhododendron Festival.
It is an effort to attract tourism that Burleson remains committed to after all these years. It is an effort that Carter County Tomorrow President Tom Anderson has joined.
“We are looking to open an office up here,” Anderson said. “What with the new sewer project, the tourism efforts and the Overmountain Victory Trail there is a lot going on here. It’s time is due. It is time to go.”
Just like the naming of the highway, Ramsey and Crowe might say opening the office is overdue.