Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, in Kentucky, along the Levisa Fork — a tributary of the Big Sandy River — lies the thriving city of Pikeville. It’s a small city of less than 7,000 residents, but those seven thousand must be some of the most important people on this planet. They were pissed that they had to wait at the railway crossing while the coal cars went by spewing dirty black dust upon the residents. They were pissed at their river Levisa Fork for breaking banks every year and flooding their city. So they undertook one of the largest earth-moving projects in the entire Western hemisphere, third behind the Big Dig and the Panama Canal.
They butchered a mountain and created a kilometer-long and 400-meters-wide channel, called the Pikeville Cut-Through. Through this cut they diverted a four-lane US Highway, some railroad tracks and a freaking river that originally looped around the city. Thanks to the federal grant of $77.6 million ($161 million in 2015 dollars), those seven thousand residents now get to enjoy coal-free air and keep their feet dry all round the year.
The project was spearheaded by former Mayor William C. Hambley, who meticulously oversaw each phase of the project. The effort earned him the title of “the man who moved a mountain.”
William C. Hambley, a Pikeville native, was a medical doctor before he become involved in politics. Even in elementary school, William Hambley hated the railroad tracks, which was unusual for a child of that age. I would have sat by the tracks everyday after school to watch the trains rumble by. I would have flattened countless nickles. But Hambley cared more for his hometown than for himself. He felt that the railway tracks divided his town and the local college, creating a “wrong side of the track” mentality and the substandard housing that came with it. He also detested the dirty coal cars that ran through the middle of Pikeville.
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After William Hambley won the seat of mayor in his beloved Pikeville in 1960, he brought together over 20 federal, state and local agencies through his perseverance and unmatched leadership to accomplish the ambitious project. The project began in 1973 and took 14 years to complete, during which a total of 18 million cubic yards of earth were moved which went into filling the empty riverbed. The monumental effort not only eliminated frequent flooding and relieved traffic congestion, but it also provided the City of Pikeville with 400 acres of new land for expansion.
Soon after, Pikeville underwent rapid economic development. Today it’s a flourishing center for commerce and the leading financial and industrial center of the Appalachian region.
As for William Hambley, he got himself a fine bronze statue that stands proud at a prominent location in the City Park.
This feature originally appeared in Amusing Planet.