U.S. Highway 41 work continues along Aetna Mountain route

photo GeoStabilization International backhoe operator Jesus Herrera drills under U.S. Highway 41 near Guild,Tenn., as work continues on shoring up 350 feet of collapsing roadway next to Aetna Mountain in Marion County. "We're drilling and putting in 50-foot-long nails and grout under the road," Herrera said.

Tennessee's battered and beaten stretch of U.S. Highway 41 on the backside of Aetna Mountain in Marion County is being reformed into a smoother, safer connector between Lookout Valley and Guild, officials say.

Almost seven miles of U.S. 41 -- starting around the Marion-Hamilton County line and heading north along the Tennessee River -- has been marked with dips, humps and pockets of collapse for years. Officials have tried to keep it passable with patches and minor resurfacing efforts.

Randall Sullivan, owner of Sullivan's store near the middle of the project area, says renovation work is making the old highway smoother, but he suspects the mountain will win out over time.

Sullivan, 73, said his family has lived at the foot of Aetna Mountain on U.S. 41 since 1929.

Then, the highway bridge over the Tennessee River was under construction as a toll bridge and there were no interstates, Sullivan recalled, sitting amid baits and lures and decades worth of photographs of local anglers showing off their catches.

"Before the interstate, this was the main road between Chicago and Miami," he said.

Like most nearby residents, the Sullivan family is no stranger to the moving, sometimes destructive mountain.

The family has had three stores at the location, and one of them built in 1945 was washed away by a mudslide in 1982, he said. The store that stands today was built atop rubble from that slide.

Sullivan said that in the early days, a long stretch of the road was known as the "mile straight," but the mountain made a jumble of the road's straightness over the years.

While it won't be much straighter, construction officials say work to stabilize the roadbed is nearly complete and should be wrapped up in about a week.

Crews have been installing 30- to 50-foot steel "nails" -- long hollow tubes driven into the earth and grouted in place -- under a section of road that started to collapse, according to Jennifer Flynn, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

"It's been a month and a week, and it's going good," GeoStabilization International superintendent Jesus Herrera said Monday of soil-nailing work.

The nails are placed in three courses, spaced about three feet apart and set in the mountain at a 20-degree angle, Herrera said, pointing out a 2-inch-wide crack in the road as evidence of the kind of collapse the nails will prevent.

Flynn said paving work near the Hamilton County line should be finished by the end of the month and paving around the soil nailing site will be done next spring.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.