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Randall Sullivan sits in his store on U.S. Highway 41, and talks about his business and times gone by.

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U.S. Highway 41 construction

GUILD, Tenn. — Randall Sullivan doesn't bat an eye when he hears there's going to be more repair work or construction within a few miles of his bait and tackle store on U.S. Highway 41 in Marion County, Tennessee.

A $16 million, months-long slide repair project launched by the Tennessee Department of Transportation in May has slapped a snag right in the middle of the stretch between the communities of Tiftonia and Guild, leaving some folks frustrated while others roll with the punches.

The work is expected to be completed in November, but most local residents are pretty certain it's just a matter of time until Mother Nature delivers the road on the slopes of Aetna Mountain another righteous dose of geologic reality.

Sullivan, 79, is the owner of Sullivan's store, across Highway 41 from a boat ramp on the Tennessee River. The Sullivan family has lived there for the past 90 years.

"My dad came here from Orme, Tennessee, and he came over here and built the store in 1929 when they were building this road," Sullivan said. "This was the main shot from Chicago to Miami back then."

The store at the time included living quarters and was on the opposite side of the highway from its current location. The Sullivans sold groceries and staples then, Sullivan recalled. The Tennessee Valley Authority acquired the store and home property in 1945 not long after the federal utility acquired Hales Bar Dam in 1939 from the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company. So Sullivan's father moved the store. Despite the dam, the Sullivans didn't get electricity until 1951.

"Dad built the store in front of the house in 1945," Sullivan said. "In '62, he retired and gave it to me."

But the mountain had other plans for that store, and in 1982, a landslide swept it down the mountainside to the Tennessee River. Sullivan said that landslide was about 200 feet long and 30 feet deep. Some old 1920s-era cars parked near the store today were all that was salvaged from a garage on the property. Today's store was built atop the rubble.

Traffic in the days before Interstate 24 opened in the 1960s was heavy, and Highway 41 then had as much trouble from the mountain as it does now, he said.

"When I was a kid 70-something years ago, it was falling in," Sullivan said, adding that the interstate brought peace and less traffic.

"When they opened up the interstate, it was so quiet I couldn't sleep," he laughed.

Sullivan's OK with the slowdown of traffic past the store.

"I like it the way it is," he said. "I've got old and couldn't handle the business if I had it."

The stretch of Highway 41 around the mountain has soaked up multiple millions of dollars over the decades with repairs, maintenance and repaving where the mountain cracks up the road.

In 2013, TDOT launched a $909,000 "soil-nailing" project that used long, hollow tubes to stabilize parts of Highway 41 at its highest elevation on Aetna Mountain a couple of miles away from the current project.

In 2014, the newly repaired section and other areas that hadn't been really bad were beginning to crack and collapse. TDOT officials at the time expressed doubts as to how "permanent" any fix was on Aetna Mountain.

By late 2018 and continuing into January, TDOT started working on U.S. 41 again, this time to repair damage from a large crack in the pavement. But after February's rain TDOT officials decided to seek a contract for a better fix, resulting in the project underway now.

The most recent inconvenience was a complete shutdown of the road from June 24 to July 3 before one signaled lane was reopened.

Ron Sweeney, 70, has lived off of Highway 41 since 1997 and loves the scenery and light traffic on the route dubbed decades ago the "Dixie Highway" compared to traveling Interstate 24. A former general manager of CARTA in Chattanooga for 17 years, his daily commute on Highway 41 while he was working was 24 miles one way.

He's always enjoyed the drive on Highway 41.

"I'd always go that way because it meanders along the river and you can see the river; and in the fall, it's beautiful," Sweeney said over a plate of meatloaf, potatoes and pintos at the Anchor Inn Bait & Tackle store on Nickajack Lake in Guild Wednesday. "It adds a few years to your life to go that way, I think."

Then there's the highly mobile Aetna Mountain slice of the highway.

"It's been trying to slide off the side of the mountain for years," Sweeney said, noting the problems record-setting rains in February caused. He said he understands the need for upkeep and dealing with problems.

"Anything needs maintenance," he said.

Jody Rabbitt, who was cooking lunches at the Anchor Inn on Wednesday, said the height of complaints she heard from customers more recently came with the temporary closure of the road earlier this month.

"They complained while it was closed but now that they've got it open, they've quit complaining," she said. "I do hope it gets fixed soon."

For Riverside Catfish House owner Norman Sexton on the other end of the project area, "It's a nightmare," he said Thursday.

Sexton, a lifelong resident of the area and owner of the restaurant in the Riverside community for about a year, says he's frustrated with the constant work and inconvenience, and the recent shutdown cut him off from most of his Marion County customers.

"Right now, it's the worst it's ever been because they shut the road down for 10 days," he said. "There's always something going on. I wish I could find somebody else to take [the restaurant] over."

The shutdown forced Sexton to make about 30 trips to Guild the long way, more than 20 miles of added driving each way. Restaurant customers don't like driving the long way or the rough route through the roadwork, he said.

"It has put a dent on us this year," Sexton said. "We're making it. We've still got business from people out of Chattanooga."

Despite being used to the frequent roadwork, "it's always a pain every time," he said. "They say they've got things under control, but I've heard that since I was a kid.

"This whole mountain's shifting and I don't think it's ever going to stop," he said.

The state transportation department is hoping the current fix will be permanent.

"TDOT has been dealing with roadway instability along U.S. 41 in Marion County for years," spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said in an email. "It has been a constant battle to maintain the roadway. After February's record rainfall, it became apparent that we could no longer maintain the roadway using just our forces. We were fighting a losing battle just keeping one lane open and passable to traffic."

The contractor on repairs, Dement Construction Company, is working to stabilize four different sites within a 1.2-mile section of the highway.

"We understand that residents and business owners along U.S. 41 in Marion County are frustrated from dealing with constant construction. However, we are working as quickly and efficiently as we can to finish the project by the November 30, 2019, completion date," Flynn said.

Once completed, the project "should permanently address the slide areas and provide a smoother, safer and more dependable roadway for everyone," she said.

Back at the Catfish House, a frustrated Sexton, who hasn't lost his sense of humor, says he's ready to seek another mode of travel.

"I told my mother I'd be better to buy a boat and travel by boat to Haletown [Guild]," he said with a chuckle.

"I'm probably going to get me a boat or a dirt bike and travel by mountain or river," he said, concocting a new idea at the same moment to avoid roads altogether.

"Maybe I'll get me a boat and shuttle some business in here."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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