Genealogy, Local History

Kurfees Curve…the true story…

Kurfees Curve Strikes Again!

The Killer Curve!

Disaster Over Hawthorne!

On A Fast Track!

Death Trap! (quote from a local mayor)

Drama queen headline writers loved it. It was, they said, the curve that killed. And killed. And killed again. Dozens had died. And the back story was that it had been conceived in one of those smoke-filled rooms so often inhabited by crooked politicians. It got its nickname from one of those politicians who had manipulated the route of the highway to enrich his powerful allies. It was a legend in its own time. But none of it was true.

Between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, Marshall Kufees ran for various local offices eight times. He lost eight times. So, in 1949, when he announced that he was running for mayor of Winston-Salem, people laughed. After all, his opponent, incumbent George Lentz, was one of our most popular mayors ever. But Marshall won.

The Twin City’s first ABC store opened on North Cherry Street in 1951. It was immediately named the “Kurfees Drugstore”.

He immediately went to work on his campaign promises. The first had been to bring ABC stores to the Twin City. Greensboro and High Point had been draining off local booze taxes for years. The first ABC store opened on North Cherry Street in 1951. It was immediately dubbed the “Kurfees drugstore”. In those days, farmers who sold their tobacco at any of the downtown warehouses were given vouchers which they could cash at the “payoff office”, in a former bank building at Trade and Eighth Street, most recently the site of Mary’s restaurant. Kurfees noted that there were no restrooms there, and that farmers waiting in long lines would slip off into the nearby alleys, so he had the city build a public restroom right across the street. Of course, that became the “Kurfees Crapper”.

The “Kurfees Crapper” stood next to fire station #1 on West Eighth Street

That accomplished, he went to work on the five new roads he had promised, the Cherry-Marshall Expressway, Peter’s Creek and Silas Creek Parkways, a North-South expressway, and an East-West expressway. By 1954, with the latter approved, the state began making offers to the property owners in the path. The road was designed to run on a straight line through the southern part of downtown.

The original path of the expressway would have led to the demolition of the group of buildings at left housing the original Town Steak House. Here we see the second, “viaduct” approach, which spared those buildings and saved the state a good bit of money, but created the 10 degree curve that would bring so much trouble. The new Town Steak House was built anyway and was already standing when the expressway opened, replaced at its old stand by Hall’s Bakery and Coffee Shop. At left, next to the telephone pole, can be seen the sign of the Hawthorne News Stand.

As RJR Tobacco executive Jim Gray, a member of the state highway commission, later explained: Some owners accepted right away. But one did not. William Chamis, whose Town Steak House at 119 Hawthorne Road stood in the way, said no. He wanted a lot more. So the state began condemnation proceedings against him. Chamis hired the brilliant lawyer Fred Hutchins and fought back. The state found themselves outgunned. Eventually, the courts ruled that Chamis must receive about $75,000 for his property, more than twice the original offer, and that the state must also pay the cost of moving the Town Steak House to a new site.

Several other property owners immediately hired Hutchins. The state did some quick calculations and determined that Hutchins alone might add as much as half a million dollars to the cost of the road. So they developed a new plan. Instead of plowing along the surface, they would take to the air. By using a viaduct, they could avoid much demolition and cost.

So the viaduct was designed to start from the Cloverdale hill, run straight to Peter’s Creek near Lockland Avenue, then take a smart turn to the right to follow Peter’s Creek for a few hundred yards southward, then cut back to the east. There was nothing radical about the design.

The east-West Expressway opened in early January, 1958 from Knollwood Street to the Cherry-Marshall interchange. Because it was the first lit freeway in the Southeast, the opening was held after dark so that users could enjoy a new experience.

When the road opened, the speed limit was 45 miles per hour from beginning to end. No one ever had a problem navigating the curve at that speed. But along the way, something had happened. The original local road was unexpectedly added to the brand new Interstate Highway system. That did two things. It immediately drastically increased the traffic flow on the road, and it increased the speed expected by users. When the road opened in January, 1958, it instantly became the busiest section of highway in North Carolina and would remain so for a decade.

With the narrow viaduct carrying far more traffic than it was designed for and drivers ignoring the speed limit, there was bound to be trouble. But the trouble never quite lived up to the hysterical headlines.

Over the four decades of its existence, the curve claimed an average of about forty accidents per year, which put it in second place locally to the Interstate 40 / US 52 North-South Expressway intersection. And despite people’s wildly imaginative “memory”, no more than seven or eight people ever died there. When you consider that over 2.6 million drivers made it safely through the curve during its existence, the success rate was 99.994 percent. The tiny percentage of failures were just bad driving.

In 1969, this car was saved from a plunge onto Hawthorne Road by a single power pole. The rescue operation took a while because the car was wobbling precariously the whole time.

The worst accident occurred in 1989 when an eastbound tractor trailer rolled onto the median and slid upside down for several hundred feet (see the first image in this post). The driver and a passenger were killed, and another passenger was seriously injured. A special team spent some time recovering body parts from the site. Most of the best known accidents were westbound and involved jumping the rail over Hawthorne Road. The most spectacular occurred in the early days when a carload of RJR Tobacco second shift workers went airborne over Hawthorne and landed on its wheels in the Pure gas station at First and Hawthorne. No one was seriously injured.

The best known attempt to solve the curve problem was a yellow light, triggered by radar, that flashed and warned that the vehicle was going too fast for the curve. But drivers ignored it. It flashed almost constantly and did little good.

Officials tried many methods to reduce the number of accidents, to no avail. Finally, in the 1990s, it was decided to straighten the curve. At a cost of about $26 million, that was done, and the Kurfees Curve was no more.

Marshall Kurfees served six terms as mayor of Winston-Salem, from 1949 to 1961. That made him the longest serving mayor until our current mayor Allen Joines. He was the first mayor to look upon the job as a full time one. Every morning he left his home in Ardmore and went to his office at City Hall. His wife, Mabel, was employed by the city as his secretary. That worked out pretty well, because one would have to search for a long time to find a twelve year period in which the Twin City enjoyed more advancement.

Marshall Kurfees, 1955

5 thoughts on “Kurfees Curve…the true story…”

  1. Interesting article. And loved seeing Anne’s memory of it. I remember when the A&p was there. But from my memory the curve was there because it missed the buildings where the A& P was. Someone prominent in town owned that property. I do remember something about the Town Steak House too. We will probably never know the whole story. And I remember the Hawthorne Newsstand. They carried dirty magazines. And Mrs. Garrison (10thgrade English teacher at RJR) husband owned it. We snuck in there for cokes after ballet practice at School of the Dance. We weren’t supposed to go in there!! And everyone loved Bobbits Drug store! ThAts where all our prescriptions were filled!

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  2. Living in the area, at the time, I have many memories of both the bridge and it’s construction. When they redid it in the 1990’s an article in the Journal when it was finished said it did not meet DOT standards. If the contractor would return some of the money (can you say kick back) they would alter the plans so it passed and he didn’t have to rebuild it. With the new Salem Parkway we were promised the speed would be increased due to it being safer. This was a key selling point.

  3. I never knew Mrs Garrison’s husband owned it but remember that Margaret McDermott’s, the longtime and legendary Latin teacher at Reynolds High School, husband worked there. I always thought he owned it but had just assumed that. My dad and I often walked there for him to buy his cigars.

  4. Evelyn Garrison’s husband Roy was a teacher at Hanes High School. The Hawthorne News Stand was owned and operated by Willis E. “Mac” McDermott, whose wife, Margaret, was a legendary Latin teacher at Reynolds High School. Mrs. McDermott had almost as much dignity as George Washington, so because Mac sold certain magazines under the counter, she would not enter the store. If she needed him, she would stand on the sidewalk and call “Mac!”, and he would come out.

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