WINSTON COUNTY - One of Winston County’s - and Alabama’s - most historic roadways is traveling back into the limelight.
The Byler Road, the first road ever commissioned by the Alabama Legislature, is finally getting its historic due, thanks to $200,000 in funding spearheaded by State Representative Tracy Estes and Alabama Senate Pro-Tem Greg Reed. The money, which will come through the Alabama Department of Tourism over a three-year period, will be used to purchase and place historical markers all along the Byler Road - which runs from the Tennessee River in Lauderdale and Colbert counties to Northport in Tuscaloosa County, including through western Winston County. The road also cuts through Lawrence, Walker and Fayette counties.
The funding will also be used to create a website detailing the treasure trove of history along the entire Byler and help tourists plan their itineraries. Interpretative signs placed in strategic spots along the road will also allow tourists to dive deeper into the area’s rich history.
For Haleyville native and Byler Road historian Joel Mize, the funding announcement, made Thursday, Oct. 26, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, is a dream come true.
“I am beyond thrilled,” Mize, who is known as the Byler Road authority, said with a smile.
Mize has spent over a decade petitioning the state to give the Byler Road the recognition it deserves because of its strategic importance in Alabama’s history. Alabama was admitted as the nation’s 22nd state on December 14, 1819. A few days later, the first Alabama governor, William Wyatt Bibb, signed into law legislation authorizing the Byler Road to be constructed as the state’s first public road. The work took place between 1820-1823, with Revolutionary and War of 1812 soldiers and enslaved persons doing the backbreaking work to make the Byler a connection between Courtland and Tuscaloosa, opening up Northwest and West Alabama to be settled by persons coming in from the north and east.
Mize reached out to the legislature in 2014 to try to get commendation for the Byler with an ultimate goal of having it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but due to the bureaucracy involved, the application was rejected nationally. Undeterred, Mize continued to educate himself about the Byler. His book, “The Byler Road,” was published in 2019. After its success, he decided to reach out to the legislature again, this time to State Representative Tracy Estes, who was immediately interested.
“We can use this as a way to accomplish two goals - to preserve a critical part of Alabama's history while also creating a corridor through which people can travel in our communities to learn a little bit more, stop off at our local gas stations and restaurants and spend some time and a little bit of money to create economic benefits. That's a win-win for our area,” Estes said.
Estes began putting out feelers to see if there was consensus in getting the project going. He ran into Lee Sentell, Alabama Department of Tourism director, earlier this year in Montgomery and mentioned the project to him, asking if there was any money for historical markers. Sentell’s eyes sparkled at the idea, Estes recalled.
“He was gracious enough to set aside $200,000 out of tourism’s budget to cover the cost of those signs and some oversight costs,” Estes said.
A steering committee - with Estes, Mize, journalist, political consultant and author Skip Tucker and author and historian Wheeler Pounds - formed to work on the game plan to get the project off the ground. They were joined by Brian Rushing with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, which is assisting the committee to help drive the project toward success.
“They have played a critical role in pulling together all the know-how behind-the-scenes to coordinate something like this,” Estes stated during the announcement in Tuscaloosa.
Haleyville is one of the largest cities located directly along the Byler’s path and stands to benefit from the tourism the project is expected to bring.
“The historical aspect of the Byler Road is equivalent to the first 9-1-1 call,” Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri said, noting another major aspect of Haleyville’s history. “This is an important thing for us, not only for the historical value, but the economic value. We’re excited about this.”
State Representative Tim Wadsworth was at the meeting in Tuscaloosa and is very pleased to see a tourism project that will positively impact his district, including the Natural Bridge area and Walker County.
“Byler Road is an important historical route that played a significant role in the settlement and development of Winston, Walker and Marion counties. The establishment of historical markers along the road will be a great way to preserve and commemorate its historical significance for future generations. I am committed to help find funding for this project,” Wadsworth stated.
Reed told the crowd assembled in Tuscaloosa how excited he is to see this project get started, thanking Estes for his leadership on the project.
“This is an opportunity for us to let everyone else know and understand about the Byler,” Reed said.
The steering committee is currently working to determine where the first historical markers will be placed. A total of 16 are scheduled for the first year of the project, with multiple markers expected to be placed in Winston County in the first year. Those markers are tentatively expected to be set over the summer. The ultimate goal is to have the Byler named an Alabama Scenic Byway, an honor that will be several years in the making.
In order to help the Byler Road project reach its full potential, fundraising efforts on the corporate and local levels will be conducted, with more details to be announced later.
“We’re looking back so we can position ourselves to look forward. The economic benefits that could come off this road could be more than some of us could ever see, should the Lord tarry,” Estes noted. “We’re trying to preserve our history, and there are fundamental amounts of it along this route.”
Mize and Estes will be the guest speakers at the Haleyville Area Chamber of Commerce meeting Friday, Nov. 3, at noon, at Haleyville City Hall, discussing the Byler Road Project. The meeting is open to the public, and interested persons are welcome to attend.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.