|Parkways past haunts its future|
Milepost 367: Tom Taylor, a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Parkway, raises the American flag at the beginning of his shift at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center in North Carolina.
Story by TIM THORNTON and ISAK HOWELL
Photos by JOSH MELTZER
See the interactive presentation
CUMBERLAND KNOB, N.C., Milepost 217 To Remona Gray, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a
religious experience. To Nicholas Beasley, it's nearly criminal.
Early in 1934, Abbott got in his government-issued Dodge truck with instructions to "lone-wolf it" to the Smokies. He set up the parkway's first headquarters in a Salem apartment, working on a dining room table. He called the parkway a giant work of art he was "painting with a comet's tail." In this popular telling, Abbott conceived a ribbon of roadway, and work crews laid it gently on the land.
But if Abbott's vision had been completely realized, the parkway would be much less of a ridge-top road, and it would have passed near Natural Bridge and veered into Tennessee, bypassing some of the most spectacular North Carolina views. It would be a toll road.
The Blue Ridge Parkway isn't the only scenic highway ever proposed, but it is the most nearly complete realization of the parkway ideal. The 443-mile-long Natchez Trace, which stretches through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, is probably the next best example. Many other such proposals failed.
Joseph Hyde Pratt began building the Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway in 1914. It would have connected Marion, Va., to Tallulah, Ga. World War I stopped it, though the Blue Ridge Parkway follows Pratt's route for about a mile through the North Carolina mountains.
In 1928, the Eastern National Park-to-Park Highway was proposed to connect Shenandoah National Park; the Smokies; Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky; Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, Va.; and Washington, D.C. Three years later, work began on the Colonial Parkway, linking Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg. It was completed in 1951.
The Allegheny Parkway would have paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Great River Road, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Parkway, the Green Mountain Parkway and the Washington Lincoln Memorial-Gettysburg Boulevard all failed before the first shovelful of dirt was turned. One 1934 proposal would have linked historic battlefields and national parks from New York to Louisiana. That idea died, too.
Plans to extend the Blue Ridge Parkway have also failed. In 1935, Park Service officials talked of a parkway from Vermont's Green Mountains to Florida's Everglades. Plans to extend the parkway into Georgia persisted into the 1970s. As late as 1992, the South Carolina legislature advocated an extension into that state.
A product of its time
"Probably in today's time, we wouldn't build the parkway because of our concerns about potential environmental impact of the construction," Parkway Superintendent Dan Brown said.
Things were very different in the 1930s.
"At the time the parkway was being proposed and built, a lot of the areas through which it went, particularly in North Carolina, had been heavily timbered," said Anne Whisnant, a historian and a project manager at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. "So, talk about environmental devastation - that had already happened."
The parkway often didn't preserve the landscape it tried to improve on it.
"The parkway is a designed landscape," Brown said. "It was very much laid out and planned to produce a special effect for people."
Another persistent myth about the parkway is that it is primarily what historian Harley Jolley called "a `Depression baby' and a `make-work project.' " In the words of Jolley, author of the most widely read parkway history, the parkway was a "godsend for the needy."
While mountain folk suffering through the Depression certainly benefited from the work they got building the parkway, their welfare was not foremost in the minds of most parkway boosters. Business and tourism interests had advocated similar projects through the North Carolina mountains since the 1890s.
"As it turned out," Whisnant has written, "the `needy' were the Asheville and Western North Carolina business community."
While mountaineers got 30 cents an hour for six-day workweeks, they also waited years to be paid for land taken for the project. And they were generally paid less than politically connected landowners such as North Carolina Supreme Court Judge Heriot Clarkson. He got more than $280 an acre for land the National Park Service valued at just over $13 an acre.
While North Carolina developers, businessmen and politicians had to fight hard to get the parkway routed through their territory, Virginia communities faced no such challenge because any road connecting Shenandoah with the Smokies had to go through Virginia.
Some speculate that that accounts in part for the disproportionate amount of tourism money that flows to North Carolina. North Carolinians wanted the parkway more. They were more prepared to benefit from it. Asheville and Blowing Rock have been tourist towns since the 19th century. The Hotel Mons opened at the Peaks of Otter in the 1850s, but Roanoke's tourism industry has never rivaled Asheville's.
The Roanoke Valley's section of the parkway has the narrowest right of way along the road's 469 miles. Discount stores, car dealerships and housing developments are encroaching on what is supposed to be a scenic drive. Visitor surveys indicate that the parkway's views, above all else, are what bring people back.
"The thing that people did not want to see and the thing they noticed the most and the thing that had intruded on their experience most is subdivisions," parkway management assistant Laura Rotegard said.
The situation is so bad that Scenic America named the Roanoke Valley section a "Last Chance Landscape," a scenic area threatened by development.
But the parkway has virtually no control over what happens outside its boundaries. So parkway officials work with landowners and local governments to try to protect views. At the same time, they're fighting natural pests, balancing visitor access against environmental impacts, reconsidering the way they describe mountain culture, and trying to keep 469 miles of roadway safe and well maintained.
"A lot of issues that got raised in the '30s with this project are still, in some form, plaguing the parkway today," Whisnant said. "They're still dealing with adjacent landowners and people's feelings about it. . . . They're still dealing with the interpretive program. They're still dealing with various entities in local communities and private entities that want to benefit from the parkway in some way.
"So if you understand a little bit about the past, you're not surprised when this kind of thing comes up."
Next story: The parkway's manufactured myth of the mountaineer.
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