Drive 469 miles and you will run out gas. On these 469 miles of road, 9 million visitors come to experience the Blue Ridge Parkway, but what do they wish to gain? Whether it is an old-fashioned picnic with family, a trek into the wilderness, or gaze into the blue mist, they all hope for harmony and relaxation. I am currently researching how this simple idea of creating a long, scenic highway in the Appalachian Mountains funded by the New Deal, led to challenges that caused the development of Appalachia’s culture.
In the early 20th century, North Carolina’s roads were dismal. These roads were muddy to cross and did not easily connect to each other. The farmers were the first group that advocated improving the roads in North Carolina citing the economic benefits from connecting to other farmers, markets, and the railways. However, the farmers did not want to raise taxes to pay for these roads as a state-controlled highway system had not been developed yet ( Whisnant 17). The public, though they wanted better roads, could not support the farmers’ idea. The issue that the public had was the farmer’s only addressed their concerns and not broad to include the general public concerns. However, in order to gain more support for the road project, a business-oriented outlook was required.
Businessmen saw the potential tourism that could attract visitors to the state. The automobile was quickly changing how tourism worked. With more and more people owning personal transportation, there was more freedom to explore the world compared to the linear train system already in place. To achieve this freedom, the roads had to be improved. Some examples of the potential roadways that the Blue Ridge Parkway could become were The Buncombe Turnpike and Yonahlossee Road, which saw tourism increase as the roads improved (Whisnant 19). As the economic incentive became clear, the proposal by the farmers was passed with the help of the businessmen.
When the roadways were planned, an idea came to connect Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains. Such a road would make a long scenic highway that embraced the natural beauty of the landscape and to draw tourists in. In 1933, planning for the Blue Ridge Parkway had begun based off the principles Frederick Law Olmsted created. Olmsted, who created New York’s Central Park, had a vision of national parks to balance nature and human interaction. The connection he found that nature soothes the mind and cleanses the soul. Olmsted would have thought that he Appalachian Mountains with their dramatic features and breathtaking views, would be a perfect location for aroadway though he did not live to see how it was manipulated to conflict people.
In 1933, the plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway came into development, but the engineers and architects did not know where exactly to build the scenic highway to connect the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah. The Great Smoky Mountains were shared between Tennessee and North Carolina, but each state wanted the Parkway to be built primarily in their their region to increase tourism in the area. Both sides hired public speakers to state why their route to debate on the matter(Jolley 10).
North Carolina stated various reasons that the their route was the best. First, the infrastructure for tourism already present in the region (Jolley 10). Since it the focus of the highway would wrap around the mountains, it would also cost less to build (Jolley 10). The focus of where the highway would be built, would wrap around the mountains. The speakers also addressed that a North Carolina path has a great deal of views including Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Blowing Rock, and Linville Falls. A key argument was Asheville’s current tourism industry they imagine would cripple if the parkway was far away from the city and had so much financial capital in tourism to not get the route (Jolley 10).
Tennessee, on the other hand, refuted that the North Carolina’s route was “selfish and greedy” ( Whisnant 98) about the concern that Asheville would suffer. They focused on how the commercialism present on the North Carolina route did not show the intention of the project (Jolley 10). Tennessee’s plan included rural areas that could support camping grounds that could result in cultural exchanges between local farmers and tourists. Though North Carolina representatives were shaken, supporters for the North Carolina project included the current President Theodore Roosevelt (Jolley 10).
Harold Ickes,The Secretary of Interior, was the mediator to this debate and held the final vote. On 10 November 1934, Ickes made his decision to only support the North Carolina route (Jolley 11). Ickes thought overall the route was more scenic, and did not want to destroy tourism industry already in place in Asheville. Besides, Tennessee had already implemented the Tennessee Valley Authority to help boost the local economy. Tennessee natives were outraged by the decision and went to the President for support, but he stated he supported Ickes’ decision. After the initial shock, Tennessee accepted the decision and the North Carolina representatives were relieved that they got the route.
Now that there was a specific plan in place, how was 469 miles supposed to be obtained?
Getting land in North Carolina and Virginia interpreted the guidelines differently. Land acquisition in North Carolina was very strict on the guidelines to take land and make a scenic highway, but Virginia followed them loosely. The major groups affected by this were the farmers. In the mountains, farming families were common. The budget for the land acquisition came to only offer roughly 5 dollars an acre when the average land value was worth 26 dollars an acre(Whisnant 109). S.A. Miller, one complacent farmer who addressed his concern directly to Franklin Roosevelt that the proposed road goes straight through his 70 acres, along with his ruining the fresh water supply (Whisnant 109). This became a root problem of disinterest in the Blue Ridge Parkway.
How was the Parkway made?
The principal architects working on the Blue Ridge Parkway were Gilmore D. Clark and Stanley W. Abbott. Stanley W. Abbott was known for his continuing admiration of Frederick Law Olmsted ideals. “He was broadly talented, blessed with multi-faceted interests, and gifted with a visionary mind (1).” Without Abbott the Blue Ridge Parkway would have turned into the road less traveled. His basic guidelines for building the Parkway was: “UTILIZE THAT WHICH EXISTS;CARVE AND SAVE, NOT CUT AND GUT; PRESERVE HE LIVED IN LOOK; KEEP A MANAGED LANDSCAPE IN MIND; PRESERVE NATURE AND HISTORY; MARRY BEAUTY WITH UTILITY; EMPHASIZE SIMPLICITY AND NATURALISTIC; THE HORIZON IS THE BOUNDARY LINE (Jolley 16).”
To preserve nature and history by Stanley W. Abbott ideals, many cabins were preserved that each have their own story to be told. They became important to maintaining Appalachia culture and spreading the legends that surround them. One of these legends is Joseph L. Hartley. Hartley ever since grade school wrote a journal about how hiking everyday had changed his whole life. As he grew up he became a volunteer firefighter often walking 60 miles a day in the mountains (Hartley 24). He was also a very religious man and even started Singing Conventions where people had come to rejoice their praises to the Lord (Hartley 27). Overall, Hartley walked thousands upon thousands of miles to develop a deeper understanding of himself and the great outdoors.
Even though locals had found peace with the mountains,The Blue Ridge Parkway showed how tourism created conflicts that spanned between people to states that a simple idea to present nature’s beauty to the public that economic arguments got away from the true issue at hand, making a beautiful landscape for others to enjoy.
From the Battling for the route, the land acquisition, and the rest of the conflicts along the way, the Blue Ridge Parkway today is now viewed as the pleasant sight in the Appalachians with no conflict, just peace with nature. Take a vacation, a journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway and each moment you will slowly begin realizing true beauty takes time in find within one’s self.
Hartley, Joesph. Walking for Health and Traveling to Eternity: Combined with Singing on the Mountain. Chapel Hill: Library of The University of North Carolina, 1952. Print.
Jolley, Harley E., and William A. Bake. Blue Ridge Parkway: the First 50 Years. [Boone, N.C.]: Appalachian Consortium, 1985. Print.
Whisnant, Anne Mitchell. Super-scenic Motorway: a Blue Ridge Parkway History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2006. Print.
Fitch, Bob, and Lynne Fitch. Grandfather’s Land: We Are Mountain People. Mankato: Amecus Street, 1972. Print.
Hall, Karen J. Building the Blue Ridge Parkway. Charleston: Arcadia, 2007. Print.
Log Cabins of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Belcher, KY: Belcher Foundation, 2005. Print. Logue, Frank, Victoria Logue, and Nicole Blouin.
A Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Birmingham, Ala.: Menasha Ridge, 1997. Print. Pictures Thomas, Ben. Mile High Swinging Bridge. 2008.
Grandfather Mountain. Photograph. KenThomas.us. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
Blue Ridge Parkway. 2008. Photograph. KenThomas.us. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
About the Author
Carter Rezac is currently a student at the University of Chapel Hill studying Music Composition/Education.