(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, June 11, 2008)
When local people dubbed it “The Scenic” in the 1930s, they recognized what all of us realize – that the Parkway is an intensely visual experience. “See” is the first syllable in “scenic.”
But the sources from which a historian works (letters, reports, newspapers) are often mostly verbal, and our understanding of many of the events that those documents record (legislative debates, allocation of funds, administrative decisions, meetings) wouldn’t be helped much if we had supporting visuals.
In other cases, especially in dealing with landscapes like the Parkway, our understanding can be substantially enhanced by being able to see before, during, and after pictures. The problem for the historian is finding the images that document the history among the much more plentiful photographs of Parkway scenery – flowers, vistas, the Mabry Mill, most of which obscure as much as they reveal.
Still, several archival collections have hundreds of relevant historical images, some of which I used in my book. Especially productive were the Blue Ridge Parkway archives in Asheville, the North Carolina Collection at UNC, the special collections department at UNC Asheville, the National Archives in Washington, the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, and, perhaps most surprisingly, the archive of the Norfolk and Western Railroad at Virginia Tech (found at the last minute via a Google image search). Thank goodness for the Internet!
As I compiled the final set of illustrations for Super-Scenic Motorway, though, I was frustrated that I could not find several images that I knew must exist – and that I knew would confirm some findings that emerged from the documents. What were some of those wished-for images?
1930s timbering at Grandfather Mountain. Many North Carolinians expressed urgent concern about destructive timbering that Champion Paper was doing at Grandfather Mountain in the 1930s. “When we think of the devastation of that beautiful Mt. of God’s special gift to man, being cut down and destroyed by a lumber company, 1930s timbering at Grandfather Mountainfor the sake of gain, we feel that it is a tragedy from which our Mt. country will never recover,” wrote women of the Wise and Other-wise Club of Lenoir, NC to Congressman Robert Doughton in 1933. After a lengthy search, I did find at the Parkway archives several dark images of a timber company plank road through cut trees across Grandfather at that time, but I never could find something that gave a clearer and more panoramic impression of the devastation that was vividly evident to the women of Lenoir and many others.
Photographs of the building of the toll road up Grandfather to the Mile High Swinging Bridge in 1952. I do have two rather grainy photocopies of the blasting that construction of this road required, but nothing that is reproducible or that clearly shows the damage that several key observers said that Hugh Morton’s entrepreneurial project had caused to one of Grandfather’s peaks.
A videotape of a June 1962 joint appearance on WRAL-TV of Hugh Morton and National Park Service Director Conrad L. Wirth in an exchange over the routing of the Parkway at Grandfather Mountain. WRAL claims it has no footage of the broadcast, which several documents said was crucial in turning public opinion against the Park Service.
There is considerable irony in the fact that three of my most-desired images have to do with Grandfather Mountain, whose owner Hugh Morton was one of North Carolina’s most active photographers, and by all odds, its most prolific purveyor of his own preferred pictures of that mountain (the bridge, Mildred the Bear, the Linn Cove Viaduct, etc.).
Fortunately, we now have reason to expect that the images I was looking for and many others will soon emerge from the enormous Hugh Morton photograph collection now being processed by archivists at UNC-Chapel Hill’s North Carolina collection.
Meanwhile, if anyone reading this knows of other locations where any of these images might be, please contact me.