(Originally posted on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, April 30, 2008)
A North Carolina state historical marker (#M-49), located on the Parkway in Alleghany County, NC near Cumberland Knob park says the following: “BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY: First rural national parkway. Construction began near here on September 11, 1935.”
As poetic in some ways as it may seem that the memory of this happy event might lift the sad pall that has in recent years settled over “September 11th,” the problem is that construction probably didn’t begin on September 11th.
The marker, I think, is wrong. Documents I found during my 15 years of research for Super-Scenic Motorway suggest that the correct date for the beginning of construction (that is, the moving of the first dirt) is September 19, 1935.
Why do I think this? Because of a discovery I made in the Parkway’s own extensive archival collection in Asheville, NC. There I came upon a copy of a letter sent on September 21, 1935 by J.P. Dodge, Senior Claim Adjuster for the North Carolina State Highway Commission, to the Chair of the Highway Commission. Dodge was the North Carolina official on the scene as the Parkway got underway.
“Representing you and the people of the State of North Carolina,” Dodge wrote, “I ordered the first breaking of ground on the first project of the Shenandoah-Great Smoky Mountains National Parkway on Thursday, September 19, 1935, at the Low Gap of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The work is progressing.” You can read an original copy of this letter and of many of the other documents mentioned below on the documents section of my personal web page for Super-Scenic Motorway.
This sounds pretty definitive, but in 1985, longtime Parkway historian Harley E. Jolley published a book titled Blue Ridge Parkway: The First 50 Years,” in which he fingered September 11th as the date when contractor Nello Teer’s “crew turned the first shovel of dirt and the Parkway’s construction officially began.”
I decided to investigate the discrepancy by searching newspapers and clipping files and my own database of over 4000 items to home in on what was happening during that week in September 1935.
An article from the Alleghany Times on September 12th was titled “Work on Scenic Parkway Link to Begin Very Soon,” and noted that on September 11, workers with Teer’s company unloaded “several car loads” of heavy machinery from the train at Galax, Virginia. The Mt. Airy News added on September 19th that “Parkway Work Started Monday above Lowgap.” A perpetual calendar reveals that “Monday” would have been September 16th. That day, 100 men deployed the new machinery and cleared brush and timber along the right-of-way. Finally, agreeing with Mr. Dodge, the Skyland Post on October 3, 1935 reported that “first dirt was moved in construction of the Parkway on September 19.”
Apparently, then, the week of September 11-18 was spent getting the equipment and men in place and the right-of-way cleared in order to start construction on the 19th.
I emailed Michael Hill, the Research Supervisor at the NC Office of Archives and History in Raleigh, who manages the State Highway Historical Markers program, and asked what documents they had on file to support putting September 11 on the marker. After all, according to the state’s procedures, a committee of historians has to be convinced that a site is legitimate and the data correct before they decide put up an expensive metal sign.
Hill told me that the marker was erected in 1988, and that supporting documents included a letter from then-Superintendent Gary Everhardt, citing Harley Jolley’s work. He noted that in designating dates for institutional histories, the commission is often “guided by administrators in identifying which evidence to accept,” and he invited me to come to Raleigh to review any more information they might have on file.
And if one were to want to propose a change in a marker? I’d have to write Hill a letter, which, to be most effective, would need to be bolstered by a letter from current Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis encouraging the change.
Sending the existing sign back to the foundry in Ohio for correction of one numeral would cost $750, while a completely new sign would cost $1585.
Changing a historical monument would not, of course, be an unprecedented act. The historical markers and sites that dot our landscape are products of people and times – and they can and should always be questioned in the light of new information or new understandings. Despite the fact that the structures or monuments themselves may be forged in iron or stone, the facts that are presented on them are not. James Loewen has written an entire book – Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong – about the erroneous history presented by many historical monuments.
So, given all of this, and given the approach of yet another anniversary, should the sign be changed, or should we leave it alone?