The first thing I remember is the silence. Late at night, sitting on the grass at the Waterrock Knob overlook near the southwestern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, gazing into the darkness over Cherokee, North Carolina. Town lights and stars in the distance. A light breeze whistling, but at that hour, few visitors, few cars, and virtually no other sounds.
The year was 1986, and I was nineteen. It was my first summer away from home, and I was spending days waiting tables and scooping ice cream for Methodist ministers and the devoted faithful as part of the college student staff at Lake Junaluska United Methodist Assembly near Waynesville in the western North Carolina mountains. But evenings were free, and my friends and I would frequently go “up on the Parkway” to sit and talk.
At that time I did not realize that the Parkway itself had anything to say. Another five years would pass before I heard it speak. By then a history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was thumbing through the (not yet computerized) card catalog in the university’s North Carolina Collection when I came upon a card that referred to a five-year campaign waged by the Eastern Band of Cherokees in the 1930s to prevent some of their lands from being seized for the Parkway. Land seizures? Opposition? How could something as peaceful and beautiful as the Parkway have stirred opposition? My curiosity aroused, I began to uncover the story this book tells.
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Yet creating the Parkway scene and experience required more than the talents of landscape designers and engineers working unopposed in a stunning physical setting. Instead, “the Scenic,” as local residents often called the road, was also political: its creation required the arbitration of many significant disputes over substantial issues across boundaries of power. Built beginning in 1935 through the cooperative efforts of North Carolina’s and Virginia’s state highway departments and federal agencies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and completed more than a half century later, in 1987, the Parkway has been as politically complicated and controversial as any other large public works development.
Travelers rarely see evidence of these aspects of Parkway history, however. Tourists seeking a glimpse of God might have been surprised to encounter instead Ashe County, North Carolina, resident S. A. Miller, who owned land along the Parkway route and complained to Roosevelt in 1937 that “the Park to Park highway isn’t any benefit to us according to what they tell us. We aren’t allowed to put any buildings near it and not even cross it to our land on the other side.” L. F. Caudill of Sparta, North Carolina, repeatedly ripped down the barricade on an illegal access road that connected his property to the Parkway. Connie Johnson of Alleghany County, North Carolina, for years resisted the Park Service’s attempt to close off an old road that led from his land to the Parkway. D. S. Bare, another North Carolinian, wrote to his congressman “that it will ruin us people a long top of the mountin [sic] if they take all of the land for the road.”
Many Parkway visitors today would no doubt dismiss as a crank Fred Bauer of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who opposed the Parkway’s intrusion into Cherokee lands and argued in 1939 that “a system of public roads, with freedom to stop at any farmhouse, and visit or trade as desired, would be enjoyed more than a restricted parkway with everything planned just so.” Yet rather than being enamored with thoughts of mountain scenery, Bauer and others in the Cherokee area–who had long anticipated construction of a much-needed state highway from the Cherokee reservation east to the nearest metropolitan area, Asheville–were dismayed to learn of plans to build a land-gobbling, limited-access scenic Parkway over the same route.
Perhaps more sympathetic would be the figure of Marie Dwight, the Charleston, South Carolina, woman who for twenty years had welcomed girls to Camp As-You-Like-It, near Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Learning that the Parkway was to be routed too near the camp that provided her only income, she protested that she “should not be interrupted and interfered with by the menace I feel a public highway to be, immediately adjacent to a resort where there are only women and young girls.”
At least two powerful North Carolina landowners and resort developers–Heriot Clarkson of Little Switzerland and Hugh Morton of Grandfather Mountain–shared similar concerns, but what traveler today would recognize in the beloved Parkway an undertaking that Clarkson and Morton characterized as a ruthless and destructive attempt to crush tourist enterprises in the mountains, build up the fortunes of greedy and self-important government bureaucrats, and wreck the scenery it purportedly sought to highlight?
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In this book, I want to take readers on a different journey–beyond the concrete and immediate experience of the Parkway traveler into the complicated and often contentious processes that brought the road into being. This book departs from a romantic view of the Parkway as a modern miracle and as pure gain for everyone involved and looks critically at the road’s history as a project created by human minds and hands, paid for with public funds, in the service of some version of a public good. Approaching the Parkway in this way helps us to understand that the Parkway’s appearance owes as much to essentially political decisions as it does to landscape design principles and engineering practices. The Parkway is a result of active decisions in which some people got what they wanted and others did not. Hence, understanding the Parkway’s appearance at any given place requires knowing about local conditions and issues, the local pressures brought to bear on the project, and the interaction of both of these factors with the visions, policies, and plans of state and federal designers and policy makers.
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Like all Parkway journeys, this trip through history will be take us past a succession of overlooks into the past: views sometimes panoramic and clear, other times partial and obscured by the fog of years and the overgrowth of layers of new vegetation. We will take the Parkway’s trademark “ride a while, stop a while” approach, lingering at several favorite sites and passing by others for another time.
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As we move along, it should become clear that rather than arising organically from the geography of the region itself and disturbing it little, the Parkway’s physical form in fact inscribed on the landscape several critical political decisions made during its seventy-year history.
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This journey will take us from a place many think they understand to one few would recognize, along a Blue Ridge Parkway almost no one knows. After traveling this road for fifteen years, however, I believe that we should (and can) know this path and that it will serve us–and the Parkway–better. In the process we will lose some naïveté and innocence, but at the same time we will move from myth to understanding, from unquestioning acceptance to critical analysis, from forgetting to remembering, from passivity to action.
In place of a Parkway miraculously laid on the land, we will find a road that sometimes hacked its way through the property of people who would have preferred that it go elsewhere. In place of a Parkway brought into being by generous citizens worried about the unemployed in mountain coves, we will see a project initially championed mainly by business officials who fretted about the future of the tourist industry they had built. Instead of a beloved byway that everyone agreed should come to the mountains, we will learn about a contentious project whose development was far more likely to be influenced by the wealthy, well-connected, or well-organized than by the average citizen or landowner. Instead of a project that nobly and consistently served the broad public interest, we will find a parkway sometimes co-opted by private concerns. Instead of a visionary and pioneering road that represented the embodiment of one brilliant landscape architect’s planning genius, we will encounter a beautiful drive that was devised by the minds of many planners drawing on many past models, that emerged from many competing interests, and that was formed on the fly with nearly as many plans discarded as implemented.
None of these discoveries detracts from the Parkway’s beauty or its perennial (and deserved) attractiveness to millions of travelers. But these phenomena remind us that such beauty and accessibility are not inevitable, self-sustaining, or without cost. As this “super-scenic motorway” emerged from human actions in specific historical contexts, so must it be preserved and protected in the present and future by those of us who love it, locating, defining, and defending in it a broad and equitable sense of the public good.
All material copyright 2006, the University of North Carolina Press.