The Blue Ridge Parkway is the product of a series of major public works projects, becoming both an elongated park and a museum of ‘the managed American countryside’.
Described as a “… most visionary thing,” the Parkway design was characterized by simplicity and informality to harmonize with the natural environment. It was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930s and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to stimulate the economy and put people to work. Initially funded under the federal Public Works Administration and later drawing monies and labor from other New Deal agencies, including the Resettlement Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Parkway was one of the New Deal’s signature park development projects.
The Parkway was first planned as the “Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway,” a project conceived in 1909 by Col. Joseph Hyde Pratt, director of the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey. From his position of leadership in the Good Roads movement, Pratt began the political and engineering work needed to build a scenic toll road extending about 350 miles from Marion, VA, to Cornelia, GA. The route was chosen to provide views of the finest mountain scenery in the eastern United States, so that a trip along the highway would be an experience “never to be forgotten.”
From White Top Mountain in Virginia, the road was to run through the high country by Boone, Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain, Linville, and Little Switzerland, and from there through Buck Creek Gap, Stepp’s Gap, Balsam Gap, and the Great Craggy Mountains into Asheville. To maximize scenic values, the route was to be located as near the summits of the mountains as possible. South of Asheville the highway would connect to Henderson, Brevard, Lake Toxaway, and Highlands, and into Georgia near Rabun Gap, finally ending beyond Tallulah Falls.
Pratt intended the road to be 24 feet wide, with a sand-clay or gravel surface and a gradient not exceeding 4.5 percent. The estimated cost was $5,000 per mile. Portions of the route had already been constructed, such as the Yonahlossee Road around Grandfather Mountain’s south flank from Blowing Rock to Linville, but the more technically daunting segments through the Black Mountains and Great Craggies had not been laid out until the summer of 1910, when a surveying crew began work. Pratt apparently planned to use convict labor to help keep the costs as low as possible, although he recognized that the expense of laying the road through these rugged mountains might exceed $12,000 per mile.
Construction of new segments began by July 1912, under charter to Pratt’s Appalachian Highway Company of Chapel Hill, but by World War I the Crest of the Blue Ridge project had been abandoned, presumably because of financial pressures and resource shortages.
In the 1930s federal plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway, linking the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, incorporated much of the concept and some of the actual route proposed by Pratt. In 1935 the roadway was resurrected as a project of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. So while Pratt is credited as the original visionary of the Parkway, it was a New York architect who today is known as the “father of the Blue Ridge Parkway”.
29 year old architect Stanley L. Abbott was hired in 1933 to oversee the project, after Virginia Senator Harry Byrd suggested to President Franklin Roosevelt that a road be constructed to connect Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park to the new Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Abbott married his sweetheart, moved to Roanoke, VA and then in to an apartment in Salem, VA where he worked on the Parkway design. He described his vision of the Parkway as “… a ten league canvas and the brush of a comet’s tail” emphasizing that “… all elements must compose” just as though it were a painting. Abbott was instrumental in every facet of planning the new “Park-to-Park Highway,” from turning his vision of an interconnected network of parks into a reality, to his use of land easements to protect what are now the #1 reason visitors travel the Parkway – the scenic views. At overlooks, the flora was adjusted to frame the views. Certain trees were kept, others removed… flowering shrubs added to create a living frame for the panoramic views. In fact, most of the gorgeous rhododendron that now appears so natural a part of the Parkway landscape was planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Basic tenants of the Parkway design were kept firmly in mind – “the road should be married with the cultural landscape through which it passes as well as the natural environment,” “variety is the spice of the Parkway,” “driving the road should be easy and safe.” The wayside parks were planned as “gems in the necklace” that was the Parkway. The variety of the views was a strong driver for the path chosen, the Parkway increases and decreases in elevation, providing different perspectives of the natural surroundings. The design lead drivers around curves in the road to new and different vistas.
The construction of the Parkway was a direct beneficiary of the New Deal public works programs, specifically the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA). While machinery was available that would have made the construction process quicker and more efficient, manual labor was used in order to employ as many impoverished mountain residents as possible through the WPA. Through the ERA, CCC work camps were set up along the Parkway where crews would work on various landscaping, construction, and scenic projects.
The Parkway construction minded that “the road landscape should be managed to heal the scars caused by man’s use and by the construction of the Parkway” as it strove to minimize the impact to the natural environment and blend the necessary construction elements (tunnels, bridges, etc.) in to the local environment. The construction of the Parkway started near Cumberland Knob, North Carolina. It was here that Spanish and Italian stone masons were brought in to work on the bridges and other Parkway stonework. At each construction site, locally quarried stone was used to blend the element in to the natural environment in that area. Most bridges along the Parkway have grass shoulders, something very unusual but purposefully done to continue the green belt visually. There was so much work that these stone masons contacted relatives and brought them to America to help. To this day, some repair work on these beautiful stone pieces is done by third generation members of the families of these original stone masons.
By 1950, only half the Parkway was complete and, due to the post-war economy, momentum to finish the project was lacking. Not even all the road was paved before visitors were allowed to drive on it. In 1956, a new, ten-year program was initiated, called Mission 66, which provided the remaining portions of the Parkway, in addition to campgrounds and visitors centers, to be completed by 1966. 95% of the Parkway was complete, but Parkway architects still had to figure out how to take the Parkway over the challenging terrain of Grandfather Mountain, NC. The Park Service began construction on the least environmentally invasive option, a revolutionary viaduct that would run around, rather than through or over the mountain, in the 1970’s. The Linn Cove Viaduct was built in reverse, from the top down, in order to cause the least amount of damage to the mountain, and was finally completed in 1987. And 81 years after Dr. Pratt’s proposed “Appalachian Highway”, all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway were complete.
Today, the Parkway hosts [insert_php]echo VISITORS_PER_YEAR;[/insert_php] visitors each year, making it one of the most visited units in the National Park system. This goes to show that the Parkway unites more than just two states – it unites the entire country through the beauty, hospitality and tradition of the Blue Ridge Mountain region.
An amazing resource for information on the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway is provided by Documenting the American South (DocSouth). This is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes sixteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs. The University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors Documenting the American South, and the texts and materials come primarily from its southern holdings. The UNC University Library is committed to the long-term availability of these collections and their online records. An editorial board guides development of this digital library.