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This history is adapted from “Highways in Harmony: Designing and Building The Blue Ridge Parkway,” by Richard Quinn.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is many things.
It is the longest road planned as a single unit in the United States.
It is an elongated park, protecting significant mountain landscapes far beyond the shoulders of the road itself.
It is a series of parks providing visitors access to high mountain passes, splendid natural “gardens” of flowering mountain plants, waterfalls, deep forests and upland meadows.
It is a continuous series of panoramic views, the boundaries of its limited right-of-way rarely apparent and miles of the adjacent countryside seemingly a part of the protected scene.
It is a “museum of the managed American countryside,” preserving the rough-hewn log cabin of the mountain pioneer, the summer home of a textile magnate and traces of early industries, such as logging railways and an old canal.
It is miles of split-rail fence, moss on a wood shingle roof, broomcorn and flax in a pioneer garden.
It is the fleeting glimpse of a deer, a wild turkey or a red fox, or for those who prefer their animal life less wild, herds of cows grazing in pastures or horses trotting in fields.
It is a chain of recreational areas, offering motorists a spot to picnic in the woods, a place to sleep overnight in a campground or a charming lodge, as well as opportunities to refuel their vehicle, enjoy a meal or purchase a piece of fine regional handiwork.
It is the product of a series of major public works projects that helped the Appalachian region climb out the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is all these things and much more, so it should come as no surprise that it is the most heavily visited unit of the National Park Service.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was not the first planned scenic road through this mountain chain.
In 1906, North Carolina state geologist Joseph Hyde Pratt proposed a scenic toll road down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Marion, Va., to Tallulah, Ga.
In 1914, Dr. Pratt secured a charter for the “Appalachian Highway Company.” Construction began between Altapass and Pineola in North Carolina, but the outbreak of World War I brought the work to a halt.
Today, a one-mile segment of the parkway between mileposts 317.6 and 318.7 follows the route of Pratt’s road.
Construction of the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia was the chief inspiration for the Blue Ridge Parkway. When President Franklin Roosevelt visited the project in 1933, Virginia Sen. Harry Flood Byrd recommended the roadway be extended southwest to the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Roosevelt eagerly endorsed the proposal, and the governors of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee appointed a planning team to bring the project to fruition. On Nov. 24, 1933, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes approved the construction of the new “Park-to-Park Highway” as a public works project.
Ickes authorized $4 million of federal public works funds to begin construction and hired Stanley L. Abbott, a landscape architect with New York’s Westchester County parkway system, to oversee planning for the project.
Abbott’s role in the parkway’s development was all-encompassing. He promoted the concept of the parkway as a chain of parks and recreational areas, each a destination in itself.
He also suggested preserving views beyond the parkway boundaries through the use of scenic easements and presented the motorist with carefully crafted, ever-changing pictures of Appalachian scenery and culture. Abbott is remembered as the “father of the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
The War Between the States
The route of the new road had to be determined before construction could begin. The original concept provided for a road leading southwest from Shenandoah down the Blue Ridge into North Carolina, then crossing the Unaka Mountains into Tennessee for the final approach to the Great Smoky Mountains.
When field parties suggested several alternative routes, North Carolina and Tennessee proponents began to argue. North Carolinians wanted the southern section to stay in their state all the way to the Smokies, while Tennesseeans demanded their promised share of the road.
Both states recognized the tremendous tourism potential of the road and lobbied hard to have the road located through their state. After more surveys and intensive lobbying, Interior Secretary Ickes approved the Virginia-North Carolina route.
The project’s authorization specified that the states would buy the land for the parkway and the federal government would build the road. Following final field surveys, state land officers purchased the land for the right-of-way.
On Sept. 11, 1935, construction of the first 12.5-mile section began near Cumberland Knob in North Carolina. Work in Virginia began the following February.
The parkway was not constructed as one continuous project, but instead was divided into 45 separate construction units. This approach was necessitated by delays in acquiring land, but it also enabled parkway contractors to hire more people to work at the same time.
For its first three years, the project existed under the authorization issued by Ickes in his role as federal public works administrator. For want of a better name, the project was generally called the “Appalachian Scenic Highway.”
Mountain folk watching its early construction abbreviated this to “The Scenic.”
On June 30, 1936, Congress formally authorized the establishment of the “Blue Ridge Parkway” and placed it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
New Deal Work Programs
While most construction was carried out by private contractors, a variety of New Deal public works programs played important roles in the parkway’s development. Some roadway construction was carried out by the Works Progress Administration.
The purpose of the WPA was to put as many men to work as possible, so hand labor was used extensively — even when power equipment might have been more efficient.
WPA crews cleared brush, drilled rock with hand drills for blasting and performed other manual labor. Pay was low — $55 a week in the beginning — but the income was a godsend for many mountain families.
Another New Deal program utilized by the parkway was the Emergency Relief Administration. ERA crews carried out landscape work and development at parkway recreational areas.
The best-known public work program was the Civilian Conservation Corps. Four CCC camps were established on the parkway, and their crews of young men toiled at roadside cleanup, planting, grading slopes for scenic effect and improving roadside fields and forests.
Most relief programs were disbanded with the outbreak of World War II. During the war, some landscape and park development work was carried out by conscientious objectors organized under the Civilian Public Service program.
Student Conservation Association and Youth Conservation Corps workers also completed valuable projects.
By the outbreak of World War II, more than $20 million had been spent on construction. Some 170 miles were open to travel, and another 160 miles were in some stage of construction.
The U.S. entry into the war in 1941 brought the work largely to a halt as construction funds were impounded and many parkway employees left to join the armed services.
Use of the completed sections was very light due to gasoline and tire rationing and a temporary ban on recreational driving.
The suspension of the New Deal relief programs stripped the parkway of its main forces engaged in landscape and development work.
At the end of the war, the parkway had a difficult time converting back to peacetime operations. Furloughed personnel returned slowly. Much of the equipment had been declared surplus and turned over to the military, leaving the parkway short of cars, trucks and maintenance equipment.
Funds were difficult to obtain, and post-war construction proceeded slowly.
By the mid-1950s, only about one-half of the Blue Ridge Parkway had been completed. Much of the remaining work involved difficult construction in more rugged terrain than earlier sections. Meager post-war appropriations limited the extension of the road.
The impetus for the completion of most of the remaining sections was a multi-year National Park Service development program known as Mission 66.
Under this 10-year program, the pace of construction accelerated. In 1958, projects totaling $16 million were in progress, an all-time record for the parkway.
Most of the remaining gaps on the parkway were completed during the Mission 66 program. By its end in 1966, only 7.7 miles remained incomplete.
In addition to roadway construction, Mission 66 was responsible for numerous other improvements including campgrounds, visitor centers, lodges, coffee shops and other public-use facilities.
The Missing Link
By 1966, the Parkway was more than 95 percent complete, but it would take another two decades to complete the 7.7-mile “missing link” at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.
In the 1970s, the National Park Service finally determined a route that would cause minimal damage to Grandfather Mountain’s rugged terrain.
A key feature of this route was the revolutionary Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel that was completed in 1987 and opened the entire route of the parkway — all 469 miles, from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — to public travel.
• This history of the parkway was originally published by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a division of the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.