Stanley W. Abbott, Wizard of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Millions of motorists enjoy the Blue Ridge Parkway every year, but few have ever heard of Stanley W. Abbott, the young landscape architect who became the parkway’s first superintendent and threaded the road through the mountains. It’s a shame that Abbott is little known and scarcely appreciated outside professional-historical circles. He was a remarkable man, and the Parkway might have turned out very differently – and much the poorer –were it not for his ingenuity, skill, and tenacity.
The Blue Ridge Parkway that we enjoy so much today can be efficiently described as a recreational highway corridor traversing the 469 mountainous miles separating the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park and the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Conceptually, it is an extension of Skyline Drive (completed in 1939), a link between two of eastern America’s most popular national parks, a high vantage point for panoramic views, and a well spaced collection of visitor services and outdoor recreational facilities.
Back in the early1930s, anybody with a lick of imagination could see that the Blue Ridge Parkway was a great idea. It was equally obvious that transforming the elegantly simple parkway idea into a reality was going to be an awfully difficult job.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was a joint effort of the federal government and the states of Virginia and North Carolina. The agreement was that the federal government would fund the construction and the states would acquire the land.
Planning and landscape design for the parkway began in December 1933. The Great Depression was in full bloom then, and the parkway was seen as a project that would provide lots of job during construction and also stimulate economic growth in the poverty-stricken Appalachian region. Accordingly, funds for initial construction, which got underway in September 1935, were authorized under authority of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Many workers were provided by the federal government's Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). There were four big CCC camps along the parkway route.
Route selection was a very controversial matter. North Carolina and Tennessee residents favored distinctly different routes for the parkway. Tennessee interests wanted the parkway to extend through Tennessee, while North Carolina interests naturally wanted it to stay on the North Carolina side. North Carolina prevailed when Interior Secretary Harold Ickes made the final decision in November 1934.
A good deal of resentment surfaced when mountain residents learned that a recreational road was to be built instead of the farm-to-market and farm-to-town connections they had so eagerly sought. The grumbling eventually died away. It helped that local residents were hired to do about 90 percent of the work on the parkway – all but the power equipment operation (which required specialists) and the stonework for the parkway’s 169 bridges, 26 tunnels, and 260 scenic overlooks (which was handled by immigrant Spanish and Italian stone masons). The locals referred to the road as “The Scenic,” even after it was officially named a parkway.
Work was conducted simultaneously on roadway segments chosen on the basis of local employment needs.
See Anne Whisnant’s Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History for a more detailed explanation and discussion of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s design and construction. If you appreciate this book, the product of 15 years of research, be sure to see this site for a fascinating interview of the author about this work.
In 1936, when the construction project was still in its initial stages, Congress authorized the National Park Service to administer the parkway. The very next year, the Park Service appointed Stanley Abbott as the parkway’s acting superintendent and resident landscape architect. This proved to be an inspired choice.
Though not yet 30 years old, Abbott was exceptionally well trained. He signed on with the Blue Ridge Parkway project in December 1933 just three years after graduating from Cornell University’s prestigious landscape architecture program. However, his previous experience included working with Gilmore Clarke, the civil engineer/landscape architect who supervised the construction of the Bronx River Parkway, America’s first limited-access highway. Abbott had also worked with Clarke on the Westchester County (NY) Parkway Commission during its 1920s road building program. On-the-job training hardly got any better that that.
Abbott was special, no doubt about that. Few people alive in his time knew more about parkways or cared more about building better ones.
Abbott was fortunate to have the NPS chief landscape architect, Tom Vint, as his supervisor on the parkway project. If Abbott was the right man in the right place, Vint was the right mentor and way-smoother at the right time. Like Abbott, Vint had worked with Gilmore Clarke on the Westchester County road projects. Abbott and Vint thought very much alike.
Like his mentors, Stanley Abbott was an admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an ardent practitioner of the “rustic” or “design with nature” philosophy of road construction. In the fine tradition of the roads administrator who put his permanent stamp on Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, Abbott believed that a national park road – and especially a parkway – should “lie easily on the ground, blend harmoniously with the topography, and appear as if it had grown out of the soil."
Abbott didn’t want to just build a gorgeous recreational road. More than this, he wanted to create a series of “parks within parks” strung along the roadway in bead-like fashion. The range of recreational choice would include not just pleasure driving and scenery appreciation, but also hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor recreational pursuits. At appropriate intervals along the roadway there would be visitor centers, interpretive programs, lodges, restaurants, and other visitor services.
Abbott believed that the parkway should function as an outdoor museum of rural life, telling the story of the mountain folk, their agricultural pursuits, and the mountain retreats of the wealthy. The parkway would speak to the visitor about life and lifestyles in the mountains. It would celebrate the blending of nature and culture.
To make all of this happen – that is, to create “a new kind of public space” -- Abbott utilized a veritable army of Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees, conscientious objectors, public contractor laborers, and miscellaneous other workers. He also employed numerous landscape architects recruited from the same Westchester County Parkway project he had worked on.
One of the “big ideas” Abbott promoted was arranging for the purchase of parkway land that was then leased back to farmers for agricultural use. He also arranged for scenic easements that allowed the Park Service to acquire all development rights without having to pay for the land. Buying the scenery instead of buying the land saved a lot of money, time, and political capital. Using these and other ingenious tactics, Abbott managed to thread the parkway through the mountains with consummate skill.
The next time you drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, remember to think about and appreciate Stanley Abbott. We could use a lot more people with his vision and drive.