Yesterday there was a ceremonial torch passing in Cherokee, North Carolina. Standing where the Blue Ridge Parkway ends at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the superintendent of Great Smoky passed a ceremonial torch across the park border to the superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, marking the end of Great Smoky’s anniversary year and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th anniversary celebration. (Yesterday was Friday the 13th; let’s hope that’s not an omen).
Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th Anniversary is next year, but the celebration is already getting under way. Two BRP75 Opening Weekend events are taking place today in Asheville, North Carolina, a city that learned on a happy day in November 1934 that it would become a parkway community after all.
The celebration of Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th anniversary is a process, not an event. That’s because the parkway’s beginnings stretched through a three-year period in which a variety of noteworthy things happened The germination of the park-to-park idea, a route connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina/Tennessee, dates to 1933. (The NPS’ own park “birthdays” list specifies June 16, 1933 as the parkway’s birthday.) The route was determined, at least in broad outline, by the fall of 1934. Construction of the 469-mile long parkway began at Cumberland Knob, North Carolina, in 1935, although the specific date of the initial groundbreaking seems to have escaped media attention. When Congressional authorization finally came in 1936, it was a belated stamp of approval for a project that had already built up a pretty good head of steam.
Given the temporal and geographic complexities of the matter, the Park Service could see early on that 75th anniversary celebration planning would be more than routinely complicated. Accordingly, a partner NGO called Blue Ridge Parkway 75, Inc. was established several years ago to study the matter and determine appropriate celebration dates and commemorative activities. The study group, which consisted of 30 parkway-knowledgeable people from Virginia and North Carolina, came up with an anniversary celebration plan that’s very comprehensive, involving dozens of communities and numerous events scheduled over a period of nearly a year. (While the “final” celebration is technically slated for September 11, 2010, some commemorative activities associated with community festivals and the like will continue beyond that date.)
On October 10, parkway supporters and state representatives from Virginia and North Carolina gathered at the parkway’s Milepost 115 near Roanoke, Virginia to unveil the official BRP75 logo and announce plans for the 2010 celebration as well as initial/preliminary activities. For a list of BRP75 events, visit this site. Monthly updates will be posted on the BRP75 homepage.
This weekend is the official BRP75 Opening Weekend, which features two major events being held in Ashville, North Carolina. Asheville has good reason to celebrate. It was 75 years ago this month that then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes announced that the parkway would pass through the Ashville vicinity, not track southwestward into Tennessee from Blowing Rock as a committee had recommended. This was incredibly good news to Asheville and other western North Carolina communities that had lobbied long and hard to bring the parkway -- and visitor dollars -- to the Depression-wracked region, which was (and is) heavily oriented to tourism.
The two Opening Weekend events are dandies. Parkway History Day, which takes place at the Southern Highland Craft Guild-operated Folk Art Center (Milepost 382), will feature craft and music demonstrations, various Parkway organization exhibits, a panel discussion, and a guided hike. The panel session offers a detailed discussion and analysis of the history and lasting impact of the November 1934 decision to route the parkway through western North Carolina. One of the panelists is Carlton Abbott, the son of Stanley Abbott, First Chief Architect of the Parkway. Another is UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Anne Mitchell Whisnant, author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (and occasional Traveler articles).
The other major Opening Weekend event is a BPR75 benefit concert scheduled for tonight at the Asheville Civic Center. It features:
… award-winning singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith as well as a one-time-only collaboration of The Blue Ridge Bluegrass All-Stars showing their support for the Parkway – renowned musicians Doyle Lawson, Sammy Shelor, Bryan Sutton, Tim Surrett, and Jim Van Cleve. The dramatic and colorful Warriors of AniKituhwa will also perform, and the entire evening will be hosted by Asheville’s own Grammy award-winning musician David Holt.
Postscript: Though the Blue Ridge Parkway now provides an estimated $2.3 billion in annual benefits to parkway communities, it didn’t arrive in Asheville soon enough to rescue it from the Depression – not by a long shot. Construction of the parkway was painfully slow, and the first completed segment, a 12-mile section in Alleghany County, North Carolina, wasn’t opened until 1939. The sections passing through Ashville/Buncombe County weren’t completed until the 1950s and 1960s. Asheville is now a booming tourism/retiree center, but two interstate highways that converge on Asheville (I-40 and I-26) have much more to do with that than the parkway ever did.