Park History: Blue Ridge Parkway

The earliest parkways—among them New York’s Westchester Parkway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Washington, DC to Mount Vernon—were built to merge scenery with speed in an early ideal of motoring as both travel and recreation. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the epitome of that idea.
That ideal got its start not long after great urban parks were being created by Frederick Law Olmsted, himself an early Parkway proponent.

The original idea for a Blue Ridge Parkway-style road seems to have originated as far back as 1909 with Joseph Hyde Pratt, director of North Carolina’s Geological and Economic Survey. He dreamed up a privately-funded, ridge-top Appalachian toll road, surveyed portions of it, and by 1912 had even constructed a section near Linville, North Carolina that would later become part of the Parkway route. The turmoil of World War I put an end to his dream.

By 1930, the possibility of actually building a Blue Ridge Parkway had been furthered by a number of developments. Building scenic roads between national parks had become a topic of discussion and the Depression had prompted legislation permitting the Public Works Administration to build and maintain roads to counter unemployment.

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Awesome old structures are a stunning part of the Parkway past. Mountain Farm Trail at Humpback Rocks, Virginia,


But the Parkway can trace what may be its most immediate precedent to the creation of the Skyline Drive atop the Blue Ridge in Shenandoah National Park. That 100-mile road had started construction in 1931 as a Depression-era relief project, and it wasn’t long before the idea surfaced of extending the road into a “park-to-park” highway between Shenandoah and the Great Smokies.

That’s when a battle over where to locate that Parkway started. The years-long controversy centered on the Parkway’s strong suit—scenery.

Virginia got the route because the road had to start at Shenandoah National Park. But Tennessee and North Carolina were left to duke it out. Each claimed the superior scenery.

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wanted more objective information, so in the summer of 1934, he sent Forestry Director Robert Marshall to weigh the two routes. Marshall had challenged the idea of the Parkway on grounds that it would further chop up what little wilderness remained. Today, Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness honors the man who ultimately devoted much of his life to wilderness preservation, both in the U.S. Forest Service and as a founder of the Wilderness Society. Marshall reported back to Ickes that he could defend either choice but favored the Carolina route.

The political maneuvering of the route selection process climaxed at a September 18, 1934 hearing in Washington, DC. The Asheville Chamber of Commerce, motivated by sustaining the city’s century-long tourist economy, hired a train to pack the hearing. The group appeared to be winning until Tennesseans revealed the supposed-secret that Ickes’ own selection committee had recommended Tennessee for the Parkway route.

On November 10, 1934, the Interior Secretary overruled his own selection committee and gave North Carolina the Parkway (largely due to his post-visit feeling that the route was scenically superior). But controversy continued.

Indeed, the entire project—finessed into existence as a relief project by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration—was still in doubt. Congress had grumbled but never gotten a chance to approve it. Then North Carolina Congressman Robert Doughton offered a bill to formally name the road the Blue Ridge Parkway and transfer control to the National Park Service when it was completed. The decision—where it was to be located, or even exist at all—was decided with legislative sleight of hand by Doughton on June 20, 1936. By a vote of 145 to 131—with 147 abstaining—the bill barely passed the House.

By then Parkway construction had already started in North Carolina heading south from the Virginia state line in September 1935. The first construction in Virginia started south of Roanoke on February 29, 1936. Right of way problems and a desire to employ people first in the most economically depressed areas (most workers were unemployed locals) meant that for decades large uncompleted sections of road interrupted what is today a seamlessly scenic journey.

The Completion of the Parkway

By 1970, the road was complete save for a short section at Grandfather Mountain. This “missing link” was closed, and the Parkway completed, in 1987. Originally the state of North Carolina and then the Parkway had planned a “high route” across the flank of Grandfather Mountain. The mountain’s private owner, Hugh Morton felt that route would have a severe impact on the wilderness of the peak as well as undermine the appeal of his Mile-High Swinging Bridge and other tourist facilities. Controversy and years of conflict ensued.

Eventually a lower route was decided upon that included a computer-designed span, the Linn Cove Viaduct, that is today an engineering icon of the Parkway. The bridge was intended to minimize impact on the mountain’s fragile backcountry, an area that had become popular with hikers and backpackers under a successful trail program that also encouraged research on rare species. Hugh Morton died in 2006, and in 2008, the Morton family sold the bulk of the mountain to the state of North Carolina to become a state park.

Now beyond its 75th anniversary in 2010, the Parkway today redeems the verdict that the route chosen—and now completely open—is just about as scenic as the South gets.