“I love that people can look at this coin and remember their experience on the Parkway. Or it will encourage them to come visit the Parkway.”
-Frank Morris, designer of the Parkway quarter
The Blue Ridge Parkway is being honored this year with its own quarter in the U.S. Mint’s “America the Beautiful” series. The series was launched in 2010 and will run until 2021, with five quarters released each year that depict America’s most beautiful natural landscapes.
The image on the Parkway quarter is a view leaving one tunnel, about to enter another, with the roadway stretching in between and the state flower, the Dogwood, in the foreground. Joseph Menna, a medallic sculptor for the U.S. Mint, sculpted the scene that was designed by Frank Morris, a Memphis-based artist who has designed several coins and Congressional Medals of Honor.
Frank Morris had just finished traveling the entire length of the Parkway, from Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park southward, when he was given the quarter assignment. He drafted around twenty Parkway views, one of the iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, but in the end, it was the Parkway’s twenty-six stone tunnels that inspired the design. Morris said on the tunnels, “As an artist, I appreciate the skill that went in to creating the stone tunnels. Italian and Spanish immigrant stone masons built them. Tunnels bring out the kid in me. I felt connected to them — the intelligent design, the experience of it all.”
The design is not representative of one specific tunnel on the Parkway; rather, it is meant to evoke the “collective memory” of the tunnels. Morris said, “The biggest challenge is trying to create a really big impact on a tiny quarter… So many people in so many states move through that environment – the dogwood, two tunnels, coming out of one and going into another. Overlapping the stone sections is a way to show the scale. You have to whittle it down to its essence.”
Tunnels along the Parkway were mainly constructed to reduce excessive scarring on the mountainsides that open cuts would create. Construction of the Parkway began in 1935, and the tunnels were built over time through the 40s and 50s. The distinctive stone masonry was added in the late 50s and 60s, and over the years the tunnels have been lined with concrete to prevent massive stalactites from forming out of the dripping and freezing water that flows down the mountains. Twenty-five of the twenty-six tunnels along the Parkway are in North Carolina, the state that the quarter is officially representing.
Gary Johnson, the chief Parkway architect from 1995-2011, thinks the tunnels are the perfect scene to represent the Parkway. Like Frank Morris, he says the tunnels bring out the “little boy” in him. Describing the “cinematic experience” of driving the Parkway, Johnson says, “What’s exciting about tunnels, you go from great daylight views, then you’re enclosed in darkness and come out of the tunnel to another great panoramic view. I just think that idea of being in the dark and coming out into this sunlit area, it makes the drive exciting. Children in the car pay a lot of attention to that. What’s cool is you’re driving underground. You’re going under this mountain ridge and that feels cool — that’s the little boy in me.”
To purchase the Blue Ridge Parkway quarter, visit the U.S. Mint website.