» Author: Anne Mitchell Whisnant
» Pages: 464 pages
» Size: 7.625" x 22.75"
» Format: Cloth Hardcover
» Features: 51 illus., 7 maps, notes, bibl., index
The most visited site in the National Parks system, the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway winds along the ridges of the Appalachian mountains in Virginia and North Carolina.
According to popular myth, the Parkway was a New Deal “godsend for the needy,” built without conflict or opposition by landscape architects and planners who traced their uniform vision along a scenic, isolated southern landscape.
The historical archives relating to this massive public project, however, tell a different story, which Anne Mitchell Whisnant relates in this history of the seventy-year development of the beloved roadway.
More than just a make-work project for the unemployed, the Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived as a necessary boost to sagging tourism in the region.
Highlighting the roles of key players and stakeholders, Whisnant explores the design and routing of the road, land acquisition and management, relations among landowners, business interests, and government agencies; environmental impacts; and historical and cultural representation and interpretation.
She reveals what the Parkway’s seemingly unruffled scenery tends to obscure: the road owes its appearance as much to the negotiated resolution of conflicts as it does to the natural features of the mountains or the work of landscape designers. Whisnant concludes that debates over how best to preserve and manage the Parkway for the public good within a changing regional and national context will continue for some time to come.
About the Author
Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s study of the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1991, spurred by a love of the mountains nurtured in seven summers spent during her youth at Lake Junaluska United Methodist Assembly in western North Carolina. For more information, read Anne’s biography.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: A New Trip along a Beloved Road
- Chapter One:
Roads, Parks, and Tourism: A Southern Scenic Parkway in a National Context
- Chapter Two:
The Scenic Is Political: The Parkway and Asheville’s Tourism Industry
- Chapter Three:
We Ain’t Picked None on the Scenic: Parkway Ideals and Local Realities
- Chapter Four:
By the Grace of God and a Mitchell County Jury: Little Switzerland, Regional Tourism, and the Parkway
- Chapter Five:
The Crowning Touch of Interest: Parkway Development, Cultural Landscaping, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees
- Chapter Six:
Remembering the Peaks of Otter: Telling History on the Parkway Landscape
- Chapter Seven:
From Stump Town to Carolina’s Top Scenic Attraction: Private Interests and the Public Good at Grandfather Mountain
The Parkway’s Past, Its Present, and the Ongoing Search for the Public Good
"Super-Scenic Motorway" tells a fascinating history of the Blue Ridge Parkway -- just one small piece of the entire history, but an important and, as the author points out, a neglected one. At the heart of the book, Ms. Whisnant tells four stories to illustrate the impact of the political process, largely (but not exclusively) at the administrative level, on land acquisitions for the Parkway route.
As noted in the Epilogue, other examples could have served the purpose, but the four, the Peaks of Otter in Virginia, and Little Switzerland, Grandfather Mountain, and the Cherokee lands in North Carolina, are well chosen, exhaustively researched and documented, and "to her credit" [a phrase I just had to throw in -- you'll have to read the book to find out why], fairly told. Along the way we are also given insights into the evolution of the National Park Service and its approaches to historical interpretation.
I should add that the book begins with an explanation of the parks, roads and Western N.C. tourism setting within which the Parkway came about, followed by a cursory look at the roughshod way that state government, particularly in North Carolina, and the NPS treated small landowners and small businesses when acquiring land and building the Parkway. On the other hand, if you're looking for design, engineering and construction details or information about the contributions of the CCC and other New Deal agencies, i.e., the actual work on the ground, you'll find precious little of that here.
All that having been said, bear in mind that Ms. Whisnant is a professional academic historian, not a writer of popular histories (e.g., a Stephen Ambrose). Thus, we're frequently told (every couple of pages would be an exaggeration, but it eventually feels like it) that issues of class, culture, the broader society, competing economic interests, etc., etc. played out through the political process that gave us the Parkway. Sample sentence: "The equilibrium of public needs [a concept Whisnant conveniently glosses over] and private interests, local exigencies and broad policy concerns that the often-competing constituencies involved in the project had sought to achieve in the Parkway's first twenty years were knocked askew." Apparently that kind of language is intended to give the book its academic credentials. Ms. Whisnant having gone that route (no pun intended), I only wish that the publisher had opted for convenient footnotes rather than cumbersome endnotes.
If you have the same reaction to this book I do, your appetite will be whetted to learn more about the BRP and the NPS. One tiny example: How did the "Orchard at Altapass," a treasure near Spruce Pine and Little Switzerland that is a commercial venture (though possibly organized as a non-profit) of the roadside-tourist variety that the NPS apparently despised, end up directly on the Parkway?
[A disclosure of my particular interest. I've been a North Carolina resident for more than 40 years, and have made substantial personal use of the Parkway and its facilities. For the last 6 years I've lived within a couple miles of the Parkway, which is now my shortest route to the Wal-Mart in Spruce Pine, N.C. Again, you'll have to read the book to find out why this final fact is significant.]
By Carl E. Johnson, Jr.
Anne M. Whisnant has written not only an analytical work with penetrating insights into the difficulties of creating recreational spaces for the public good but has managed to do it with beautiful and engaging prose. The first work on the Parkway not to get bogged down into trivial details about the construction process (as a response to Harley Jolley's work), Super-Scenic Motorway uses several vignettes to highlight how the Parkway came to be, what it was supposed to represent in the eyes of many different groups, and the difficult choices inherent in pursuing a public good.
These vignettes illustrate how the Parkway was vigorously pursued by Ashevillians as a panacea for the ills of the Great Depression as well as by other groups who saw its potential for economic benefit. What is clear from Whisnant's work is just how much the Parkway was a creation of mankind -- clearly, Parkway planners had to "improve" upon the natural setting to make it live up to their ideals.
Though Parkway boosters praised the combination of conservation and economic benefit, not all people welcomed the super-scenic motorway. Displaced mountain residents, those who worked with restrictive land covenants, and those who were denied the promise of a paved road by limited access all found reason to complain about the beaucratic nightmare that was the process of building the Parkway. Whisnant is careful to show that the definition of the public good creates winners and losers and she does not privilege the Parkway's boosters over the losers, nor does she romanticize the losers as victims. The account of both sides is nuanced and insightful.
The majority of the vignettes come from the North Carolina experience, highlighting incidents involving Asheville, Little Switzerland, Grandfather Mountain, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. A nod to the Virginia Parkway experience looks at the politics of history and memory at the Peaks of Otter. Whether this unevenness of treatment is the result of the bounty of archival material, authorial choice, or historical circumstance (perhaps North Carolinians had more to fight over?) is not clear. The theme of public good and the choices that it defines, however, ties the vignettes together in this masterfully written work.
By Gregory S. King