“The idea is to fit the Parkway into the mountains as if nature has put it there.”
-Stanley Abbott, Chief Landscape Architect for the Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway was born at a time in American history when social change was at the forefront of political events. The idea resulted from a combination of many factors, the primary one being that jobs were needed. Trained engineers, architects, and landscape architects were left unemployed by the Great Depression, and thousands of mountain families were verging on poverty. The recent openings of two popular eastern parks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, were already attracting tourists to the naturally beautiful but financially poor area, and the increasing availability of the automobile foresaw a new generation of motoring vacations.
A Scenic Motor Road
Actual construction of the Parkway didn’t begin until late in 1935, although the plan had been in the works for the two years prior. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had visited Virginia’s first Civilian Conservation Corps camp while they were working on the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Liking what he saw, he soon approved the concept of constructing a scenic motor way linking the two new parks, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After much wrangling in Congress over acquisition, funding, and the location of the road, it was decided that the Parkway should follow the crest of the southern Appalachian mountains through Virginia and North Carolina, and that the necessary rights-of-way should be purchased by the states and then turned over to the federal government to be administered by the National Park Service as a park. Although the Parkway differs from the usual national park in its narrow land-holdings (at times shrinking to a width of only 200 feet), it is still managed like any site in the National Park Service.
The Beginning of Construction
Progress was slow at first, as CCC crews surveyed deep into the mountains and realized the enormity of the task at hand. No maps, reluctant landowners, extreme weather conditions, rocky terrain, and snakes were only a few of the obstacles encountered. Many mountain roads were little more than ruts and could not even accommodate the equipment needed for construction. Foremost in the minds of the crews was to create as little scar as possible, and great care was taken to design and build the roadway so that it blended into its natural surroundings. Construction took place in sections as land was purchased, rights-of-way approved, and contracts secured. Progress was steady until World War II, when funds were diverted for the war effort. The 1950s and 1960s saw a slowing in construction, until by 1968 the only task left was the completion of a seven-mile stretch around North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. In order to preserve the fragile environment on the steep slopes of the mountain, the Linn Cove Viaduct, a 1,200-foot suspended section of the Parkway, was designed and built. Considered an engineering marvel, it represents one of the most successful fusions of road and landscape on the Parkway.
The Finishing Touches
Overall, some twenty-six tunnels were blasted through the mountain ridge, with dozens of bridges needed to make rivers and creeks passable. More than 200 parking areas, overlooks, and developed areas were incorporated into the design so that motorists could enjoy a leisurely ride through the mountains. The road itself ascends to more than 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam overlook in North Carolina, and descends to just over 600 feet at the James River in Virginia. Hundreds of easements and agricultural use permits were negotiated with Parkway neighbors in order to ensure views of rustic rail fences, livestock, and shocks of corn and wheat, with no intrusive billboards and minimal residential development. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was officially dedicated on September 11, 1987, fifty-two years after the groundbreaking, although various sections had already been in use for decades. In one sense, though, the Parkway may never be completely finished. Efforts continue to acquire property near the boundaries in an effort to provide better protection for land and views that the park service already owns. The Parkway, having once been derided by a Michigan congressman as “the most ridiculous undertaking that has ever been presented to the Congress of the United States,” has proven its value to the more than 600 million visitors who have passed along it since its beginning.