HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY 
UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs between Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a distance of 469 miles. It follows for most of its length the Blue Ridge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The lowest point on the Parkway is near the northern end where the road drops to 649 feet above sea level beside the James River in Virginia. The highest point is near the southern end where the road reaches 6,053 feet at Richland Balsam. The Parkway was planned to link the two parks and to open up the mountains to recreational motor traffic.
The Parkway road was the longest road ever to be planned as a single unit up to that time in America.  Following existing practice, the road was designed and constructed in sections. There are twenty sections in Virginia identified by the number 1 and letters of the alphabet, and twenty-four sections in North Carolina identified the number 2 and letters of the alphabet. Section 1A starts at Jarmans Gap within the Shenandoah National Park, and Section 2Z finishes near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The idea for a scenic road in the Southern Appalachian has been traced to a proposal in 1912 for a Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway.  In 1930 the Eastern National Park-to-Park Highway Association made a proposal which included a highway linking the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Park Projects.  A project of that size and complexity was made possible by the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 1933, which initiated a program of public works to relieve unemployment caused by the Great Depression. The idea of extending the Skyline Drive was advanced the following September during discussions involving George L. Radcliffe and Theodore E. Straus of the Public Works Administration, Thomas H. MacDonald of the Bureau of Public Roads, and John G. Pollard, governor of Virginia.  The idea was presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes by Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.  Promoted as a means of providing employment, it was approved in November 1933 by Secretary Ickes in his capacity as head of the Public Works Administration. Responsibility for planning the highway as a parkway was assigned to the National Park Service. The project was funded at a meeting of a Special Board for Public Works on December 5, 1933, with an allotment of four million dollars.  This did not cover the cost of the land which was to be provided by the affected states. In 1936, when the project was under construction, legislation was introduced by Congressman Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina to establish the Blue Ridge Parkway as a unit of the National Park System.
The components of the Parkway will be described under four headings:
The routea description of the location, the right of way, and the chain of recreational parks.
The roada description of the roadway, bridges, tunnels, walls and drainage structures.
The parkway landscapesan account of the graded slopes and roadside plantings, forests and woods, fields and streams and historic buildings beside the road.
The recreational parksa description of their natural scenery, facilities for active recreation, provisions for food, lodging and motor services, and maintenance areas.
The Parkway was built in three phases. About two-thirds of the road and five recreational parks were completed between 1935 and the end of 1942 when construction was halted by the war. Construction was resumed in 1946, and all the remaining sections of the road, except one, were completed by 1967. The final section on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina was built between 1968 and 1987. Although the Parkway can now be considered complete, additional recreational areas may be acquired in the future.
THE ROUTE AND THE PLANNERS
The first step in planning the Parkway was to decide the route it should follow between the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National parks. A vigorously partisan debate erupted between representatives of Tennessee and North Carolina over the southern part of the route.  This debate took nearly a year to resolve and involved political figures at the highest levels of the federal and state governments. Harold Ickes as Secretary of the Interior and Administrator of Public Works became the arbiter. He was advised by senior officials in the National Park Service and Bureau of Public Roads. Arthur E. Demaray, the Associate Director of the National Park Service, maintained a close involvement in all matters relating to this and other parkways. Thomas C. Vint, the Chief of the Branch of Plans and Design took part in the assessment of alternative routes. He was joined by N. J. Spelman, the District Engineer in charge of the Bureau of Public Road's Eastern Office.  Jay Downer and Gilmore D. Clarke of the Westchester County Park Commission served as consultants for a few months in 1933-34. Their most important contribution was to recommend the appointment of Stanley W. Abbott as Resident Landscape Architect. Abbott was only twenty-six when he was appointed in December, 1933, but he rose to the challenge.
While engineers from the Bureau of Public Roads and landscape architects from the Park Service were walking each mile of location, Stan Abbott was "seeing" the finished project. He had the imagination and ability to think big and make no small plans. While most of the innovations in the Blue Ridge Parkway are the product of a joint effort, to Stan must go the big share of credit for the vision, imagination, and enthusiasm necessary to make the dream come true. 
Abbott recognized that the Parkway was to be a new amalgam of parkway and park road, and he had the ability to communicate his ideas.
We were immediately made aware that he was both perceptive and articulate. At the time that he had been pulled out of the Westchester County organization he had, in fact, been serving as the public relations man for the Westchester County organization, though he was a Cornell graduate in landscape architecture. It was especially fortunate that, along with the kind of imagination that was the essential ingredient in the creation of such a work of art as the Parkway, he also had those other qualities. They not only enabled him to "sell" his ideas and concepts of parkway design and development to his Washington Office superiors and to the officials of the State Highway Departments with which he had to deal; they were a necessity of successful relationships with the Parkway's neighbors, the mountain people through or past whose properties the Parkway was to go. 
Abbott served as Resident Landscape Architect and Acting Superintendent until 1944 when he was called to military service. He returned to the Regional Office in Richmond, Virginia in 1946, and continued to advise on the Parkway until 1949. In 1950 he became supervisory landscape architect for the Mississippi River Parkway Study.
Abbott's counterpart in the Bureau of Public Roads was William M. Austin, Resident Engineer in the Bureau's Roanoke Office. Austin had supervised construction of the General's Highway in Sequoia National Park, where he had worked with Charles Peterson and was responsible with Peterson for the Skyline Drive.  Austin and Abbott saw eye to eye on the planning of the Blue Ridge Parkway and made many decisions jointly.  When Austin left Roanoke in 1941, the relationship between his successor and Abbott was not as harmonious.  By that time, however, most of the important decisions in the location of the Parkway had been made.
A map of a section of the Parkway between Mabry Mill and Doughton Park is shown on Figure 1. The general direction was decided by Secretary Ickes following a prolonged study by officials of the federal government and presentation of the rival claims of Tennessee and North Carolina. In July, 1934, Ickes announced approval of the route from Jarmans Gap (at the southern end of the Skyline Drive) to the James River, and from Adney Gap (fifteen miles south of Roanoke) to Blowing Rock, N.C. In November of the same year, the North Carolina route from Blowing Rock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was selected over the alternative route through Tennessee. In making his decision, Ickes was influence by the economic, scenic, land acquisition, and topographic arguments advanced by the representatives of North Carolina. He was also aware of the fact that federal funds were already being channeled to Tennessee by the Tennessee Valley Authority. 
The Secretary of the Interior's decision to route the parkway along the crest of the Blue Ridge provided a general guide, but the actual location was determined after a detailed reconnaissance. Abbott and Austin agreed to the need to avoid the monotony of a continuous series of panoramic views which would result if the road were located on the ridge line.  In deliberate contrast to the Skyline Drive, the policy was to depart from the divide in the interests of varying the scenery. 
We and the engineers together just drilled and drilled, all of us, on the business of following a mountain stream for a while, then climbing up on the slope of a hill pasture then dipping down into the open bottom land and back into the woodlands. 
Abbott had been joined in the National Park Service's Roanoke Office in April, 1934, by Edward H. Abbuehl and Hendrick E. van Gelder. Abbuehl was assigned to the reconnaissance in North Carolina, and van Gelder to the Virginia portion. They worked closely with engineers from Austin's office.
The detailed locating procedure was to reconnoiter the country over a considerable distancethirty to one hundred miles or more and establish major controls, generally gaps, and from there work down to lesser control points and then finally establish a tentative flagged location on the ground which would satisfy alignment and grade standards. This was then reviewed by both landscape architects and engineers, and if approved, the State would be authorized to proceed with their topographic surveys which covered a strip two to several hundred feet wide following the flagged line.
Most of the line was flagged by Bureau engineers in 1934 and 1935, but some stretches remained problematic. In 1935 a proposal to depart from the Blue Ridge and include in the route the Natural Bridge area in Virginia was vetoed by the Secretary of the Interior, and the present route through the Peaks of Otter was confirmed. In the same year a dispute began with the Cherokee Indians over the route through their Qualla Reservation beside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was not resolved until 1940.  By 1941 the general line of the Parkway was agreed, but difficulties remained along Otter Creek (Section 1G), around Roanoke (Section 1N), near Blowing Rock (Section 2G), on Grandfather Mountain (Section 2H), near Asheville (Section 2Q), and approaching Balsam Gap (Section 2W). In these areas, alternative locations, which represented minor but important variations, were still being evaluated.  After the war, some relatively minor changes in location were made; for example, on the Moses H. Cone estate near Blowing Rock, the road was relocated behind the Manor house. The last section to be fixed was on Grandfather Mountain. The original proposal to follow the line of an existing readthe Yonahlossee Trailwas considered unsatisfactory and a higher location had been proposed. This was opposed by the landowner, and the State of North Carolina was not prepared to exercise its option of eminent domain. An agreement reached in 1968 allowed the construction of the road along a mid-level line and involved bridging around, rather than tunneling through, the steep mountain slopes. 
In 1936 Arthur E. Demaray, Associate Director of the National Park Service, defined the Parkway right-of-way "as a strip of land acquired in fee simple to provide the area for the construction of the roadway and an insulating area to protect the natural values." 
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a strip of land 469 miles and a few hundred feet wide. The land on each side of the road is an essential part of the Parkway: it serves to restrict access and crossings, and it insulates the road from developments which would intrude on its scenic character. 
The width of the right-of-way varies. This reflects some changes in policy and a long and difficult process acquisition. The first idea, based on the Westchester parkways, was to acquire a two hundred-foot wide right-of-way, with an additional four hundred feet of scenic easements on each side. Scenic easements would allow the land to continue in its existing use but restrict any development on the land. As location surveys and planning progressed, a new policy was adopted of acquiring an average of one hundred acres in fee simple per mile of parkway and fifty acres of scenic easement per mile.  One hundred acres in fee simple would provide a right-of-way averaging approximately 825 feet. This more flexible approach to the determination of boundaries allowed the width of the right-of-way to be adjusted to reflect property boundaries and natural conditions. Where the Parkway crossed national forest land, the 1936 legislation authorized a right-of-way of no more than two hundred feet in width, but in 1940 this was amended to allow Parkway lands to be increased by agreement between the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. 
Once the location of the Parkway had been determined by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads, the state highway departments made topographic surveys and mapped property boundaries. The National Park Service and Bureau of Public Roads then produced Parkway Development Plans which provided a basis for land acquisition by the states. Despite the flexible approach to boundaries, the process of acquisition was difficult.
Studies by the Service call for a taking which varies in width from 200 to 1,200 feet, and the requirements must be judged as much for effect upon the residual property as for control of the roadside picture. Private and public roads, cattle crossings, water rights, and phone and power lines seriously involve the entire economy of many larger mountain properties. Relocation of these facilities must be arranged or the entire holdings purchased outright. Those considerations and the natural tendency of many mountain people to hold to the old homes of their forefathers combine to make a more than usually difficult problem of acquisition, especially if condemnation is to be avoided. 
In North Carolina, R. Getty Browning, the chief locating engineer, who had played an important role in advocating the North Carolina route, cooperated wholeheartedly in the acquisition of Parkway land.  In Virginia there was some reluctance to accept the National Park Service policy, and there were considerable difficulties with acquisition, particularly in the settled agricultural areas. It proved difficult to acquire scenic easements at anything less than the cost of the land in fee simple, so the state eventually agreed to buy a wider strip in fee simple. The width varied between four hundred feet and eighty feet depending on the type of land. 
Acquisition was generally by agreement. The states were reluctant to institute condemnation proceedings. This could mean long delays and had an important effect on the progress of construction. For example acquisition of a right-of-way through the Moses H. Cone estate was delayed until after the death of Cone's widow in 1947. The long delay in the construction of the last section on Grandfather Mountain is another example. The states and the National Park Service were generally reluctant to displace people and wanted to foster good relations with land owners adjoining the Parkway. In some cases, houses were moved from the right-of-way onto the residual property retained by an owner, and in other cases people were granted a life tenancy and continued to live beside the road until their deaths.  This approach was in marked contrast to the resettlement policies being pursued in the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National parks in the 1930s.
By 1942 the acquisition of the right-of-way had been almost completed in Virginia, except for a stretch around Roanoke where construction had not started (Sections 1L, 1M an 1N). In North Carolina where the legal process of land acquisition was different, construction had run ahead of the final transfer of title from the State in some places.  Nevertheless, by the end of 1942 approximately two thirds of the right-of-way had been acquired and most of the remainder lay within the National Forests. Acquisition was completed in 1968, but the boundaries of the Parkway continued to change as land was acquired to eliminate road crossings, to protect areas from intrusive suburban development, and to protect special plant and animal habitats. 
At intervals the ribbon of Parkway land widens to include recreational areas. These wayside parks were referred to by Abbott as "beads on a string, the rare gems in the necklace"  and more prosaically by Vint as "bulges" in the right of way.  The idea of adding these areas came from Abbott's experience with the Westchester County Park Commission.  Although they were not part of the original concept of the Parkway, Abbott argued that these parks would be as important as the road itself.
In locating the Parkway the effort has been to provide a scenic motorway devoted in an almost complete sense to recreation. It will be a road type which will invite leisurely driving and frequent stops for a period of hours or of days b the vacationer. It is unquestionably desirable therefore, to set aside certain worthwhile areas at which the motorist may stop and to provide facilities for such activities as camping picnicking, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and swimming. 
The search for suitable sites was initiated in May, 1934, when Abbott inspected the Pinnacles of Dan in Virginia.  The first Master Plan for the Parkway was prepared in 1934 and approved by the Secretary of the Interior in January, 1935. This plan followed the line of the road as far as Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and recommended the addition of a number of major and minor recreational areas. The major areas were Natural Bridge, Peaks of Otter, Pinnacles of Dan, and The Bluff. In addition to the recreational areas, there were six areas to be acquired for their scenic qualities and held as "undeveloped reservations." Another plan covering the entire length of the Parkway was approved in August 1936. This included a total of nineteen recreational parks.  By this time Natural Bridge had been eliminated from the list, and the Pinnacles of Dan had become a doubtful candidate because of the impact of a hydroelectric power project on the Dan River. Most of the areas had been selected by Abbott and Abbuehl.
As we traveled through the mountains on general reconnaissance, favorite places came into our thinking and we might say to ourselves or out loud "We ought to control this," or "A gem." Then we were guided, too, by some sense of need for rhythm or patternor a jewel on the string of bead occurring every so often, so there was comprehensive planbut not a rigid one. Our theory was a major park every sixty miles, and in between two lesser day-use areas, as against night use, or larger, more rounded development. 
The following areas were included in the 1936 plan:
Humpback Rocks on Sections 1B and 1C
Nine of these areas were wholly or partly within United States Forest Service ownership.
The acquisition of these areas was not the responsibility of Virginia or North Carolina. In 1935 some funds were made available by the Resettlement Administration under their submarginal lands program.  Negotiations were begun for the acquisition of lands at Pine Spur, Smart View, and Rocky Knob in Virginia, and Cumberland Knob and The Bluff in North Carolina. Sam P. Weems was sent by the Resettlement Administration to appraise the lands and became project manger for the development of the recreational parks. He subsequently rose to be superintendent of the Parkway.
Because of the uncertainty and opportunism associated with the acquisition of land, the 1936 Master Plan had to be regarded as a flexible guide. Of the nineteen areas listed in 1936 only the five areas acquired with Resettlement Administration fund were developed before the war. The land for two of the areas within national forestsHumpback Rocks and Crabtree Meadowshad been acquired by 1942, and acquisition of a third areaPeaks of Otterwas completed in 1944.  After the war another three areas on the original listLinville Gorge, Craggy Gardens and Mount Pisgahwere added. However, most of the areas transferred by the U.S Forest Service were considerably smaller than Abbott had wanted.  Other areas have been acquired as opportunities arose. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and the Julian Price Memorial Park were obtained through private donations in 1949 and 1950. Today there are twenty-three sites which provide recreational facilities and services along the Parkway, though of these only sixteen could be considered recreational parks along the lines proposed in the 1936 plan. There are still proposals to add additional areas. The acquisition of Fisher Peak, one of the original nineteen sites, is underway after a fifty-year wait.
In his report for the years 1934, 1935, and 1936, Abbott summarized the innovative features of the Parkway.
This office has discussed with you various problems of location. If these ideas are carried forward, the parkway which we consider to be a thoroughly modern motorway will thread 500 miles between the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains Parks of beautiful and varied scenery. Towns and cities, as well as other encroachments of civilization, have been successfully avoided. This natural environment will be protected by the wide acquisition of parkway lands, together with the wayside park program, placing under Federal, protection outstanding scenic areas. The program of wayside recreation and service development which we have discussed will complete a concept which will, in the opinion of this office, meet in a new way the requirements of the thousands of vacation motorists along the Eastern Seaboard. 
The Blue Ridge Parkway follows a route quite different from that of any earlier parkway or park road. Unlike earlier parkways it is located away from cities in the mountains, connecting two national parks. Unlike earlier roads in national parks, it runs through settled countryside as well as wild mountain landscapes. In contrast to the Skyline Drive, it does not keep to the ridge tops.
In order to keep construction costs within reasonable bounds while still maintaining standards of curvature and grade, and what is more, to avoid excessive scar, it has been necessary to skirt some of the more rugged regions with the result that the Parkway does not exclusively follow the skyline, but assumes a changing position in the mountains. Like the movie cameraman who shoots his subject from many angles to heighten the drama of his film, so the shifting position of the roadway unfolds a more interesting picture to the traveler. The sweeping view over the low country often holds the center of the stage, but seems to exit gracefully enough when the Parkway leaves the ridge for the more gentle slopes and the deeper forests. 
The ribbon form of the Parkway made it very different from most units in the National Park System. Although a wider right-of-way was obtained than had been the case for any earlier parkway, it was clearly impossible to control through ownership the use and appearance of all the land visible from the road. This meant the Parkway staff had to seek the cooperation of their many neighbors. This led to the development of innovative cooperative programs of land management along the Parkway.
The acquisition of the land for the recreational parks changed the character of the Parkway from being a link between two national parks to being a destination in its own right. While not entirely new in concept, the plan for a chain of parks was innovative in its scale and organization. It greatly expanded the scope of the Parkway project and the responsibilities of the landscape architects.
ILLUSTRATION OF AN IMPORTANT TYPE AND PERIOD OF PARKWAY CONSTRUCTION
The Blue Ridge Parkway is the premier example of a rural national parkway. Of the various proposals for national parkways advanced in the 1930s, only this parkway and the Natchez Trace were actually built. The prewar sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway illustrate the features which distinguish this type and period of parkway construction.
The plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway differed from the plans for its suburban predecessors in three ways. The route avoided cities and ran through a wide variety of mountain scenery between two national parks. The right-of-way was, for much of its length, several times wider than the right-of-ways of suburban parkways, and a chain of recreation parks was planned as an integral part of the Parkway. These features became accepted within the National Park Service as standard requirements for what Demaray referred to as "this new concept of elongated parks through which run highways dedicated solely to recreational and social use." 
The design and construction of the road illustrates the state of the art in the 1930s. The engineering of the road was based on the advances in highway design demonstrated in the Westchester and Long Island parkwaysa curvilinear alignment, limited access, and grade separated interchanges. Some compromises were made because of the mountain location and recreation function: the design speed was only forty-five miles per hour, and the roadway was not divided. Also at first, access was not limited as strictly as it should have been because few anticipated the growth of traffic along rural roads. Nevertheless, the building of a modern road for several hundred miles through mountains required extraordinary feats of engineering. Here, the builders of the Blue Ridge Parkway benefitted from the experience gained in the construction of earlier roads in national parks, where procedures had been developed to reduce construction scars. Downer and Clarke, after their tour of inspection in 1940, gave the road high praise.
The location, alignment and gradient of the drive, and the attention to the policy of utilizing the most modern practices give to this great parkway a distinction unequalled by any other project of its character in the world. 
The landscape and architectural designs along the Parkway were guided by the prevailing design philosophy of the National Park Service which sought to fit new developments unobtrusively into their natural settings. Naturalistic effects were achieved in grading slopes beside the road and also in the planting and selective cutting programs along the road and in wayside parks. Park structures were designed in a rustic architectural style, at least in the early years. This conservative design philosophy had been developed in western parks, but it transplanted well into the East where it became allied with early attempts to preserve historic places. The preservation of pioneer structures along the Parkway was part of the comprehensive program of rural conservation. The resulting landscapes, with well managed forests and fields, restored mill ponds and pioneer cabins, represented an idealized rural Appalachia, freed from the problems of soil depletion and poverty. The national parkway had become a route into the half-remembered past.
HIGH ARTISTIC VALUES
The location of the Parkway was selected with great skill. Abbott likened the road reconnaissance to making a film. In 1958 he wrote that "A Parkway like the Blue Ridge has but one reason for existence, which is to please by revealing the charm and interest of the native American countryside. To accomplish that end requires the finest exercise of the several planning arts."  Abbott suggested that much of the aesthetic appeal of the Parkway is derived from the contrast between difference scenes:
I can't image a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet's tail. Moss and lichens collected on the shake roof of a Mabry Mill measured against the huge panoramas that look out forever. 
The road is a gracefully curving line, threading contrasting scenesmountains and valleys, wild and settled landscapes. It provides a transect through the geography and history of the Southern Appalachians.
1 This narrative is an excerpt from a draft historic resources report on the Blue Ridge Parkway, prepared by Professor Ian Firth under a cooperative agreement between the University of Georgia and the National Park Service.
2 Stanley W. Abbott, "Annual Report of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke, Virginia, to the Director, National Park Service" (National Park Service, BranchPlans and Design, Salem, Virginia, 30 June 1939), 3.
3 Edward H. Abbuehl, "History of the Blue Ridge Parkway," Paper prepared for Ranger's conference (1948), 1; Harley E. Jolley, The Blue Ridge Parkway (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 1.
8 Abbott, "Blue Ridge Parkway: Historical Report to the Chief Architect, Branch of Plans and Design, for the Years 1934, 1935, and 1936 by the Resident Landscape Architect, Roanoke, Virginia" (National Park Service, BranchPlans and Design, Salem, Virginia, 10 January 1937), 3-5; Abbuehl, "History," 3-5; Jolley, Blue Ridge, 57-92.
12 Sarah Georgia Harrison, "The Skyline Drive: A Western Park Road in the East," Parkways: Past, Present, and Future: Proceedings of the Second Biennial Linear Parks Conference 1987 (Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1989), 41.
22 A.E. Demaray, "Federal ParkwaysA Paper Presented Before the Council Meeting of the American Planning and Civic Association," Parkways: A Manual of the Revised Requirements, Instructions and Information Relating to National Parkways for Use in the National Park service (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service), 3.
35 Abbott, "Appalachian National Parkway from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Report on Recreation and Service Areas, Type and Scope of Development Proposed" (15 December 1934).
37 Blue Ridge Parkway, "Brief Description of the Recreation Areas Adjacent to the Parkway, to Accompany the Master Plan Thereof, Drawn June 3, 1936" (National Park Service, BranchPlans and Design, Salem, Virginia, 1936); Abbott, "Blue Ridge Parkway: Historical," 10 January 1937, 17.
44 Thomas A. MacDonald and A.E. Demarary, Parkways of the Future: A Radio Discussion between Mr. MacDonald, Chief of the United States Bureau of Public Roads and Mr. Demaray, Associate Director of the National Park Service," Parkways: A Manual of the Revised Requirements, Instructions and Information Relating to National Parkways for Use in the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1938), 5.
Last Updated: 30-Sep-2008