Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
By Anne Mitchell Whisnant. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006; 464 pp., illustrations, notes, glossary, bibliography, index; cloth $34.95.
Historian Anne Mitchell Whisnant deserves an award for this wonderful history of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the 469-mile scenic motorway, begun in 1935, took more than 50 years to build. Whisnant tells the story of the parkway through the personal experiences of people affected by the construction. Hers is a frank, factual, and revealing account of a public roads project of marginal—if any—benefit to the communities through which it passed that eventually became one of the most traveled scenic routes in the United States.
Evidence of Whisnant's meticulous research is ingrained on every page. She includes several personal vignettes about the people in the parkway's path, along with first-hand accounts, quotations, letters and local newspaper reports, and many of the maps and photographs one would expect to find in a volume of this kind. The resulting narrative is a colorful, intriguing, and insightful look into the politics of land acquisition and the controversies that defined the parkway project at its inception. To this reviewer's knowledge, no other book has focused so intently on the history of the parkway.
In the introduction, Whisnant recounts the moment she discovered the layers of controversy buried beneath the conventional narrative of the construction of the parkway. While thumbing through the library card catalog at the University of North Carolina in 1991, she came across a reference to Cherokee Indian opposition to the road. Chapter 5 focuses on that particular episode, but the book carries the theme of controversy and resolution through all seven chapters.
The story begins with a discussion of early efforts in road building, the creation of the national parks, tourism, and the New Deal. Next, the book focuses on the competition between North Carolina and Tennessee for the parkway route early on in the project. A discussion of the issues related to land acquisition, protection, access, and use in Virginia and North Carolina follows in chapter 3. That chapter also looks at the impact of the roadway project on local communities and their influence (or lack thereof) on parkway design.
Whisnant gives an account of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Heriot Clarkson's successful challenge to the parkway's lands acquisition process. An affluent entrepreneur, property owner, and government official, Clarkson succeeded where so many smaller and less connected property owners had failed in fighting the Federal Government's taking of private property.
The author also details the five-year opposition of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the only federally recognized Indian tribe in North Carolina, to the parkway project. The tribal council repeatedly voted down proposals to trade or sell lands to the Federal Government in objection to the parkway's projected routes. The story of tribal opposition and federal bureaucracy is one of irony, to say the least. Vice Chief Fred Bauer held up the negotiations until the Federal Government had offered the tribe a compromise route proposal from which both parties might benefit.
In chapter 6, Whisnant tells the story of the demise of the Johnson Farm, the Hotel Mons, and the community in the area of Otter's Peak. After prolonged negotiations to acquire the peak, the National Park Service removed most of the historic structures to implement its vision of a parkway recreation area where, in Whisnant's words, the Service attempted to create "an idealized version of Appalachian regional history." The author also covers the final construction phase of the parkway along Grandfather Mountain, where entrepreneur Hugh Morton successfully defeated a proposed parkway route that he felt would adversely affect his tourist attraction on the mountain.
Whisnant has produced a very detailed account of the history of the North Carolina side of the parkway, but this reviewer wanted more information on the Virginia side and the plans for a Tennessee route. The technically inclined reader who enjoys or expects to see design, engineering, and construction details will be disappointed, as will those interested in the national politics of the era or the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps or other New Deal agencies. However, the book includes route maps of the entire 469 miles of the parkway.
Whisnant's Super-Scenic Motorway dispels the popular notion espoused by Blue Ridge Parkway historian Harley Jolley that the parkway was somehow a "Godsend for the needy."(1) The book exposes the conflicts and opposition that National Park Service landscape architects and planners faced as they tried to implement their vision of a scenic parkway running along isolated mountain ridges to the detriment of communities and the cultural landscape. The theme of controversy borne of projects for the public good ties Whisnant's individual stories together in a masterfully written volume. This reviewer recommends this book to all cultural resources professionals and land managers whose decisions affect neighboring communities and whose success depends on the goodwill and participation of those communities and the public.
Tribal Preservation Program
National Park Service
1. Harley Jolley, The Blue Ridge Parkway (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969).