The Colonial Parkway is a twenty-three mile scenic roadway stretching from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown. It connects Virginia's historic triangle: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Several million travelers a year use this route to enjoy the natural and cultural beauty of Virginia.
The Parkway's construction presented the National Park Service with a unique challenge: build a thoroughfare unifying culturally distinct sites crossing several pristine natural environments while still maintaining the National Park Service's prime directive "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same." Adding to the complexity of the project was a construction period extending over twenty-six years through the Depression, World War II, and funding shortages.
The Parkway, completed in 1957, is an NPS success story. This three-lane roadway allows motorists to appreciate the surrounding landscape, while reducing impact on the resources and providing for traveler safety. The center lane is used only for passing and the maximum Parkway speed limit is 45 miles per hour.
PART I - The Concept
Colonial Parkway is a meticulously crafted landscape that integrate's the region's natural and cultural resources into a memorial roadway of the American colonial experience. It marks an important change in the history of National Park Service (NPS) road-building traditions as the first NPS-designed parkway that unifies dispersed sites as part of a cohesive national park.
Its function as a unifying factor transcends mere considerations of transportation.
Its location and design should contribute, as far as practicable, to the general
commemorative purposes of the Monument. -Colonial Parkway Outline of Development, 1933
Authorized in 1930, Colonial National Historical Park is a 10,221-acre unit of the NPS located between the James and York rivers in Virginia. Originally designated a national monument (becoming a national historical park in 1936), Colonial NHP administers and interprets the sites of Jamestown Island and the Yorktown Battlefield. Central to the original legislation which created Colonial NHP was a plan for a scenic highway to link the sites into a "single coherent reservation." Free of any "modern" commercial development, the parkway was designed to provide continuity to the visitor experience of motoring through nearly 400 years of American colonial history. Traversing a diverse environment, the parkway provides visitors with dramatic open vistas of rivers and tidal estuaries as well as shady passageways through pine and hardwood forests.
America's "Sacred Shrines"
Since the late 19th century, preservationists considered Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, often referred to as the "historic triangle," to be "sacred shrines on national life and liberty." Years of neglect, however, left these "shrines" in near ruin, which came to symbolize the erosion of Virginia's traditional society. Preservation groups such as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) began to advocate the conservation of colonial sites that embodied the ideals of the Anglo-American experience in North America. In 1893, the APVA acquired twenty-two acres on Jamestown Island and sponsored pilgrimages to the site. This parcel included the only surviving structure from the first capital of Virginia, the church tower, circa 1647. The APVA's program of heritage preservation influenced many state legislators who endorsed tourism as a way to promote statewide economic growth.
In 1926, newly elected Virginia Governor Harry Flood Byrd established the Conservation and Development Commission (CDC) to create an economic stimulus plan for the state. Under the direction of William Carson, the CDC attempted to transform Virginia into a "recreational mecca" by developing its natural and cultural resources for tourism. By the late 1920s, Governor Byrd began to refer to the state as a "virtual museum of the founding and growth of America," proclaiming,"America is on wheels and Virginia is now awake to the dollar value of the tourist trade."
Williamsburg and the Parks Movement
By the 1920's the dilapidated condition of Williamsburg was seen by some as a grave injustice to its historical role in the founding and growth of America. Enticed by the lobbying of W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. decided to finance the restoration of Virginia's colonial capital to its former glory. As a preservation project, the restoration of Williamsburg was a novel and ambitious undertaking which had significant ramifications for the development of Colonial National Historical Park.
Rockefeller had strong connections with the NPS through his conservation efforts in the American west and in Acadia National Park, Maine. In 1928, Kenneth Chorley, head of the Williamsburg restoration, laid out a plan to future NPS Director Horace Albright to create a national historic site incorporating the sites of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Writing to Chorley the following year Albright stated, "I am so enthusiastic over this proposed historic park that I can hardly restrain my imagination."
The proposal had the support of Carson and the Virginia CDC, which was working closely with the NPS to establish Shenandoah National Park in the mid-1920's. During the fall of 1929, Carson organized a tour of the Tidewater region for Albright and U.S, Representative Louis Cramton (D-MI). Continued meetings between Carson, NPS officials and Cramton resulted in a bill calling for the creation of a Colonial National Monument to commemorate the "high ideals of the founding of American liberties." The "Cramton Bill" was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in December 1930.
I would like a new highway as part of the new park, on a strip sufficiently wide to protect it by trees shutting out all conflicting modern development, this highway not to be a glaring modern pavement but as much as feasible giving the impression of an old-time road.
- Louis Cramton, 1929
Splendid Scenic Passage
During the spring of 1930, a survey of the area was undertaken by NPS engineer Oliver G. Taylor and NPS landscape architect Charles E. Peterson. Taylor and Peterson were directed to establish a proposed boundary for the park and a 500-foot right-of-way for the parkway. Initial proposals called for the parkway to follow an inland route along colonial-era roads, but during a tour of the Naval Weapons Station, just north of Yorktown, Peterson decided to align the road along the York River. In Peterson's estimation, the grade crossings, extensive tangents, modern intrusions and other "visual junk" encountered along an inland route were incongrous with modern parkway design standards. Because of access restrictions and the extensive tidal wetlands through Navy lands, Taylor and Peterson mapped the river alignment using aerial photographs provided by the Army navigators from Langley Air Base. Peterson's primary concern was designing a roadway that adhered to modern standards of parkway aesthetics developed by the builders of the Bronx River Parkwayin Westchester County, New York. Tours of the Bronx River Parkway and the federally built Mount Vernon Memorial Highway provided Peterson with a model of a limited access highway with broad sweeping curves, set in a meticulously landscaped right-of-way devoid of commercial development. These features, derived from 19th-century romantic landscape theories, created a safer and more pleasant drive compared to the increasingly congested urban strips.
Parkway design began in the spring of 1931 with the creation of the Eastern Division of the Branch of Plans and Designs under Peterson's direction. NPS landscape architects were responsible for the overall architectural and landscape treatment, but the roadway and bridge construction specifications were prepared by engineers from the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), Department of Agriculture, under a 1926 interagency agreement. In 1931 a BPR field office was opened in Williamsburg to facilitate parkway construction. Special agreements with the Navy and private land owners transferred ten miles of the route between Yorktown and Williamsburg to the NPS free of charge, allowing construction to begin that spring. Despite the fortuitous start, design and routing conflicts, limited funding and war stretched construction over a 26-year period. By 1937 the road was completed only to Williamsburg. Except for the construction of the Williamsburg Tunnel and Halfway Creek Bridge, both constructed in the 1940's, it was not until 1955 that funds were available to extend the parkway to Jamestown Island in anticipation of the 350th anniversary of Jamestown's founding.