The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 2

February, 1940

A Brief History of a Mountaintop Motorway

Resident Landscape Architect,
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

[Editor's Note: So numerous have been the requests for details concerning the development of the Skyline Drive from its inception in 1931 to the opening of its final unit some seven months ago, and for an inventory of the facilities and services provided along its route that The Regional Review is particularly glad to present the careful account which follows.]

Skyline Drive

map of Shenandoah NP
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Occupying a choice area of more than 180,000 acres in the famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is Shenandoah National Park, through which runs the recently completed 97-mile Skyline Drive. The park is approximately 75 miles long, lying on the backbone of the Blue Ridge and embracing some of its highest and most beautiful sections. The altitude varies from 600 feet at the north entrance to 4,049 at the summit of Hawksbill Mountain. But it is for the far-reaching views from the Skyline Drive that the park is most widely known. Macadamized and smooth, with an easy gradient and wide sweeping curves, the Drive unfolds to view innumerable panoramas of lofty peaks, forested ravines and the patchwork patterns of valley farms.

The southern section of the park, with its 31-mile link of the Drive, was opened officially to the public August 29, 1939, thus making it possible to motor the length of the park from Front Royal to the southern boundary at Jarman Gap [See map, page 5]. At this point the Drive connects with the northern extremity of the Blue Ridge National Parkway, which has been opened to travel for eight and one-half miles to Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro. The parkway is virtually a skyline drive within itself because much of it, when completed, will follow mountain ridges as it connects Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee and North Carolina.

It was on September 15, 1934, that the first section of the Drive, 34 miles long, was opened for travel. This made available an extensive region of the Blue Ridge in which was located the vast central portion of the proposed Shenandoah National Park extending from Thornton Gap, where U. S. Highway No. 211 crosses the ridge, to Swift Run Gap, where the historic Spotswood Trail, U. S. No. 33, winds over the mountains. Within a year more than one-half million visitors were attracted to this portion of the park.

Recognizing that additional facilities soon would be necessary and responding to the public's desire for enjoyment of more of the famed Blue Ridge, the Service bent every effort to finish the second link of the Drive from Front Royal to Thornton Gap by the fall of 1936. That northern portion was opened officially October 1, 1936, and for the next three weeks the travel was enormous on the 32-mile stretch.

Since the opening of the Skyline Drive in 1934 the Shenandoah National Park has been leading all units of the National Park System in annual travel. Below is a tabulation showing the attendance recorded by travel years:

Oct. 1, 1934-Sept. 30, 1935 516,637 149,408
Oct. 1, 1935-Sept. 30, 1936 694,098 203,525
Oct. 1, 1936-Sept. 30, 1937 1,041,204 300,974
Oct. 1, 1937-Sept. 30, 1938 954,967 280,909
Oct. 1, 1938-Sept. 30, 1939 911,612 270,833

The highest travel total for a single day occurred on September 4, 1938, when 33,681 visitors entered the park in 8,800 automobiles. The month of August, 1937, which totaled 191,494 persons in 52,896 cars, brought the greatest number to the Shenandoah.

The possibilities of such a mountain drive were suggested first in 1924. In a report of the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission to Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, recommending the establishment of a national park in this area, it was pointed out:

The greatest single feature, however, is a possible skyline drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking westerly on the Shenandoah Valley, from 2,500 to 3,500 feet below, and also commanding a view of the Piedmont Plain stretching easterly to the Washington Monument, which landmark may be seen on a clear day. Few scenic drives in the world could suprass it.

Nothing definite came from this report until six years later when W. E. Carson, then chairman of the Virginia State Commission on Conservation and Development, obtained an allotment from the Federal Drought Relief Appropriation for construction of the initial section from Thorn ton Gap to Swift Run Gap.

In 1931, work was begun on the Skyline Drive project under the joint supervision of the Bureau of Public Roads [now the Public Roads Administration] and the National Park Service, and by autumn of 1932 rough grading of this 34-mile section had been finished. Land for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park had not been acquired completely at that time and none of it had been accepted by the government. In order to proceed with construction work a 100-foot right-of-way strip based on the preliminary road location was obtained by purchase and donation. The road contractors had much difficulty in getting their construction equipment to the top of the mountain, and in one instance a new trail was built by a gasoline shovel before it reached the skyline. A limited time was set for use of the allotted funds and both design and construction work had to be speeded. Horizontal curves had to be laid out in plain circular fashion and the required superelevation was built into them. Minimum standards allowed some of the horizontal curves to be built with radii of less than the 200 feet now effective so that time could be saved and excavation costs kept within the funds available.

In order to eliminate extensive scars and expensive rook retaining walls it was necessary to pierce Mary's Rook Mountain with a 700-foot tunnel. A sub-contractor completed in a satisfactory manner the job of boring through this solid granite. By careful blasting both portals were preserved in their natural rock settings A little more than three months was required to dig through, and several springs were encountered during the blasting operations. Be cause some of these still exist there is drippage from the ceiling in the winter and spring seasons.

All this work was finished by the end of 1933 but motoring was somewhat hazardous in wet weather as crushed rock for the road bed had not been placed, nor had any guard walls been built on the shoulders. In 1934 additional contracts were let to revise a few cases of bad alignment, spiralize all horizontal curves, and to provide bituminous surfacing. In designing the alignment and figuring superelevation for the curves, a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour was used although a speed limit of 35 miles is in effect at present. The maximum gradient was 7.8 per cent, which occurs in only a few spots.

On September 15 of that year the entire central section of Skyline Drive was opened to public travel although guard walls and many parking overlooks had not been completed. At the same time reconnaissance and surveys were being made over the north section of the park, extending the Drive northward to Front Royal. Ample time was devoted to thorough study and design of the route. The terrain, except for three or four miles on Dickey Ridge, was less rugged and rocky then the previous section and it was not difficult to adjust a good line to topography.

The roadway was increased from 30 feet, used on the initial link, to 34 feet in width, which provides for a five-foot shoulder between the 20-foot pavement and guard wall. All parking areas and roadside view points were selected during the preliminary surveys and in a few cases it was necessary to shift the road line to accommodate a parking overlook. Public travel was mounting steadily on the first link of the Drive to a point where an outlet for expansion appeared urgent. A few months later, October 1, 1936, the new section was completed and opened in time for motorists to enjoy the fall-colored woodlands that reached their maximum beauty two weeks later.

In December, 1935, Secretary of the Interior Ickes accepted deeds from the Commonwealth of Virginia conveying 176,429 acres of land for establishment of Shenandoah National Park. On the following July 3 the park was dedicated officially at Big Meadows by President Roosevelt. By spring of 1936 all survey and design work had been completed for a major portion of the Drive in the southern section of the park from Swift Run Gap to Jarman Gap and construction had started. The terrain throughout this section is extremely rugged and it was difficult at times to locate the line where it best would serve its scenic purpose without causing considerable scar to the mountainsides. In several instances alternate routes were staked out so that careful field study could be made. At one time it was thought that a 1,700-foot tunnel would be necessary through Black Rock Mountain, midway in the south section. Further investigation resulted in a sacrifice of extraordinary views and alignment in favor of a location on the opposite side of the ridge where excavation was much lighter and where eventual maintenance work would be greatly reduced.

Because of the tremendous excavation involved in building this road over the steep hill sides, cut by precipitous ravines in the southern portion of the park, it was not practicable to retain the 34-foot road section that was employed on the previous link of Skyline Drive. In the interest of economy it had to be reduced to the 30 feet used originally on the first section of the Drive. All parking places were included in the original design work and excavation quantities were balanced with the general road project. The size of the overlooks was increased somewhat over previous ones in order that both cars and buses could maneuver with ease and safety. Along the total 97 miles of Skyline Drive, 67 parking overlooks have been installed with a total parking capacity of 1,800 cars.

Because the Skyline Drive is an outstanding achievement in the field of parkway development it has evoked the curiosity of many persons with regard to the actual cost of building a road of this type on the mountain top. The following table shows the approximate cost of the road as a complete unit exclusive of subsequent bituminous treatments and maintenance work.

North Section
(32 miles)
Central Section
(34 miles)
South Section
(31 miles)
Construction $1,088,376 $1,212,826 $1,277,345
Road Surface 102,326 87,357 99,183
Guard Walls 46,346 97,073 160,000*
Engineering 98,129 173,223 130,000*
     Totals $1,335,177 $1,570,479 $1,666,528

* Estimate

On the 97 miles the estimated average cost per mile thus is approximately $47,000. The guard wall, of native stone construction, a major portion of which has been completed, averaged about $1 the running foot.

Skyline Drive
Just North of Swift Run Gap

In early 1937, with 66 miles of Skyline Drive completed and travel attendance increasing each year, the Department of the Interior awarded a contract for construction and operation of all concessions in the park to the Virginia Sky-line Company, Inc., of Richmond. Under terms of the contract, which runs for 20 years, the company took over operation of existing dining and cabin facilities at Skyland and the restaurant business already established at Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap. In addition, it agreed to establish, maintain and operate lodges, camps, stores, cafeterias and gasoline stations. In return for those privileges it pays the Department $1,250 annually, plus a percentage of the net profit in excess of 6 per cent of the invested capital. Because existing facilities were inadequate to take care of the increased park traffic, it was estimated at the time the contract was awarded that initial development of accommodations would amount to $300,000, with additional expenditures necessary from time to time to meet demands.

The operator began in April 1937, to fulfill his agreement by enlarging and installing modern equipment at Skyland, Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap. By spring of the next year new roadside stations were constructed at Big Meadows in the central section and at Elkwallow in the northern section. Both of these stations, of attractive design and fitting harmoniously into the landscape, are situated far enough from the Drive, with all parking and service facilities in the rear, not to encroach too seriously on the scenic value of the motorway, but they still are readily accessible to the traveler. At both locations there are parking areas for 50 automobiles; and light lunches, gasoline and souvenirs may be obtained.

Simultaneously the operator began construction of a somewhat larger unit at Dickey Ridge, on the Drive five miles south of Front Royal. The concession building, opened to the public in May, 1938, stands just off the Drive where views of a 300-degree arc command the adjacent lowland country. The building contains a dining room for 60 persons, and an outdoor dancing terrace, in addition to a coffee shop and a gasoline station. There are parking facilities for 110 automobiles. Later in 1939 twelve cabins of native chestnut, containing from two to four rooms each with either private or joint baths, were built with total accommodations for 60 guests.

In July, 1939, the Virginia Sky-line Company finished extensive construction work on the lodge at Big Meadows about one mile northwest of the Drive. Of native stone and chestnut, the building rambles more than 300 feet in length and rests soundly on the edge of an escarpment which affords interesting views of the valley and distant mountain ranges. A large dining room, accommodating 150 guests and finished entirely in native chestnut, is oriented so that diners nay enjoy far-reaching views of the surrounding countryside. In addition to a large lobby and lounge, 26 guest rooms (all with baths and some with fireplaces), have been provided.

The lodge is virtually the beginning of the development proposed by the operator in the vast area at Big Meadows, although seven two-room cabins had been completed the previous year. There is sufficient room for 150 to 200 cabins if the demand arises for such an increase in lodging facilities, and adequate areas have been planned for riding horse stables, game courts, outdoor theatre, community building and museum. The Service already has completed a campground and picnic area as part of the development.

All this work by the operator has been coordinated by the Service through development drawings in the master plan and with the help of the technical service in the field. The company employs its own architect and maintains a small construction crew for erecting minor buildings, while the larger units are let to contract. The Service has been able to aid the operator under the CCC program by installation of all utilities, and construction of roads, paths and parking areas in all developed sections. Much of this work by the Service, as well as other public developments in the park, probably never could have been accomplished without the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Mary's Rock tunnel
A View from the South Portal

In 1933 and 1934 it was with some misgivings that the National Park Service watched 1,000 young men of the newly organized CCC move into the Shenandoah. It was thought that perhaps such a great number of young men turned into the park would be difficult to control with respect to their objective; but in the years since the camps came all doubt as to the positive worth of the Corps has been dispelled.

In addition to the usual work of fire hazard reduction, fire protection, erosion control, and the construction of fire trails and roads, much has been accomplished in the recreational development of Shenandoah National Park. Slope flattening, which was not possible under the construction contracts of the Drive, has been in progress during the last five years and approximately half the route now is graded and planted.

Five years ago Pinnacles Picnic Grounds, five miles south of Thornton Gap, was developed and made ready for use. Parking accommodations for 170 cars, 20 fire places, 100 tables, five water fountains and a standard comfort station, together with water and sanitary system, were installed by the CCC. Since this first major recreational development others have followed in rapid succession due to the overwhelming demands made on the park by the increasing travel on Skyline Drive. South River Picnic Grounds, three miles north of Swift Run Gap, was developed and opened in 1935. Picnic developments followed at Elkwallow, Dickey Ridge and Big Meadows. Total picnicking facilities installed to date include parking space for 715 automobiles, 95 fire places, 350 tables, 30 water fountains and six comfort stations.

Development of the first campground for trailers and tents was finished in 1937 at Big Meadows. Popular approval of the newly completed area was indicated when, five minutes after the opening of the grounds, a camper appeared. There are 50 places provided for trailers and 20 for tents, and all the necessary facilities for convenient camping have been made available by the two standard comfort stations, a laundry and shower building, 30 fire places, 45 tables and six water fountains. It has been interesting to observe the use made of tent space against trailer areas, the percentage to date being about four to one in favor of the former.

It was noticed at the various entrance checking stations as early as 1936 that Negro traffic was beginning to appear. In 1938 and 1939 the travel amounted to 10,311 and 9,542 persons respectively. Accordingly, facilities were provided for them at an area on Lewis Mountain. Public accommodations there include a picnic ground with 40 tables, 12 fire places, parking areas for 42 automobiles, and a comfort station, while the camp grounds offer facilities for about 30 tents and trailers. The park operator has a coffee shop under construction, a structure identical in many ways to existing roadside gasoline stations. Additional plans are under way for immediate construction of three or four two-room cabins.

The Appalachian Trail, the longest marked foot trail in the world today, extending 2,049 miles from Maine to Georgia, traverses the length of Shenandoah National Park paralleling the Skyline Drive. The old route, which was little more than a blazed path, has been relocated and reconstructed by the CCC for the 96 miles routed through the park. Eight trailside shelters have been completed along the trail, five of which are locked cabins with supplies, and the remaining three are of open lean-to construction. Fourteen more units, the majority of which will be log and stone lean-toe, are in progress. Just as the Skyline Drive furnishes motorists with relaxation and enjoyment of those rare bits of scenic lore, so the Appalachian Trail provides recreation for the hiker who can devote days to the exploration of this newly developed national park.

Skiers at Sexton Knowll, near the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, taking advantage of the recent heavy snow

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Date: 04-Jul-2002