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Pat & Chuck Blackley photo
North of Buena Vista
The Blue Ridge Parkway north of Buena Vista, Va.
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Vicki Dameron photo
Looking at Grandfather
View of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Designer of the Parkway
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Doughton Park vista.
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Photo courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Building the Parkway employed hundreds of men in the mountains during the Depression when jobs were scarce and people were desperate for wages. Above, a wagon drill in action in 1936 at MP 244.9, looking south towards Bluff Park near Laurel Springs, N.C.
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Tying it together
The groundbreaking ceremony for the final link of the Blue Ridge Parkway was held at Beacon Heights (MP 305) on Oct. 22, 1968. Pictured are (left to right): Gov. Dan Moore, Sen. Sam Ervin, Acting Director Bill (full name unknown), Rep. James Broyhill, Superintendent Granville Liles, Blue Ridge Parkway Association President Ron Ligon.
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Ben Blair photo
Mabry Mill in Virginia, MP 176.
The Blue Ridge Parkway unravels gracefully across the landscape, at times suspended from high cliffs and etched into rocky crags, then skimming over hayfields and past log cabins bound by split-rail fences.
The road seems unfazed by mountain topography. Arched bridges traverse over rugged crevasses and stone-faced tunnels bore through the mountainside itself, always coursing onward and never compromising its smooth, undulating curves.
The Parkway moves so harmoniously through the scenery and lays so gently on the terrain, it seems possible that perhaps the Parkway was there first—or at the very least born at the same time as the mountains themselves.
“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,” said Stanley Abbott, the chief landscape architect of the Parkway during its construction in the 1930s.
The task facing the early Parkway designers was enormous. They were given little more than vague parameters of where to put the Parkway. Blazing a scenic road through high and rugged mountain passes in the 1930s was an engineering and artistic feat. It also pushed the boundaries of competing American ideals.
The country was in the midst of a burgeoning national park movement, and many in the general public had already accepted a popular concept of preserving America’s grand landscapes. Meanwhile, a love affair with the automobile had likewise gripped the country. These two notions gave rise to the new-fangled Parkway concept.
Yet merging the two was not easy.
“A road and a park are very different things,” said Ian Firth, an historical expert on Parkway design and professor emeritus in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. “Roads are meant to bring progress and development. A park is 180 degrees different. It is where you preserve something from progress and from development.”
Abbott, just 26 years old when he was hired as chief landscape architect for the Parkway, possessed both the skill and instinct to capture the Appalachian countryside and its sweeping mountain vistas from behind the windshield of an automobile. He often likened his approach to that of a cinematographer, training his camera one frame after the next and eventually producing a 469-mile masterpiece.
While the Parkway’s design is often compared to art, Abbott applied a mathematical formula to achieve the serpentine line.
Abbott was a master of the spiral curve, a highly engineered and calculated arc that eases cars gently into a curve and exits them smoothly. The turning radius broadens as you move through the curve, much like a spiral expands as it moves outward from the center. The Parkway owes its sweeping nature to the equation, which avoids the unpleasant centripetal force of standard curves.
Railroad designers perfected the formula in previous decades.
“If you didn’t have a gentle change in curve, you had lurches, bumps and screeches that were very uncomfortable for passengers and bad for freight and prone to derailment and accidents,” said Mary Myers, a Parkway expert on landscape architecture and chair of the landscape design department at Temple University.
Abbott deployed another geometric tool called the reverse curve, essentially two back-to-back curves in opposite directions. Drivers barely exit one turn before they slalom into the next one. The reverse curve creates a rhythmic experience, as if swaying back and forth through the mountains.
“I don’t think you can find a better example of that beautiful line of grace,” Myers said of the Parkway.
“The reverse curves do everything.”
Not only do they achieve a rhythmic motion. They aim the car’s windshield toward the views, whether it’s a mountain vista on the outside curve or a rhododendron-capped boulder after rounding the bend. Reverse curves are so embedded in the Parkway’s design it’s nearly impossible to pass when stuck behind a slower car. There simply aren’t any straight-aways.
While the Parkway often plunges in elevation from mountain peaks to rolling valleys, the grade is gentle, another area of careful calculation. There’s also one road feature markedly absent from the Parkway: no painted white lines at the edge of the pavement.
“They tried to make a very gentle transition between the road and landscape,” Myers said.
Abbott’s crew faced a great conundrum. Roads, by nature, scar the landscape, sometimes obliterating the natural topography, especially when forging a new mountain passage. Yet the Parkway’s success depended on protecting the scenery it passed through.
“As landscape architects they were very concerned about that,” Myers said.
Unlike most road building projects, the landscape architects, not the engineers, held final decisions on the Parkway.
“Landscape architects and engineers tend to look at the world very differently,” Firth said. “Those two mindsets don’t cooperate very harmoniously.”
Abbott was in luck, however. He was paired with engineer William Austin, who was fresh off the construction of Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and a road through Sequoyah National Park in California.
Abbott and Austin worked tremendously well together, and Abbott credits Austin for the road’s gentle character.
“The degree of cooperation in the 1930s was extraordinary,” Firth said. “That was part of the spirit of the time. But you also have to give credit to the leaders.”
While big construction companies were hired to build the road, Civilian Conservation Corps men provided the critical army of labor to install the massive landscaping, following in the wake of the road builders who re-landscaped denuded road edges.
Abbott had hundreds of CCC men at his disposal. If a road bank wasn’t sculpted to his liking, he asked the CCC men to cart off more dirt and re-contour it by hand.
Nobody came with a blueprint
A bitter tug-of-war played out in the political arena over the Parkway’s basic route—mainly pitting North Carolina against Tennessee. North Carolina was victorious: however, road builders and designers were left with little instruction on exactly where to put the Parkway aside from a few general mountain ranges. They embarked on a year-long reconnaissance mission through the mountains, arguing over which mountain ranges to pass over within the otherwise broad parameters of connecting point A and point B.
“Nobody came to the Parkway with a blueprint,” Firth said. “The design evolved and you can see it evolving as you read the correspondence and debates.”
Early in the design phase, Getty Browning, a senior locating engineer with the N.C. Highway Department, and Abbott repeatedly clashed over the route. While usually on the same page, the two disagreed over the final 25 miles of the Parkway. Browning wanted to pass over the Plott Balsams, a chain of rugged, mile-high mountains, before ending at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Abbott believed the high-elevation vistas would grow monotonous, offering little variation.
“Too much of any one thing becomes very boring,” Myers said. Even breathtaking vistas from mile-high mountain tops.
Abbott didn’t set out to chase one panoramic view after another. Instead, he brought the road to the cusp of a sweeping view, let it hang there for a moment and then retreated, perhaps diving into a rhododendron tunnel or ducking behind a grassy boulder-strewn knoll. The compression and re-emergence of vistas created surprise and intrigue.
“The physiognomy of the eye dictates that your eye has to be constantly scanning to stay alert. The Parkway does that very well,” Myers said. “Within each quarter mile you have a variety of scenery. There is a sense of anticipation of what is to come.”
Browning, whose political connections and longer career gave him more clout than Abbott, won out. Abbott was forced to create the variety he needed rather than rely on nature, conjuring up grassy knolls topped with blueberry bushes. The best asset became the rock cliffs themselves, with the road often passing so close that it seems you can reach out and touch them from the passenger seat.
And, of course, tunnels.
“The tunnel produces a wonderful drama when you emerge from it,” Firth said.
The majority of the Parkway’s 26 tunnels occur on the southernmost section, starting in the Craggy Mountain range and continuing through the Balsams, where sheer rock faces leave few other options for passage other than boring into the mountain itself.
Tunnels preserved the natural contour of the ridges, avoiding a massive excavation that would gouge up the mountainside and mar its silhouette from a distance.
“When you travel in the valley below and look up, you don’t see the Parkway,” said Carlton Abbott, the son of Stanley Abbott, who, like his father, became a landscape architect.
Geology occasionally posed an impasse, however. Some tunnels were abandoned when they failed to structurally hold, and the road rerouted with significantly more excavation.
Idyllic scenes or artificial landmarks?
Once Browning had bought the right of way, Abbott and Austin began tackling the finer points of Parkway design. Taking 10-mile sections, they walked the route, staking three potential routes before picking one. Abbott and a team of landscape designers then drew plans for each quarter-mile section, detailing every inch of the landscape for the 469-mile road. Abbott diagramed split-rail fences and rock walls. He mapped out how many trees and shrubs to plant and of what species. He labored over the placement of boulders and how wide the grassy areas should be before giving way to the tree line.
Gary Johnson, the chief resource ranger at the Blue Ridge Parkway, often consults those maps—850 sheets in all—as the guiding management vision.
“It is a landscape that is very labor intensive,” Johnson said. “You can’t just let it go back to nature.”
Ironically, these images of Appalachia were some of the most highly orchestrated elements of the landscape. Abbott’s vision of varying landscapes relied on pastoral farm scenes—not merely in the distance, but enveloping the road with split rail fences, rows of corn, and grazing cattle. The National Park Service certainly couldn’t be tasked with farming hundreds of acres along the roadside, nor could the land be left in the hands of farmers for fear it would one day be sold. So the Parkway bought the land, then promptly leased it back to farmers for $1 a year to keep on farming it as they had been, giving rise to the practice of agricultural leases still used in 400 sites along the Parkway today.
To complete the idyllic scene, the Park Service rounded up log cabins and put them on display as if they’d always been there.
“It has been criticized for being such a selective view of Appalachia,” Firth said.
But the plan was deliberate, intended as a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and self-reliance during the Depression when a reminder of human perseverance from days gone by was an important message.
The scenes of early Appalachia on the Parkway look like archetypes, according to Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University.
“There was a time in American history when we made these kinds of scenes,” Coyle said. “At that time in history, we wanted to mythologize our past. I'm not saying that because it is false we should get it rid of it, but it is important to point out that it is not the actual history.”
It was a departure from most national parks, however, including the nearby Smokies that attempted to wipe out signs of human presence on the land in favor of nature. Once again, Parkway designers made a conscious decision to set up landmarks such as old mills for future generations to see.
“They were concerned if they didn’t, this fragile image would disappear from the landscape,” Carlton Abbott said.
That farm scene has changed. Tractors have replaced the draft horse and plow. The hand-baled haystacks that once stood as sentinels along the Parkway are gone, with tight, machine-rolled bales in their place.
The notion of Abbott penning the Parkway’s design in one fell swoop is far from the truth. Abbott plugged away dutifully from 1935 to 1944 until he was called into service for World War II. By then, only two-thirds of the road had been completed. Construction resumed immediately after the war and continued in sections until 1967.
“It is amazing it was completed because everything had changed so much after the war,” Firth said. “But the Parkway was always a blue-eyed boy and got certain preferential treatment.”
The final missing link around Grandfather Mountain wasn’t finished until 1987. Given the duration of road building that long outlasted Abbott’s tenure, it is amazing that the Parkway design retained its unity.
Abbott never took up the reins as the Parkway’s landscape architect following the war, but he left behind a trained apprentice named Ed Abbuehl who remained at the helm another 20 years.
“He would say ‘This is the way we have always done it, and this is the way we should do it,’” said Firth. “He was one of the forces saying ‘Let’s keep the original design going.’”
The job of chief landscape architect continued to be passed among co-workers and handed down to apprentices for four decades—providing a continuous line from Abbott’s founding philosophy well into the 1970s.
Bureaucratic institutions like the National Park Service also served to protect the continuity of parkway design over the years.
Tim Pegram, a former park ranger who has hiked the entire length of the Parkway, likens the scenic motorway to Michelangelo’s statue of David.
“The day it was finished was the finest it will ever be,” Pegram said.
The statue of David was subjected to the elements for three centuries. His base was struck by lightning, angry rioters broke off his left arm, and a mad artist took a sledgehammer to his left toe. Even conservators tasked with the statue’s care erred terribly by washing it in hydrochloric acid and gooping it up with protective wax.
“The same thing has happened to the Parkway,” Pegram said.
Views are undermined by development, landscaping carefully selected by Abbott 75 years ago is showing its age, and rockslides continually reduce sections of the road itself to rubble.
“It is being chipped away a little a time,” Pegram said. “Even the Parkway managers have messed it up in places.”
The Parkway is a labor-intensive landscape and lacks the workforce to keep pace.
“If you really look closely, you can tell we are not maintaining the Parkway as we once did,” said Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. “Overlooks are growing up. The mowing along the road shoulders is not as wide or manicured as it once was. Many of our historic buildings are suffering from neglect.”
The Parkway blames federal funding shortfalls. In the past decade, the Parkway has watched its maintenance staff shrink by more than one-third.
So they make compromises—the most striking is not keeping trees cut at overlooks. Many are so grown up they are hardly overlooks at all. An old signboard telling visitors about a view beyond the tree branches is the only clue it was once a vista.
“The number one, primary reason that visitors come to the Blue Ridge Parkway is to be able to look out from this table where they can see the mountains and drink in the views,” said Gary Everhart, a former Parkway superintendent in the 1990s. “It comes down to a simple little thing called dollars. Unfortunately the Parkway has been struggling with enough money to do all the things that need to be done.”
Ornamental trees and shrubs planted by CCC workers 75 years ago are now dying back, and the Parkway must embark on a round of new plantings.
“Things change gradually,” Francis said. “It is like watching your kid grow. If you are the parent, it happens incrementally.”
Another challenge is rockslides, which are endemic to mountain roads, particularly those with the Parkway’s elevation. A year rarely passes without a rockslide or two, some knocking out sections of the Parkway for months during major slope repairs, while others may take just a few days to haul off a pile of debris.
There have been close calls—a boulder landed in a woman’s backseat—but no deaths or injuries from the slides, Francis said.
The constant barrage of minor repairs to the Parkway requires extra thought. Maintenance crews keep a stockpile of weathered and gray fence posts for repairing split rail fences. When the roof of an historic cabin springs a leak, park rangers spend their days splitting logs to make wooden shingles that will match.
Gary Johnson, the chief of resource management on the Parkway, is often torn between stop-gap measures versus more costly but permanent repairs. When a stone wall starts to crumble, he can slap some mortar in the holes and stuff the falling rocks back in place. But in the long run, the wall needs to be rebuilt on a better foundation.
A batch of federal stimulus money is allowing the Parkway to rebuild 31,000 feet of rock wall this year, which posed its own dilemma: balancing the historic character of the stone walls with a modern safety design. At two-feet-high, the rock walls aren’t terribly effective as guard rails, but Johnson is debating how high to make them without compromising their charm. The other question is whether to use traditional, dry-stack techniques versus super-strength mortar.
Park managers have learned to balance aesthetics with safety. For example, the historic wooden guardrails along the Parkway are reinforced by steel banding on the back but are not visible from the road.
When Johnson came to the Parkway in 1994 as its chief landscape architect, he was humbled by the footsteps he followed in. Nothing is taken lightly, he said.
“I often have the thought when we are making a design decision and are doing something differently than in the past I think, what would Stan do?” Johnson said. “Afterward I hope Stan is not up there somewhere looking down and thinking ‘Boy they are really messing this thing up.’”
The man who planned the Parkway
Stanley Abbott was just 26 years old when he found himself suddenly at the helm of an ambitious, national undertaking. As the chief landscape architect of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Abbott would ultimately prove to be the most influential visionary in the highly scripted design of the 469-mile-long scenic motorway.
At the time, Abbott was studying under the most famous landscape architect of the era, Gilmore Clarke. Clarke was the leading pioneer in parkways as the designer of the Bronx River and Westchester County parkways in the North, albeit far shorter and more urban versions. Originally, Clarke was selected to design the Blue Ridge Parkway, but he quit before a route was even chosen (presumably due a falling out with the park service) and recommended Abbott to take his place.
“It was such an early germ of an idea, they just let his assistant go with it,” said Mary Myers, landscape architecture professor at Temple University. “I am sure he was nervous, but I don’t think anyone really realized the true scope and potential of the Parkway yet.”
Besides, the National Park Service had its hands full with a burgeoning national park movement in the ‘30s, spurred by New Deal ambition and coupled with a workforce of Civilian Conservation Corps men.
Abbott proved himself quickly and would eventually become the first superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Skills learned during on-the-job training under Clarke complemented his instinctive eye. During his Cornell education, the landscape curriculum was packed with art courses. His mother was an artist, and he married an artist.
“He really understood art and composition,” Myers said.
Hot tar and dynamite
Lorin Shaw was barely 16 years old when he landed a job with a crew building the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mid-1930s.
“We were lucky to get the work because there was no work back then,” said Shaw, who was born in 1923 in Burnsville, N.C.
When Shaw was hauling a load of hot tar one day, the lid came loose on the vat. As he put on the breaks coming downhill into the work site, hot tar oozed over the rim and spilled into the cab of the truck and down his back.
“When I stepped off the truck, they cut my shirt and stuff off of me—just as soon as I stepped off,” Shaw said. “If it had stayed on there, it would have left scars.”
Shaw made $12 a week and did whatever he was told.
“Up on the Parkway you didn’t say you couldn’t do it ‘cause about 10 more of ‘em were waiting to take your job,” he said.
The Parkway’s construction employed hundreds of local men during the Depression when work was scarce everywhere—but especially in the mountains. Most involved in the early construction have now passed away, but the National Park Service captured stories like Shaw’s in oral history interviews.
Ben Caudill, born in Sparta, N.C., in 1925, had to lie about his age to land a job on the Parkway. Caudill was part of a Civilian Conservation Corps landscaping crew that felled trees by hand with cross-cut saws and axes to make way for the road builders, then followed in the wake of the machinery to replant the denuded roadsides.
In an oral history, Caudill recounted bluntly the fate of a family member employed in a far more dangerous line of work on the Parkway.
“My first cousin got blowed up at Ice Rock,” Caudill said.
The Parkway often came up against sheer rock cliffs, like the infamous Ice Rock. Blasting was the only way to chisel out a toehold for the road.
“They’d tie you to a rope and tie the dynamite to you and let down the rope, drill your hole, and fill it full, and bring you back out, and then shoot it,” Caudill said.
Dynamite crews made more than any other workers—65 cents an hour, from what Raleigh Hollefield remembers.
“Blastin’ and drillin’ is what I done,” said Hollefield, who was born in 1923 in Little Switzerland, N.C. “It was pretty dangerous and a rough job.”
Buren Ballard, born in 1909 in Weaverville, N.C., made 45 cents an hour drilling holes for the dynamite—less money than the blasters but more than the average laborers.
“We’d go way up above on one of them big cliffs and tie a rope to a tree, and then put on a safety belt, and then go down on that cliff and they’d swing the jackhammer down to us,” Ballard said in an oral interview on file at the Parkway archives. “I would stay on them cliffs for three and four hours.”
A man on Ballard’s crew was killed when he drilled into a hole that was already filled with dynamite but not yet set off. Another man was loading dynamite into a hole when lightning struck it and blasted apart the rock, breaking the man’s hip.
Ballard worked on the morning shift. He got up at 2 a.m. and walked out to the main road by his house, where another worker picked him up. If it was too muddy or icy, they both walked through the woods and over mountains for two hours to get to work.
It was cold work given the Parkway’s high elevation. When Ballard was first hired, his job was to walk up and down an air compressor line that fed the jack hammers lighting small fires along a one-mile run to keep it from freezing.
Until the Parkway came along, there were no prospects for work.
“Couldn’t find a job nowhere,” Ballard said. “If it hadn’t been for Roosevelt, I guess I’d have starved to death.”
The Parkway was launched under the New Deal, but only a fraction of the labor came from the Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration. The bulk of the jobs went to construction companies, which in turn hired local men.
Unlike other massive public works projects during the era—like the building of the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge—relatively few men were injured or killed during the Parkway’s construction.
“It was minimal considering the work,” said Harley Jolly, a Parkway historian and author living in Mars Hill, N.C. “When you look at moving mountains the way they had to move mountains, that was a major challenge,” Jolly said.
The Parkway was known then as “The Scenic” and is still called that by old-timers who were part of the construction.
“They were proud to be able to have a job,” Jolly said.
But the work wasn’t for everyone. Homer Reeves, born in 1910 in Sparta, N.C., walked off the job after a close encounter with a poisonous snake, a four-foot-long copperhead on the rock where he was working.
“That was the end of my work with the Parkway,” Reeves explained in an oral history interview. “I said I wasn’t gonna mess with any more of that. Never did go up any more after that on the Parkway.”
The work was hard, Reeves recounted. The snow was a foot deep his first day on the job. When it rained, mud came up to his knees. It would take half a dozen men to free trucks when they got stuck.
“Tires didn’t last no time,” Reeves said. “You’d hit a rock and bust one. There was just something all the time as far as that goes. But it give people a lot of work, that’s one thing. The Parkway helped a lot of people.”