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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Wildcat Rocks overlook, MP 239.
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Photo courtesy of Robert C. Browning
Routing the Parkway
This photograph was taken at the Asheville-Hendersonville Airport, June 19, 1935, immediately preceding a flight over the route designated for the Parkway across western North Carolina. Pictured are (left to right): Thomas Kesterson, Tennessee Valley Authority pilot; B.A. Batson, regional road engineer in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Land Planning Department; E.B. Abbuehl, landscape department of the National Park Service; William M. Austin, engineer from the Bureau of Public Roads; George Stephens, Asheville developer; R. Getty Browning, chief locating engineer, North Carolina State Highway Commission; and Stanley W. Abbott, resident landscape architect.
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Near Grandfather Mountain
Vista near Grandfather Mountain.
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Taking a breather
Fox Hunters Paradise in the Cumberland Knob Area.
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Courtesy of Blue Ridge Parkway archives
Scoping it out
Surveying the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As soon as the federal government endorsed the Parkway under the New Deal in 1933, a raging debate broke out between North Carolina and Tennessee over which state would win the scenic road.
The original idea was to have a recreational motorway connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Plans were for the Parkway to be divided among the three states, with the final leg in Tennessee. The Parkway would veer out of North Carolina just past Grandfather Mountain, bypassing Asheville entirely, and bring traffic to the Smokies via Tennessee’s doorstep.
Asheville business leaders and politicians were distraught. Should the Parkway “divert the flow of travel to another state” it would be an “appalling disaster,” wrote Fred Weede, director of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce at the time.
The Depression had brought the city to its knees, and Asheville leaders saw the Parkway as a life or death proposition.
“If the Parkway were diverted from Asheville, it seemed the situation would be entirely and permanently hopeless,” said Anne Whisnant, a leading Parkway historian and author. “The state of North Carolina got busy writing Tennessee out of the picture.”
Asheville politicians and business leaders mounted a masterful campaign to reroute the road past their city. They enlisted support from the local tourist industry to the state legislature and the governor.
North Carolina “flung down the gauntlet” in its stand to cut Tennessee out and the “battle for the Parkway was on,” Weede wrote in his personal account of the year-long fight.
“God had given us better scenery, but man’s strategy and energy had to win the Parkway,” Weede wrote. “There were numerous tight spots encountered in shaping up a unified front. Iron hands were sometimes necessary.”
North Carolina’s campaign would not be an easy one. President Roosevelt had already endorsed the three-state route for the Parkway in a proclamation in the summer of 1933. Tennessee was well established as the primary gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the park headquarters located there.
The Bureau of Public Roads, which would oversee eventual construction, also preferred the Tennessee route. The mountains around Asheville were the steepest and highest in the Appalachian chain, and building a road across them would be an expensive challenge.
Even the landscape architects tasked with the Parkway’s design favored the lower-lying Tennessee route to provide a diversity of scenery, rather than subject travelers to mile upon mile of scenic but repetitive high-elevation peaks.
In an early strategy meeting held at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, Weede impressed on the gathering enormity of their attempt to turn the tide.
“I asserted we should face the fact we were licked before we began,” Weede recounted. “But as dedicated citizens we should roll up our sleeves and fight.”
Under mounting pressure from the North Carolina delegation to consider its pleas, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes appointed a special committee to select a route. The two states squared off in a public showdown before that committee in February 1934. In the hearing, the dueling states had three hours to present their arguments.
North Carolina arrived with a well-orchestrated pitch, including large maps and photos of the “best” route for the Parkway. While several speakers made remarks, the bulk of the presentation was deferred to Getty Browning, a top road engineer with the N.C. Highway Commission, who had emerged as an effective point man for the North Carolina route.
Realizing the hue and cry from Asheville business leaders would do little to bend the committee’s ear, Browning instead focused on what he considered more objective reasoning: the superior scenery of the high mountains around Asheville.
As a locating engineer, Browning often set out cross-country on foot, climbing rugged mountains in search of the most ideal highway routes, and had personally blazed every mile of the Parkway corridor North Carolina was proposing.
“He was the man on the ground in the literal sense,” said Houck Medford, director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “He walked the Blue Ridge Parkway boundary an untold number of times. He was certainly a man’s man, but he had these other attributes and qualities that made him successful.”
Browning was a well-heeled socialite—charismatic and persuasive with political savvy, gifted with the mind of an engineer and persona of an outdoorsman.
“For Browning, it was ultimately about letting other people see the beauty of the mountains the way he saw it,” Whisnant said. “There is something noble in that. It would be usable by everyone. It would be available for free. It wouldn’t be overly controlled by commercial or monetary influences. It had something to do with our spirit.”
Following the hearing, the committee decided to take a tour of the North Carolina route. A caravan of 15 cars left Washington in March. The traveling party included many of the key players with the National Park Service, Department of Interior, and Bureau of Public Roads, who would later oversee the Parkway’s design and construction.
Since no good roads existed along much of the proposed route for the Parkway, the party planned to take side roads up and down the mountains to get a feel for the general terrain where the Parkway might pass. But the traveling party encountered a major snowstorm after crossing into North Carolina. Some gave up on the expedition in Blowing Rock. Those who ventured on to Asheville through the snow, ice and fog almost didn’t make it. They later resorted to viewing the routes from the air.
Refining a strategy
As the summer of 1934 dragged on, the North Carolina contingent grew anxious awaiting a decision on the route of Parkway.
Strategists didn’t let the downtime go to waste, however. They constantly refined their arguments and enlisted new messengers to lobby on their behalf in Washington. They met often to plan and carry out a campaign Weede later described as a “mosaic.”
“Road blocks, and they were plentiful, were approached from all angles and various solutions were weighed,” Weede wrote. “Between us—even if otherwise disposed—all cards had to put on the table face up.”
They heralded the tourism industry in Asheville, ready and able to provide Parkway travelers with the type of amenities they would expect, compared to the more industrial nature of Knoxville.
They also pointed out the dearth of New Deal spending in North Carolina. Tennessee, meanwhile, had received huge federal investments from the massive network of hydroelectric dams being built by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The media played an integral role in the campaign to snag the Parkway route. Charles Webb, publisher of the Asheville Citizen, brought the full force of his newspaper to bear and convinced newspapers elsewhere in the state to follow his lead.
An Asheville delegation also hand-delivered a red Moroccan leather-bound photo album with gold engraving to President Franklin Roosevelt. The photos showcased the scenery of the mountains around Asheville—scenery that would be excluded from the Parkway if the Tennessee route were approved. Some of these photos came from the collection of George Masa, a famous Japanese-born photographer who documented landscape scenes in Western North Carolina. Other shots came from a photographer who was paid by Browning for the sole purpose of the project.
A nearly bankrupt Asheville Chamber of Commerce funded the album project, which included an inside pocket with a hand-drawn relief map of their favored route, artfully-lettered titles over each photo and a gold engraving of Roosevelt on the cover.
With still no word from the Parkway committee, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes announced that he would personally preside over a final hearing before selecting the route in September of 1934.
So, North Carolina Parkway advocates decided to pack the hearing with their supporters. They chartered a train to Washington that included 18 Pullman cars when it left Asheville. More cars joined the train as it traveled across the state, including a car for the governor.
Every passenger on the train was given instructions to show up early for the hearing the next day. When the appointed hour arrived, nearly every chair in the room was filled by the North Carolina delegation, relegating Tennessee to standing room and the hallway outside.
Over the summer, Browning had bolstered his engineering case in preparation for such a final hearing, including large mounted photos offering a visual tour of the preferred route. The presentation wholly dwarfed the one put on by Tennessee.
But unbeknownst to North Carolina, the Tennessee delegation had an ace up its sleeve. Earlier that morning, the committee tasked with recommending a route had finally issued its decision: it unanimously favored the Tennessee route. Tennessee’s delegation received a leaked report of the news, as did Ickes, and representatives from the Volunteer State proudly flaunted it during the hearing.
No doubt, this bombshell would have repercussions. To side with North Carolina, Ickes would have to rebuff his own committee.
But North Carolina had an ace of its own—one known to only a handful of key players within the campaign. It wasn’t revealed for nearly two decades and still remains a largely unknown turning point in the great routing debate.
“This ace was a very hush-hush move,” Weede wrote. “No more than half a dozen individuals were in on the secret.”
North Carolina’s clandestine trump card was a man named Josephus Daniels, a newspaper tycoon in the state with a summer home at Lake Junaluska, a community west of Asheville.
Daniels, a supporter of the North Carolina route, had personal connections that reached straight to the President. He served as the Secretary of the Navy during WWI, and his assistant secretary and right-hand man was none other than Franklin Roosevelt. Daniels was also Ickes’ friend.
However, Daniels was reluctant to exploit his personal friendship with Roosevelt and Ickes. So one summer evening, Weede and Charles Webb, the publisher of the Asheville Citizen, as well as two other compatriots set out from Asheville to Lake Junaluska to meet with Daniels. They arrived on the porch of Daniels’ summer home to find him already chatting with none other than Getty Browning. Daniels had clear, moral objections to what the men were asking.
“Indeed our own consciences had to be stifled in urging a man to lay aside his lofty and sincere ideals of propriety and the niceties of friendship and perform an act to aid his state in its rugged battle for a great project,” Weede wrote. “It was no easy task to out-argue him. But we were four against one. And we were sincere and desperate.”
They spent three hours lobbying Daniels on his porch that night, according to Weede’s account. But they left with the wording of a telegram Daniels scribbled on the back of an envelope asking Ickes for a meeting, which Weede would wire the next morning.
Daniels met with both Ickes and Roosevelt that week and continued his conversations with Ickes leading up to the final showdown in September.
Ickes made the announcement in November 1934 that the full route would go to North Carolina.
Not surprisingly, Tennessee officials were livid, chastising Ickes for overruling his own advisory committee. They later appealed to Roosevelt to overturn the decision but to no avail. North Carolina had finally won its battle to secure the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
With a route in hand, construction was imminent, but Browning’s general strokes on a map were a long way from being fixed on the landscape. The tug-of-war for the Parkway would now play out between communities, local landowners and the government.
“You are going through a populated landscape with farms and communities,” Whisnant explained. “They all had different ideas about where the Parkway should go and what it should be.”
While the federal government was putting up money for construction, buying right of ways fell to the states. The fabled road suddenly wasn’t so appealing to farmers along the proposed route who faced the reality of losing their land. Early descriptions of the Parkway called for a right of way of only 200 feet. But designers and engineers realized it must be at least five times that.
“If you are going to have a scenic parkway you have to preserve the scenery,” Whisnant said. “They had to do that with a wide right of way. That was a shock to land owners. It was much wider than a regular road.”
The positive rhetoric used to sell the Parkway wasn’t playing out like local residents were led to believe. The great economic benefit seemed to evaporate when they found they couldn’t build roads and driveways from neighboring land onto the Parkway.
“Road building before that was always about giving people a way in and out,” Whisnant said.
Instead, the Parkway would have only a few appointed entrances. The Parkway was prone to trespassing and vandalism by disgruntled landowners along its length.
“A few said ‘I’m going to bulldoze a road from my property to the Parkway, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me,’” Whisnant said.
Others cut trees on Parkway right of ways to purposely despoil roadside views. Meanwhile, business interests were dismayed to learn they couldn’t put up billboards or signs along the route.
To make matters worse, the Parkway built its own diners and gas stations, a form of direct competition with area businesses that gave tourists no compelling reason to exit the motorway.
There were also inevitable conflicts with landowners over the price being offered for a right of way. Some of the most notable opponents were Hugh Morton of Grandfather Mountain and Harriet Clarkeson of Little Switzerland. Both represented popular tourism enterprises along the Parkway’s route north of Asheville. They not only understood the legal process, they had political clout to take their case to the media.
Others simply lamented the passing of an era symbolized by the coming of the Parkway. Bill Watson, born in 1923, remembers when the Parkway came through the small community of Benge Gap near Boone, claiming part of his father’s farm and general store in 1938. His dad built a new one, but it wasn’t the same.
The Parkway brought rapid change to the barter-based economy that once played out inside local general stores. Customers would haul in chestnuts, herbs, eggs, chickens, lumber, furs and even livestock to trade for goods from Watson’s father. Suddenly, Watson’s father found himself selling root beer to tourists.
“He much didn’t like it. He was used to being in a quiet place,” Watson said in an oral history preserved in the Parkway’s archives.
Watson moved away as a young man but came back in the early ‘60s with a proposition for his father. He wanted to build a motel and restaurant in hopes of catering to Parkway tourists. His father was reluctant, but Watson eventually won out.
“He said that Bill had lost his mind to spend his money on a motel and restaurant,” Watson recounted. “Then so many people started coming in.”
With more than 17 million visitors every year, the Blue Ridge Parkway appears to have been a prize worth fighting for.
Though once someone’s land, the Parkway belongs to all and has helped drive the economic destinies of two states.
“Certainly our forefathers, when they had the vision for the Parkway, were right on target,” said Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism. “It has done exactly what they intended it to do.”
Capturing the spirit of an American era
To mountain communities, the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway 75 years ago was seen as economic salvation. But on the national stage, the Parkway embodied the spirit of a unique era. The still-lingering optimism of the Roaring ‘20s coalesced with a patriotic view toward the nation’s grand landscapes.
“There was a whole movement for people to get out of cities and refresh their spirits,” said Anne Whisnant, a leading Parkway historian and author at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Parkway also symbolized America’s new-found love affair with the automobile.
“The Parkway was conceived very much in the vein that the car would be a pleasure vehicle,” said Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University. “When the Parkway was built, no one had the idea that you would take your car to go shopping. Cars were to go out and take scenic drives with.”
The craze for auto-touring converged with the national park movement—a belief that the best of America’s natural wonders and scenic beauty should be preserved for enjoyment by all.
“In the 1920s and ‘30s roads and natural areas are seen to be compatible. They were symbiotic,” Whisnant said. “By the 1960s you had the idea that the minute you put in a road, you ruin it.”
At the time, however, a scenic road threading the Southern Appalachians captured a collective nostalgia for simpler times, a way of life that still endured among the rural farmers in the mountains.
“It was a time when it still seemed like we might be able to come to some accommodation between the country and the city,” Coyle said. “There was still a sense there could be some harmonious blending between the two. That is now gone.”
The Parkway’s timing was perfect, however.
“It is extraordinary that it is here and what it took to get built,” said Neva Sprecht of Appalachian State University. “The more I learn about its history the more impressed I am that it ever got built. Could you build it today? No, probably not.”