Like many American kids, we Southerners grew up on road trips. And for a lot of us, those road trips followed the winding, twisting path of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Few memories are as vibrantly clear as those hours spent huddled in the backseat, sticky, sweaty limbs tangled with our siblings, scrabbling for views of those sweeping vistas. The turns and curves were broken by hourly sojournings at turnoffs, quarters thickly shoved into rusting tower viewers that magnified nearby mountains, bringing their shockingly green or blazing crimson foliage closer. Even as children, those panoramas plucked at our heartstrings, branding themselves into our consciousness and our memories.
It’s easy to imagine those views and avenues as natural, carved by the gentle hands of nature herself. And to an extent, they were; the Blue Ridge Parkway is home to some of the oldest settlements in America, both European and pre-historical. Early explorers and adventurers traversed these very pathways and mountains as they delved into the heart of the country, following the same trade routes Native Americans had stomped out centuries before. But the Blue Ridge Parkway as it exists today is no natural occurrence; even beyond the asphalt and metal of barriers, the road and her vistas are intentionally cultivated and created vestiges of a particular period of twentieth-century American history.
Before the 1920’s, the National Park System was an homage to America’s most epic landscapes, far-removed preserves of our soaring peaks and natural wonders. But they were exclusive playgrounds of the wealthy and daring, inaccessible to the laymen and women of the country. In an effort to make the marvels of nature accessible to the population hubs of eastern America, the government began buying and setting aside land in Virginia and North Carolina in the muted but breathtaking lands of Appalachia through the ’20’s and early ’30’s. To the north, they created Shenandoah National Park, and to the south, Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The two parks lent themselves to connection.
That connection was born from another necessity. In the ’30’s, as the Depression waged psychological warfare on the American people, FDR sought solace for his country through his New Deal. Projects like the Federal Public Works Administration simultaneously brought jobs to the struggling American workforce and established a modern infrastructure across the country. It was the Federal Public Works Administration, and later other New Deal agencies, that forged the Blue Ridge Parkway, a highway to connect the two budding national parks of the eastern mountains.
From its inception, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a collaboration of federal, state, and local forces. North Carolina and Virginia swept together swaths of land and deeded it to the federal government, where it would be under the awning of the National Park Service. Other acres were transferred from the US Forest Service to the NPS. Even once the lands were gathered, it wasn’t simply a matter of laying asphalt and posting signs; the path of the parkway was meticulously laid, each curb planned to capture the best views and most picturesque panoramas. The highway was planned as a picture window of Appalachia, a grand and sweeping testament to the stunning scenery of the Blue Ridge. Parkway engineers and designers painstakingly laid out the path, summoning sojourners to the hidden caves and spectacular waterfalls tucked into the natural curves of the mountains.
Once the route was finally decided, jobs were passed down to the struggling American people. Private construction contractors hired desperate hands to help lay the road. The Civilian Conservation Corps and Civilian Public Service Camps rounded up locals to help carve, shape, and prune the already stunning landscape to National Park standards and build facilities for visitors. Thousands of men over hundreds of miles were employed in the creation and beautification of what would become the Blue Ridge Parkway, providing much-needed jobs to the grappling groups of the Appalachian Mountains.
But the project also included countless battles of conflicting opinions from its outset. The venture would undoubtedly bring much-needed money to the area and jobs to her unemployed, but it also promised a series of displacements. Unlike the national parks in the West, which were established far outside human hubs, the parks in the Southeast were marked in the heart of populations. The Blue Ridge carved a path through dozens of farms and homesteads; longtime landowners were forced to vacate their acreages, dragged rancorously from their homes. These embittered landowners were balanced by local proponents of the highway; the city of Asheville, for example, was especially affected by the Depression and hoped the tourism brought by the Parkway would alleviate their marked suffering.
Regardless of these warring sentiments, construction continued. By 1943, when work on the Parkway was paused because of World War II, over 330 miles were already under construction, 170 of those open and drivable. Construction continued haltingly after the war, but a final push—funded by a $1 billion investment by MISSION 66—from 1956 to 1966 completed all but a small swath of road surrounding Grandfather Mountain. And in 1987 those final seven and a half miles were finished, completing the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Parkway is now a vital vein of the American experience. Since 1946, long before the highway’s completion, the Parkway has been the most-visited site in the National Park System. In recent years, the number of annual visitors has exceeded eighteen million. The Parkway threads its way through seventeen counties in North Carolina and twelve in Virginia and claims a mere 88,000 acres. But what defines the Blue Ridge Parkway is not its miles or acres—it’s the mountains that surround it. It’s not the miles of asphalt that marked our memories as children, but those vistas, viewed through finger-smudged windows and fish-eyed binoculars—vistas that helped shape our very definition of America.
SEE MORE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY PHOTOS HERE