The Blue Ridge Parkway
Reeling Along a Ribbon of Road

410 CLUI photoTHE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY IS unabashedly America’s drive-through National Park. Unlike other parks, where roads have been strategically placed and designed for motor touring and access within established parklands, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a park built to surround a single, newly constructed road, and in places it is as narrow as 200 feet. It is an interpretive driving trail, with pull outs, overlooks, sculpted landscapes, and material artifacts on display to appreciate, as you drive by. It is maybe the only park of its kind anywhere near its scale, in the worlda trans-state carscape built from scratch for the pleasure of driving.

The parkway is a 469.1 mile long celebration of vehicular viewing, sculpted by landscape architects who likened its cohesion to a necklace, and to a film. It is banked, pitched, and routed to be drivable at 45 mph, the posted maximum speed, for nearly its entire length, with never more than a casual effort to be made in steering, acceleration, or braking. Once your mind becomes accustomed to this sensation of driving ease, and you learn to trust the road at this relaxed rate, it begins to feel like the road and the car and the driver become conjoined. Even a jalopy feels like a sports car at this slow pace. But it doesn’t feel slow. The mountainous terrain provides enough gentle pitches and turns - there is hardly a straightaway for more than a few hundred yardswith new vistas and roadside forms providing a minimum of stimulation and variety, in texture, at least.

411 CLUI photoNo one drives the Blue Ridge simply to get somewhere. It was built for recreational driving. There is no commercial traffic, and no towns along its route. Roads run parallel to it in the valleys below, including the high speed Interstate 81. The very idea of building a road on a ridgeline runs against the logic of roadbuilding: Roads usually follow the bottom of valleys, where the topography has been leveled by rivers, and where the cities, towns, and commercial centers and other nodes that need connecting reside. Mountains are generally entered by roads only when they need to be passed over, and usually in as brief and efficient a fashion as practicable. Evidence of this abounds along the Blue Ridge, where the parkway crosses (on bridges, so without directly touching) numerous gap roads that run perpendicularly down the mountains on either side, like ribs to the parkway’s spine. These are the old roads that lead into the Blue Ridge. The Parkway runs across this historic and practical grain.

The parkway feels like a geographical anomaly, like a misplaced bit of Europe. This is hardly an accident. Vehicular “parkways” in America were first designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, as linear versions of the parklands they designed for wealthy patrons and cities. Their work was based on the aesthetics of European landscape design, especially the Romantic country estates of England. The first American motor parkway, the Bronx River Parkway in New York, opened in 1925. It was conceived nearly 20 years earlier, as a way of addressing the degradation of the river by industries along its path, and to provide a scenic route for commuters. Other parkways heading out of New York City into the affluent suburbs followed; the Saw Mill River, the Cross County, the Meadowbrook and the Taconic (and later the Palisades and the Garden State). With population and suburban development increasing rapidly after WWII, construction of leisurely, noncommercial parkways gave way to the bigger, faster modernism of engineered freeways, which generally ignore their contexts.

412 CLUI photoStanley Abbott, a young landscape architect designing parkways for the Westchester Parks Commission, was hired by the Park Service to be the non-engineering designer of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He brought his experience and aesthetics from the tradition of the Americanized English garden of Vaux and Olmstead. He designed its landscapes to show a nature that was “wild,” but still under control. He wanted the road to merge with its surroundings, “as if nature put it there.”

When the Blue Ridge Parkway was being conceived in the early 1930s, it was as a scenic highway connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Smokey Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Inspired partly by the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Valley, the parkway idea would, in the words of Thomas Macdonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, “offset the enervating influences of the lower altitudes,” referring to the growing unsightliness of commercial tourist roads in the region, full of billboards, roadside stands, utility lines, and the general chaos of American kitsch.

413 CLUI photoThe project would also bring work and development to one of the most depressing parts of depression-era America, the southern Appalachians. The road exists as a New Deal “make work” project. It was built for something to do. The region was among the most maligned in the nation. Appalachians of the time were said to be lagging a century behind America, and called inhabitants of a forgotten frontier. The English historian Arnold Toynbee charged the residents of Appalachia, most of whom were recent descendants of English, German and Scotch-Irish immigrants, of losing an inherited civilization. Into this poverty stricken wreckage the juggernaut of the State would come to the rescue, with a visionary, and possibly absurd project, on an unprecedented scale.

There were several political progenitors of the project, chiefly, perhaps, Senator Bird of Virginia, who is said to have suggested the idea for the road while on a visit to the Shenandoah Park with President Roosevelt, who seemed to think it was a good idea. But it was the Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, and Administrator of Public Works, that made the decisions that cut through the political bickering that can stall projects of this magnitude.

414 CLUI photoIt was originally pitched to Ickes by state representatives from the states that would directly benefit from it (Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee), as a self-sustaining toll road. When it became obvious that the estimated $16 million to build the road would have to come from the federal government, the policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal supported it (one argument that enabled North Carolina to keep all of the route south of Virginia in its territory, and out of neighboring Tennessee, was that Tennessee was already benefitting from an even more massive New Deal program, the TVA). But when it became clear that it would be a National Park, a complex, 470 mile long mountain road, maintained in perpetuity by the park serviceat the expense of all tax-payers, and not by just the states that benefited from it, many Senators protested. Nonetheless, the bill to make it so passed by a small margin, and became law in 1936.

Ground had already been broken for the first part of the road a year earlier, a 12 mile section at the state line of Virginia and North Carolina. The road was being built section by section, in no particular order, wherever right of ways, surveys, and engineering had been cleared and completed. It was up to the states to acquire the land for the right of way from the thousands of people who owned land around the ridgeline, and the route of the road was at least partially determined by the level of difficulty in doing so. The route was also selected for scenery, not necessarily directness.

Because it was to be a prettified “parkway,” a much wider right of way than is usual for a road project had to be secured in order to provide insulation from private land. A two lane road might have 100 feet of right of way on either side of the center line. For the Blue Ridge, the right of way was mandated to be up to 1,000 feet. This right of way eliminated frontage and access rights of any private party, and gave the Park Service control over land use along the road. In addition, scenic easements were acquired from landowners along the route wherever possible or necessary, which put further restrictions on private activity in the visible margins and sightlines of the road. These easements stated that no “unsightly or offensive material, such as sawdust, ashes, trash or junk,” or any commercial sign, bill, or advertisement could be placed on the land under the easement.

In some cases, county and state representatives went door to door to negotiate land sales and negotiate easements. In many cases, people were poor, and happy to sell their remote (for now) land at whatever the state was offering. But not all the time. In North Carolina, maps were posted in the county courthouses showing the land that was being claimed by the state for the route. The notice stated that if you wanted to contest it or make claims for compensation, it was up to you to do so. If you didn’t then the land would become property of the state, effective of the date of the posting of the notice.

Ignorance and misunderstanding was prevalent. It was clear that a lot of hill people relinquished their scenic easement rights not really understanding what that meant. Most people, when they were asked to give way to eminent domain for a road in a remote area, assume that a road brings access, and makes their remaining land frontage, increasing its value. But the parkway was a different kind of road, one where access was restricted, and frontage controlled by the Park. It did the opposite of what roads generally do.

In total, Virginia and North Carolina delivered 28,487 acres and 42,139 acres in right of way and easements to the federal government, and the road construction continued. Some of the land was leased back to farmers, under conditions that they would observe proper and scenic practices on the land. It was always the intention of the builders of the road to represent the cultural landscape of the Blue Ridge, as well as the scenic one.

Barns, log houses, farmland, and other types of buildings and practices were not entirely eliminated from the viewshed. Those that were allowed to remain were there as representatives of cultural practices, to display the folkways and heritage of the region. Buildings along the road are mostly reconstructed unfurnished shells of log cabins, meant to be seen as parts of the landscape, from a moving car. Other buildings remain as part of the visitor centers along the parkway, where additional, historic outbuildings have been reconstructed for historical purposes and to house living history programs for the public.

415 CLUI photoThe dozen visitor centers along the road offer restrooms, souvenirs, and a pause from the road. They are operated by concessions for the Park Service, and each one features a different theme, such as a pioneer homestead, James River canal history, plant and animal ecology, mountain industry (such as grist-milling, blacksmithing, and moonshine), and minerals. There are over 100 roadside exhibits and overlooks, with interpretive signs naming the overlook or telling a brief interpretive story. On these signs, the large lettering is routed out in native wood, they usually have less than 100 words, and are easily read without leaving the vehicle. In addition, there are more modern vari-colored canted plaques of vinyl and steel, sometimes referred to as “easel displays,” that use images and text to tell a more complex story. The graphics are from the standard design palette of the National Park System, and integrating all the interpretive infrastructure is the symbol for the parkway that appears on most of these signs, a mountain squirrel rifle and powder horn.

As a 470 mile long interpretive trail, the road provided an opportunity to re-curate the landscape of Southern Appalachia. The mountains had been denuded by logging in the 19th century, and eroded due to poor farming practices, making streams run as washes of mud. Stanley Abbott, the landscape architect of the parkway, declared “few of the show places of the parkway environs remain in an unspoiled natural state.” Just as the architecture and the culture of the parkway was reconstructed, the natural beauty along the road had to be constructed as well. In at least one instance, overblast from a roadcut, generally kept to a minimum, made too much debris. As a solution, an overlook was created at the spot, using the excess material to shore up a turn out.

The similarity of the driving experience to a cinematic one is ubiquitous, but is rarely as obvious, or intentional, as it is here. With the reduced speed, and eliminated cross traffic, the consistent engineering of the road and the controlled scenery all serves to provide a platform of engaged passivity. Seated viewers of the experience gaze through a series of unfolding scenes and sculpted views through the windshield screen. On the parkway the viewing platform is wedded to the view, like a 469 mile tracking shot, with complicated pans and tilts following rises and curves. Cut to a pull out, a panoramic establishing shot, or a zoom-in on an interpretive plaque, stylized, simple and brief, like the text in a silent movie. Landscape, view, and platform, integrated in a mechanized, pastoral, and romantic ribbon of road.

416 CLUI photo