Some Remarkable Places Not on the Parkway
Region in Focus

Even if it is a road to nowhere, the Blue Ridge Parkway does pass by some remarkable American attractions, which can be visited by leaving the park.

417 Travellers on the highway have no clues that they are driving over the top of Natural Bridge when they approach the community of Natural Bridge. The bridge has had a road on it for over 150 years. CLUI photoNatural Bridge: Pagans and Christians

Natural Bridge, Virginia, is a classic American attraction, with an interesting collision of features. The main one is a natural bridge - a stone arch 200 feet high, carved out by the river that flows underneath it. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was one of the most famous natural landmarks in the nation, a must-see up there with Niagara Falls. Unlike most natural wonders of this sort, Natural Bridge is not a public park, but a private resort. It has been privately owned since it was purchased from the English crown in 1774, by Thomas Jefferson, who built a retreat there. Since 1927 its owners have presented a religious sound and light show on the bridge called the “Drama of Creation,” watched by paying customers each evening.

Natural Bridge is also the town that grew up around the natural bridge, which comprises a resort hotel and motel complex, a wax museum, and a giant gift shop at the entrance to the path that leads to the otherwise nearly impossible to see arch. These features were built in the 1960s, to replace the existing resort, and are built in the federal brick style like Howard Johnsons and Little America. There is another set of attractions, of a wholly different nature, surrounding these. They include the Haunted Monster Museum and Dark Maze, and Foamhenge. Each of these were built by Mark “Professor” Cline, a visionary fiberglass artisan who builds dinosaurs and monsters for the amusement park and haunted house industry, through his company Enchanted Castle Studios, as well as for his own attractions in Natural Bridge.

The Haunted Monster Museum is an old, rotting house in the overgrowth above the motel part of the resort. The building would have been creepy even without Cline’s modifications, but what he has done is still a considerable enhancement, especially if the site is visited on your own, which is not hard to do. The house, full of mechanical monsters and such, is seething with an infestation of gargoyles, griffins, giant skulls, snake tails, and other monsters, and is surrounded by the Dark Maze, a leafy, meandering walking trail with larger-than-life minotaurs and dinosaurs eating small children and confederate soldiers, amid other surprises.

418 “The Professor’s” Foamhenge is a pagan antipode to the biblical sound and light show at the Natural Bridge. CLUI photoUp the road a bit is Cline’s Foamhenge, a very nice and crumbling full-scale styrofoam version of Stonehenge, built in 2002. Its creator’s humor and attitude are expressed well on a sign at the entrance:

Stonehenge took 1,500 years to complete using stones weighing as much as 50 tons. An estimated 600-1,000 men dragged the stones from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles north. Perhaps used as a temple, observatory or tomb. Foamhenge completed in six weeks using beaded styrofoam blocks weighing up to 420 pounds. Delivered on 4 tractor trailer trips from Winchester, VA. 100 miles north. It took 4-5 Mexicans and one crazy man to construct. It’s to educate and entertain.

Three miles further up the road is Enchanted Castle Studios itself, where Cline does his work. The studio site used to be his main attraction, an enchanted castle full of beasts, but it was burned down in 2001. There is more than some suspicion that it was arson, committed by a faction of zealous christians of Natural Bridge, who didn’t appreciate his brand of pagan demonism. Undaunted by the loss, Professor Cline rages on.

419 Norfolk Southern’s repair yards are across the street from the O. Winston Link Museum. CLUI photoO. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, VA

Roanoke is a historic railtown, the heart of the Norfolk and Western Railway country (now Norfolk Southern), whose yards are still at work in the center of town. The company’s best known documentarian was an energetic railfan and creative commercial photographer named O. Winston Link. This museum of Link’s work, opened in 2004, is an unusual hybrid of genres, much like the photographer’s work itself.

Link was a commercial photographer who specialized in industrial field work. For five years, before World War II, he worked at a public relations firm that made news stories for clients, intended to be seen as news, rather than advertising. He excelled in creating staged photographs that proved too good for photo editors to pass up. After the war, he was able to work freelance, using the connections he had made in the industry. An admirer of trains, and an inventive engineer, Link applied his skills of flash photography to the challenge of photographing speeding trains at night. He was especially interested in the Norfolk and Western line, as it was the last company to be building and using steam trains, exclusively. The company gave him permission to make photographs on their property, up and down the line, but on his own dime.

He did so for several years, developing large synchronized flash assemblies that enabled him to craft arresting, stylized images of trains frozen in a simplified landscape. His signature images have contented-looking people posed in the foreground, with structures in the middleground, and a steaming locomotive in the background. A Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia in his images was enhanced by the fact that the trains he photographed were the last steam engines to be used in regular service (Norfolk and Western phased the last one out in 1960). The hyperreal effect became nearly surreal with the anachronism of steam locomotives in the suburban roadsides and drive-ins of 1950’s America.

Link also made films and field recordings of the trains, and became known for the records he released, The Sounds of Steam Railroading, starting in 1957. It wasn’t until the 1980s that his photographs started to be recognized by curators, and a number of exhibitions and publications of his work were produced through the 1990’s. Though he continued to work as a commercial photographer until then, it was the five year period of capturing the end of steam in America that would become his legacy.

The idea of a museum dedicated to his work was proposed by his agent and biographer, with business and historic organizations in Roanoke. An abandoned rail station in town in need of an attraction was at least part of the motivation. The building was the former Roanoke Passenger Station, which had been rebuilt in a modern style in the 1940’s by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, designer of cars, logos, and locomotives. Link, who lived in upstate New York, and was battling with his ex-wife (who had stolen much of his work), helped with the early stages of the museum’s design, before he died in 2001. The museum finally opened in 2004. It is operated as part of the regional historical society, which correctly claims that the museum is “not an art museum, nor a rail transportation museum, nor a social history museum. It incorporates elements from all of these to give visitors insight into the period of time in which Winston worked and into the unique genius of O. Winston Link and his photographs.”

420 Sky-high bridge to nowhere, on Grandfather Mountain. CLUI photo

421 The tower once atop Mount Mitchell was the highest publicly accessible point in the eastern half of the country. CLUI photoYou Can Peak That: The Two Tops of Appalachia

The Blue Ridge Parkway skirts the highest peaks, which are outside of the parkway. Grandfather Mountain’s Calloway Peak is the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountain Range, at 5,964 feet. It is privately owned, and accessed by passing through a toll gate just outside the park. The 250,000 people who visit every year ascend the 2.5 mile long winding, paved road towards the summit, which passes the Nature Museum, overlooks, and picnic areas. One overlook points out one of the only buildings visible in the roiling ocean of green, on a distant ridge, poking out of the trees like a solitary tooth. This is Sugar Top, a ten storey condominium complex, built in the early ‘80s, which prompted the state to pass a law about building more than three storeys above the ridge line in this scenic area.

The road ends at the Visitor Center on top of the ridge line. As you ascend the 50 stairs towards higher elevations. signs warn you to be careful as you are “on the most rugged mountain in the East.” One of the steps indicates that you (or your foot) are at 5,280 feet, a mile high. Then the path leads to the Mile High Swinging Bridge, a pedestrian suspension bridge spanning a crevasse in the ridge. At the end of the bridge is a craggy knob that feels a bit like a summit, and is where most of the visitors end up milling around, before heading back over the bridge to the parking lot. The peak though, is in the other direction, and is another 700 feet higher, and hardly visited by comparison.

Most of the improvements on Grandfather Mountain, such as the paved road, the visitor center, and the suspension bridge to nowhere, were built by Hugh MacRae Morton, who inherited Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather in 1952. His family controls over 16,000 acres in the region. Morton was the main force of resistance that prevented the Blue Ridge Parkway from being completed in the 1960’s, as he opposed the construction of the highway through his land. The compromise of a highway at lower altitude, that skirts the edge of the mountainnearly flying off it in the form of the Linn Cove Viaductwas finally completed in 1987. When Hugh MacRae Morton died last summer, control of the company passed to Hugh MacRae Morton III, his grandson: Grandfather Mountain lives up to its name, again.

422 The removal of the tower on Mount Mitchell last year made the 54 foot tower atop Clingman’s Dome, a mountain in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, that is 40 feet shorter than Mount Mitchell, the highest publicly accessible observation point east of the Mississippi. CLUI photoBut this isn’t the highest peak, really. Mount Mitchell, 40 miles south, is taller, but it is in the Black Mountain Range, a 15 mile long spur between the Blue Ridge and the Smokeys, but not technically part of either. This was not a concern in the first half of the 19th century, as at that time Grandfather Mountain was assumed to be the highest peak in the region, if not the entire United States (this was before the western states joined the Union). A professor from the state university, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, made a number of surveys in the Black Mountains, and determined that this peak, soon to bear his name, not Grandfather Mountain, was in fact the tallest. His calculation of 6,672 feet, made in 1835, it turns out, was only 12 feet off. He later died on the mountain, falling to his death at a place now known as Mitchell Falls, and is buried on its summit, the highest grave east of the Mississippi.

There are no grandfathers here, as the mountain is owned by the state. In fact, it was part of the first state park in the state, established in 1915, a response to the destruction that logging was having on the region. There was a logging railroad nearly all the way to the summit, stopping at Camp Alice, at 5,789 feet. But by 1915, much of the logging had been done, and the logging train became more of a tourist train, bringing visitors to a restaurant at Camp Alice, from where it was just a half mile walk to the summit. In 1921, the railway was closed, and replaced by an automobile toll road. Another toll road was constructed on the other side in 1925, making the trip a loop. In the 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway came through, and the access roads modernized. It is now just a few hundred yards up a path from the parking lot to the summit.

After the first tower was built on top of Mount Mitchell in 1916, the mountain ceased to be the tallest point east of the Mississippi - the tower was. With increasing visitation, and the access of the auto road, a much more substantial stone tower was erected in 1926. This was eventually considered unsafe, and was torn down in 1959. The stone tower’s original form was integrated into a new, architect-designed tower, which had a larger viewing platform, that opened in 1960. This tower was removed in 2006, and is being replaced by a platform, a mere ten feet off the ground. The 800 foot pathway to the summit is also being graded and rebuilt, finally making the tallest mountain in the eastern United States ADA compliant.

With the tower removed, the tallest point east of the Mississippi may, once again, be the treetops of Mount Mitchell. That is, if the trees survive. They, along with the pine trees in much of the area, are under attack by a bark-boring beetle, and weakened by airborne pollutants, like acid rain. Fog enshrouds the mountain on eight out of ten days, a fog that, according to the park service, can be as acidic as vinegar.

423 Have the sensation of having been there before? The Biltmore was the location for the film “Being There.” CLUI photoVanderbilts Hosting Millions at the Biltmore

Outside of the still pleasantly folksy and craftsy city of Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest private home in America, Biltmore Estate. This monstrous edifice and cultivated grounds is on the scale of a European royal palace, built in the style of a Loire Valley chateau, crossed with a few English estates. It has 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and three kitchens. Its 375 foot façade looms over the remains (8,000 acres) of a 125,000 acre estate, with grounds designed by Olmstead. A railway was built to the site to bring construction materials, which included trainloads of Italian marble. Construction lasted six years, and was completed in time for Christmas, 1895.

It was created by George Vanderbilt, who was a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the “Commodore,” who was the first to build his family empire through shipping, railroads, and investments into the richest in America; and the son of his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, who doubled the family fortune. George was a 27 year old bachelor when construction started on Biltmore. He lived there on and off (he had a few other homes), until he died in 1914. His wife Edith stayed on until she remarried ten years later. Their only child, Cornelia, lived primarily at the Biltmore until 1958. She married John Cecil in 1924, and they had two sons, William and George, who grew up there.

The house is still owned by the family (William Cecil) though it has been developed into the largest tourist attraction between the Washington Monument, and Disneyworld. The modern tourist reception center and ticket building is bigger than Monticello. Approximately 30% of the 250 rooms are open to the public, for the basic admission price. An additional 30% can be seen on various “behind the scenes” tours. What the Vanderbilts do in the remaining 40% remains a mystery, though no one has officially lived there since 1980.

Nearly a million people a year pay the basic $38 each to get in, and $15 more for each of the additional tours once inside. Then there is the restaurant and gift shop arcade. Do the math. Clearly, the Vanderbilts have not lost their touch.

A surprising legacy of George Vanderbilt, the builder of the Biltmore, was in effecting the creation of conservation oriented forestry practice in the United States. He bought so much land, 125,000 acres, extending for 20 miles south of Biltmore, that Olmstead could think of doing nothing with most of it, except to let it be a forest. Like much of the eastern forests at that time Vanderbilt’s forest had been damaged by decades of poor logging and farming practices. In order to have it be an exceptional, healthy forest, Olmstead recommended hiring someone to manage it. He hired a young Yale graduate who had studied forestry in France (there were no such schools yet in America), named Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot started in 1892, and lasted just a few years working for Vanderbilt, leaving to head larger forestry programs for the government, and later to head the newly formed National Forest Service.

Before he left, he hired a replacement, Dr. Carl Schenck, a Doctor of Forestry. Schenck moved from Germany to the forests of Vanderbilt’s empire, and established a forestry school in the woods to train his employees in forest management. This was the first forestry school in America. Others would soon be initiated at Yale, Cornell, and Harvard. The day had come, at the end of the 19th century, where America’s vast forests were proving exhaustable. Forests, as a natural resource of national importance, now had to be managed to be a sustainable, renewable resource. Words such as “conservation” came out of the forests, and entered discussions of national policy.

424 The Cradle of Forestry. CLUI photoAn overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway points attention deep down into the valley below, where, nestled in the forest, is a place called The Cradle of Forestry. Here are the rebuilt structures of Schenck’s Biltmore Forest School, which operated from 1898 to 1913, and the Forest Discovery Center, a new and state-of-the-art visitor center operated by the National Forest Service and the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association. Inside, dioramas, panels, and computer screens tell the story of forest management. Though aimed at the school groups that no doubt visit from time to time, the Center is of interest to adults as well, as the interpretive forms are varied and entertaining, including several scenes with life-sized forest service mannequins engaged in various tasks in the field, evoking the “stuffed animals in their natural habitat” natural history museum diorama. Visitors can even enter the cabin of a helicopter for a simulated ride over a burning forest.

425 Real and stuffed foresters nestled amidst the jungle of interpretive displays in the Cradle of Forestry. CLUI photo