A scenic drive along the spine of the Blue Ridge had been proposed as early as 1906. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Shenandoah National Park and was impressed by Skyline Drive, then under construction. Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia suggested a mountain road extending to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Roosevelt expressed interest and Byrd secured backing from elected officials in North Carolina and Virginia. On November 24, 1933, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes announced approval of the parkway and $4 million was allocated to begin work.
Abbott and his contemporaries were admirers of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. Just like Central Park, the parkway would appear to be natural, but that appearance would be the result of human imposition. Politics would play a part as well, as individual landowners, towns and states fought over the route (North Carolina won the biggest battle over Tennessee to host the southern portion of the parkway).The first 50-mile section near Roanoke opened in April 1939. About two-thirds of the road was completed by 1942, when the war halted construction. All but the section with the Linn Cove Viaduct, in North Carolina, was completed by 1967.
Little of the land was pristine. It had been timbered, farmed and commercialized. So thousands of trees and tons of dirt were moved. Much of the early labor was done by hand. The Public Works Administration’s first contract paid men 30 cents an hour for a six-day week.
“I can’t imagine 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. Moss and lichens collected on the shake roof of a Mabry Mill measured against the huge panoramas that look out forever,” Abbott said in an interview years later.
Anne Whisnant, a longtime parkway traveler and author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, notes that the designers’ desires often met with political reality. “The fact remains they were pushing this through a populated landscape,” she notes, taking land by using eminent domain. The designers wanted a 800-to-1,000-foot right of way, but in Virginia, in particular, they couldn’t get it because the legal mechanisms were not robust enough. To Whisnant, that means the parkway through Virginia is a less satisfying experience, more interrupted by access roads and with more views encroached by development.
Abbott pioneered “scenic easements” that allowed the park service to acquire all development rights without having to pay for the land, in essence buying the view at a considerable savings.
As the park ages and homes along its narrow corridor become more popular, it faces increasing pressure from encroachment of those view sheds. “Most of the parkway landscape, the things people love about it, is borrowed, “ Whisnant says. “There is a big job working closely with those who own the landscape in trying to create some kind of joint sense of benefit so we all work to protect it.”
Looking back, Whisnant says the parkway’s history is comforting when she thinks of the road’s future. “A lot of the problems facing the parkway have been endemic and central since its first day,” she says. “What each generation has to do is take up the challenges, think about them and make decisions. Do we value this or not? If we do, how do we act so it’s preserved? It’s the same thing we’ve done for 75 years.”