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Blue Ridge Parkway

A photo from “Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History,” captures Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel on the parkway circa 1952. (Photo courtesy Blue Ridge Parkway)

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile ribbon of road that ties Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It was conceived in the 1930s as a public-works project to combat the crippling economics of the Great Depression, and today it shines as a triumph of conservationism.

That is the official, boring history of North Carolina’s most famous highway.

It also happens to be the history that alumna Anne Mitchell Whisnant, director of research, communications and programs for the Office of Faculty Governance, has spent the last 15 years of her life reevaluating. Her book on the subject, “Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History,” was released in October by University of North Carolina Press. With research found in Carolina libraries and other depositories, it sheds new light on an old road and explores the impact of money, land ownership and political power on the decision to build what would become the most visited site in the National Park System.

“We’re sometimes unaware of the forces that create our built environment,” Whisnant, an avid parkway researcher, said in reference to the parkway and its design. “We forget that things are the way they are because people made a choice.”


The author and Chapel Hill resident started researching the choices that led to the birth of the parkway in 1991 as a Carolina graduate student. She wanted to dig up the truth about the place she remembered from childhood visits and to go beyond what past historians had always implied: that there was nothing more to the place than tales of stone bridges and split-rail fences; that its 80,000 acres were simply the result of an agreeable slice of nature that came in contact with good old-fashioned American elbow grease.

What she found, in the archives of North Carolina libraries and history centers across the country, was the whole story. She found that the road is a carefully designed landscape that presents a controlled and picturesque scene, but behind that seemingly effortless splendor are complicated and sometimes-not-so-pretty stories about how it came to be. She uncovered issues of politics and power that peppered what was assumed until recently to be a rather spotless history.

Whisnant, who said she loves the parkway and enjoys hiking and camping there with her husband and two boys, said it is important to understand the road in all its complexity and to note that it was built (and must be maintained) by individuals who had to make tough decisions.

“It’s important to understand that it didn’t just magically come into being,” she said. “For the parkway to continue in the future, we have to make choices to have that parkway and to fund that parkway.” Whisnant is on the board of trustees for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a fund-raising organization.

Her foray into the research topic began serendipitously, when she was studying history at Carolina. Thumbing through the card catalogue at Wilson Library, she found something she didn’t expect. Her thumb had slipped, or the cards had fallen the wrong way. But what she was looking at — a reference card for “Blue Ridge Parkway” — would shape the direction of her life for more than a decade.

The card she was holding didn’t say anything nostalgic. It didn’t mention the splendor of the parkway’s autumn leaves, or the beauty of its meandering curves. It referred only to Cherokee opposition to the road’s construction in the 1930s.

Whisnant thought it odd the words “opposition” and “parkway” were together on the same subject line. After all, the parkway is a national park that was built for the public good.  There was nothing else to it, right?


Whisnant discovered through her research a cast of real-life characters who were adamant about where the road would or would not be built. There was Marie Dwight, owner of Camp As-You-Like-It for girls, who said the public highway would be a menace to a resort where there were only women and young girls. And Ashe County farmer S.A. Miller, who complained in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the parkway was no benefit to him because it cut across his property. Whisnant found countless stories and unearthed more than 400 pages, 51 illustrations and seven maps worth of little-known history about the parkway and the people who lived it.

Many pictures and manuscripts and other historical documents used in Whisnant’s book came from the stacks of Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection and Southern Historical Collection. She did research at the Library of Congress and used data from the National Park Service as well, but the Carolina libraries were what allowed her tell the intimate details.

“The libraries here were really important for me to dope out what the regional story was,” she said. It was at Carolina that Whisnant found Blue Ridge Parkway travel brochures, financial records from the Little Switzerland roadside resort, and newspaper clippings and documents from Robert Doughton, the influential North Carolina congressman who had a heavy hand in the parkway’s construction.

Now Whisnant knows the rest of the parkway’s story. Her research has illuminated a drama surrounding the road that speaks of battles won and lost, economic interests and government intervention. It is a story of power and class and progress that resulted in a national treasure for some and royal pain for others.  Her web site, www., has even more information on the subject.

She sums up the parkway’s complexity in the book’s introduction:

“This book departs from a romantic view of the parkway as a modern miracle and as a pure gain for everyone involved and looks critically at the road’s history as a project created by human minds and hands, paid for with public funds, in the service of some version of the public good.”

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