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
“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
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
superscenic.com, has even more information on the subject.
She sums up the parkway’s complexity in the book’s
“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.”