NEAR BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY MILE MARKER 306, N.C. - On a postcard-perfect Saturday at the Heffner Gap Overlook, Anne Mitchell Whisnant reads from one of the scores of informational signs - known as “gun boards” for their frontier rifle logos - posted along the 470 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“There were few homegrown products more useful to the mountain farmer than apples,” she reads. “Cuttings from favorite trees were often taken from place to place when the family moved or children left home. Today, old apple trees often indicate the location of a beloved but abandoned mountain homestead.”
The gun board's evocation of a simple, pre-industrial mountain lifestyle is part of the grand, immensely popular illusion created by the National Park Service, Whisnant writes in her new book “Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History.” The book strips away decades of such myth-making fostered by tourism officials and the park service, and details the social, economic and political battles that shaped a two-lane road that's the most visited place managed by the park service.
The gun boards, like the the rustic split-rail fences and occasional log cabin that border the road, “are supposed to evoke our pioneer ancestors,” Whisnant said. Along with the parkway's carefully landscaped design, they support a notion that the southern Appalachians were a place “where people were not connected to what was going on industrially and in terms of the market economy.”
“The park service loves to talk about the landscape architects and their vision and the design,” Whisnant said during a recent drive along a 40-mile stretch of the road, from Julian Price Park south of Blowing Rock to Little Switzerland. “What there hasn't been attention to are these other forces - historical, cultural, social … political - that also shaped the way the thing looks.”
Built to boost auto tourism
Though construction began at the height of the Great Depression, Whisnant debunks the popular perception the parkway was a New Deal job creation project for the impoverished southern Appalachians. The road was actually intended to boost auto tourism between two relatively new national parks - Shenandoah in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Tourism officials in western North Carolina's largest city, Asheville, saw the road as a potential boon for their Depression-troubled economy and were among the project's most vocal cheerleaders. They led a successful fight in 1934-35 to have the parkway routed near their city, instead of turning west into Tennessee near Linville and ending at Gatlinburg, at the western entrance to Great Smoky Mountains.
Whisnant writes other key decisions about where to build the parkway were often dictated by factors other than natural beauty, including the power politics of prominent western North Carolina tourist developers, including state Supreme Court Justice Heriot Clarkson, owner of Little Switzerland, and Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton.
The role of political power
Clarkson, a onetime state lawmaker and Supreme Court justice, wrested a generous payment for the state for land taken for the parkway, then saw his struggling resort thrive as the “Only Resort Directly on the Blue Ridge Parkway.” Little Switzerland remains one of the only places where private commercial activity exists directly on the road.
“That's not there because landscape architects thought it was real quaint and attractive,” Whisnant said during a stop in Little Switzerland.
The media-savvy Morton convinced the public the park service wanted to destroy his pristine Grandfather Mountain, conveniently ignoring the fact it was used for timber production before it became a tourist attraction and that he had already built a road up the side of the mountain so cars could drive to the top.
She also dispels the notion that the battle led to the celebrated Linn Cove viaduct, a quarter mile-long, S-shaped bridge that bends the parkway around the rocky terrain. The graceful bridge won numerous awards and became popularly conflated with Morton's fight with the park service - even though he had nothing to do with it.
Sometimes a burden
For the less powerful, the parkway was a burden. Many small landowners saw their properties cut in two by the road, although in Virginia, where the state political structure that gave landowners there more power to contest land seizures than in North Carolina, the parkway is frequently crossed by other roads at grade level.
Whisnant first visited the parkway as a child in the late 1970s, and her book grew out of her doctoral dissertation in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She still drives the parkway and cherishes the sights enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually - the rolling farmland of western Virginia, the sweeping arc of the Linn Cove viaduct as it skirts the flank of Grandfather Mountain; the rough-hewn rock bridges; the sweeping overlooks that take in some of the most majestic vistas in the eastern United States.
But rather than just let the scenery unfold, though, Whisnant encourages visitors to understand the history behind it. Artful routing and landscape architecture gives drivers the feeling that nature is unfolding before them, while the parkway's 1,000-foot right of way generally keeps civilization at arm's length. As one park service display puts it, the goal was “to build and maintain a road that lies gently upon the land.”
In that sense, the parkway's designers success has emerged as the greatest threat to the road, Whisnant said. Because it feels such a natural part of the landscape, users and devotees tend to take it for granted and not realize that it takes active management and foresight to preserve.
Near the end of the book, Whisnant writes that she worries about about the widespread belief that the parkway “couldn't be built today.”
“This view … turns the past into an unrepeatable and distant golden age while it robs us of power and choice in the present,” she writes. “It is not inconceivable that the parkway could be allowed simply to crumble.”
If you go:
Blue Ridge Parkway: http://www.nps.gov/blri or 828-298-0398. Runs 469 miles from Rockfish Gap, Va., just east of Waynesboro on I-64, through Shenandoah National Park past Asheville, N.C., to Cherokee, N.C., where it ends near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.
Book: “Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History” by Anne Mitchell Whisnant (University of North Carolina Press, $34.95); http://www.superscenic.com.