A Look Back at… the History of the Blue Ridge Parkway
By Ross Cooper
In this year of 2010, the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock will join with communities all along the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway in celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the construction of this scenic American motorway. The anniversary marks one historic milestone in the history of the Parkway. The planning which paved the proverbial way for the building of the Parkway commenced in earnest in 1933; the actual construction began in September of 1935, and may well be said to have continued until the completion of the Linn Cove Viaduct in 1987.
This column will look back to the beginnings of and early work on the Parkway, in preparation for this summer’s upcoming 75th Anniversary celebrations in Boone and Blowing Rock, by examining the historical record contained in the archives of Watauga County’s Watauga Democrat newspaper.
January 20, 1936
“Get Equipment for Scenic Lap” was a front-page headline in this week’s edition of the Watauga Democrat. Citing an article from the Skyland Post of Ashe County, the paper relayed, “[i]t is reported that new equipment for beginning actual construction of the scenic parkway between Laurel Springs and Roaring Gap has arrived by rail in West Jefferson and is being moved to Laurel Springs, where it is understood that it will be used in the early construction of the lap of roadway which lies in Alleghany [County].” “Purchasing Extra Land” was another portion of this article, which noted that “[i]n order to provide recreational areas along the route of the park-to-park highway which will connect the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National parks, some 7,000 acres of land along the route of the parkway in North Carolina is being purchased by the resettlement administration,” which land was “being acquired in Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes, Watauga, and Avery counties,” with similar land purchases also taking place in Virginia at the same time. “Funds for the purchase and development of these tracts of land along the parkway route are being provided by the resettlement administration as part of its ‘better land use’ program.” The Resettlement Administration, reconstituted in 1937 as the Farm Security Administration, was a New Deal agency which sought to aid sharecropping families and other rural and urban families struggling under the conditions of the Great Depression. The Watauga Democrat article mentions that “[i]t is regarded as likely that additional sites will be acquired along the entire route of the parkway through North Carolina, although resettlement officials declined to comment on this angle.”
February 13, 1936
“Grip of Winter is Relentless: Heavy Snowfall Last Week as Record Cold Wave Keeps Its Stride,” proclaimed a headline of the first winter of construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Boone and Watauga County busied themselves digging out from an eight-inch snowfall last Friday morning as the record cold wave continued to sweep the territory, and the Highway Commission city administration and relief forces joined hands in clearing away the obstruction to traffic in city and country,” read a report which may strike a familiar chord with readers in 2010. The notable wintry weather pushed Parkway news off of the front page, with the recently initiated construction waylaid by the snowy conditions and cold temperatures. “Tuesday morning the thermometer shot down to four above, and while slightly warmer during the day, it appears that there is little to indicate any substantial relief from the cold wave,” continued the article, “which has been accurately termed by one paragrapher as a ‘permanent’.”
February 27, 1936
“Scenic Parkway Officially Named by Interior Head” announced on this day that the “scenic parkway to connect Shenandoah and Smoky Mountains national parks has been officially named Blue Ridge Parkway by Harold C. Ickes, secretary of the Interior.” Says the report, “[t]he name was given the scenic boulevard because it will follow the main ridge formation of the two national parks through the finest scenic section of eastern America.” The Watauga Democrat noted that “[c]onstruction of the parkway is of vital interest locally because it will follow the summit of the Blue Ridge through Wilkes and adjoining counties on the north and west. The Boone Trail (federal 421), highways 16 and 18 leading through North Wilkesboro west and north will be three of the leading thoroughfares leading from the east to the parkway.” Upon completion of the project, according to estimates given at this time, “the parkway will be available to travel to 73,000,000 people.”
Ross Cooper is a member of the Reference Staff of the Watauga County Public Library in Boone. This feature commemorating the seventy-fifty anniversary of the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway is compiled from the archives of the Watauga Democrat newspaper, which are available on microfilm at the Watauga County Library.
Visit the Watauga Democrat newspaper online at www.wataugademocrat.com