Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th Anniversary

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Florian Neuhauser

On September 11, 1935, ground was broken on a public works project in Appalachia, on the start of a road then known as the "Appalachian Scenic Highway." The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (FDR's) New Deal policies helped to provide work for many of the nations' unemployed. As one of the first New Deal programs put into place, this rural route, which would officially become known as the Blue Ridge Parkway, was designed to run along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When the first shovel of dirt was turned at Cumberland Knob in western North Carolina, it began a project that would take 52 years to complete, and would ultimately grow to become one of world's great motorcycle destinations.

Today, nearly all pleasure cruisers in the southeast have the Blue Ridge Parkway on their radar. This 469-mile stretch of near pristine asphalt runs uninterrupted from Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, VA, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just north of Cherokee, NC. The original concept of the Parkway was inspired by the construction of Skyline Drive, a scenic stretch that also traverses the Blue Ridge peaks through Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. Upon visiting this project in 1933, President Roosevelt was convinced by Senator Harry Flood Byrd, to extend the road south to the newly commissioned Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The grandeur of the setting was more than enough to persuade the president that these ancient hills must be shared with the nation. FDR realized that better economic times would return and an increasingly mobile society would greatly appreciate access to a route built solely for the purpose of pleasure motoring.

To maintain as much of the region's natural integrity as possible, renowned landscape architect Stanley L. Abbott, who had previously worked on New York's Westchester County parkway system, was hired to oversee the project. Abbot envisioned the Blue Ridge Parkway (as it was newly coined) as a chain of destination stops, much like "beads on a string, the rare gems in the necklace." The string supporting the necklace would be a byway designed to blend harmoniously with its natural surroundings. Additionally, to keep the scenery and culture of the Appalachian region intact, Abbott also advocated the purchase of scenic easements for future generations.

Due to the area's rugged topography, construction was slow going on the project. Private contractors, as well as laborers from the President's New Deal programs, were used in the initial phases. To keep as many men employed as long as possible, most everything was done by hand. Even the arduous task of digging tunnels through solid rock was done with little help from machinery. Though time-consuming, the work was wholeheartedly embraced by local residents hit especially hard by the depression, as it offered so many the opportunity to work again.

By the outbreak of World War II, with nearly 170-miles completed, work almost ground to a halt with the onset of hostilities. The men and material that were keeping the Parkway program moving forward were quickly pressed into military service. Upon conclusion of the war, a newfound economic prosperity and changing attitudes toward public works projects led to a significantly slower rate of construction. It wasn't until the mid 1950s that the National Park Service jump-started further development with their initiative. This ten-year, 16-million-dollar plan reenergized the undertaking and had the Parkway nearly completed by 1966. The only major gap still remaining was a 7.5-mile stretch around the rugged and ecologically sensitive Grandfather Mountain near Blowing Rock, NC.

In order to eliminate the massive footprint a traditional cut and fill road would inflict upon the loose, boulder-laden slopes of Linn Cove, the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration agreed that an elevated surface would be the most feasible alternative. Construction of this most challenging piece of the Parkway puzzle began in 1979. The Linn Cove Viaduct was created from pre-cast concrete sections manufactured offsite and then pieced together from the top down. This process eliminated the need for a damaging "pioneer road" that would have been required to move in heavy equipment and supplies. The 1,243-foot segment cuts a graceful S-curve around the mountain and is by far the most dramatic man-made feature found along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yet despite completion of the Viaduct in 1983, it was still four more years before the finishing touches were completed. On September 11, 1987, the ribbon was finally cut opening the entire, uninterrupted length of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the motoring public.

While it may have taken 52 years to reach its ultimate fruition, the 469-miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway were well worth the wait. This placid length of uninterrupted two-lane is a motorcyclist's dream-come-true. Commercial ventures and vehicles are prohibited, billboards are non-existent, and the natural charm of old-time Appalachia awaits discovery around nearly every bend in the asphalt. Exceptionally well engineered and laid out, the road is a glorious marriage of easy curves and breath-taking scenery that promise to be the highlight of any journey to the American southeast. The Parkway remains under the auspices of the National Park Service and is a true legacy to both the visionary individuals who proposed and built it, as well as the panoramas and culture it celebrates. Happy 75th anniversary indeed!