America’s Favorite Drive:
An Exploration of the History, Meaning
and Impact of the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Parkway itself is a 469 mile long road that winds through the southern Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and Virginia, making it the United States’ longest linear park (Blue Ridge Parkway Landscape Information, 2001). The Parkway was born out of a desire to connect Virginia’s new Skyline Drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Originally a project funded by the New Deal, the construction created job opportunities in the struggling Appalachian region of North Carolina and Virginia, especially around Asheville. President Franklin D Roosevelt brought together the governors of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina to assemble a planning team (Construction of the Parkway, 2017). A New York landscape architect named Stanley Abbott was the Parkway’s primary designer, and he focused on what he called “the spice ofthe Parkway,” the diversity of sweeping panoramic views and more intimate countryside moments. In direct juxtaposition to a modern government that seems to resist investing money into public interest projects, it can be difficult to understand and rationalize why that same federal government would be willing to spend sixteen million dollars on a project like the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1933, during the Great Depression. Construction lasted through the fifties and sixties, and the entirety of the Parkway wasn’t finished until 1987 with the completion of the Linn Cove Viaduct (see fig. 1). So why were Americans and the American government willing to spend so much money and time on a project like this? The Blue Ridge Parkway, a feat of American engineering and landscape architecture, is a solid federal investment in the cultural and natural beauty of southern Appalachia.
The Parkway’s construction history is long and winding, not unlike the road itself. The project was initially part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, though construction of the road didn’t begin until 1935 near Cumberland Knob in North Carolina. Being a part of the New Deal, one of the Parkway’s initial goals was to provide jobs for the unemployed in the areas in which the Parkway was to be constructed. Even though a lot of the work was completed by private contracting agencies, some of the construction was also completed by a significant number of New Deal public works programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps. It helped that the project was introduced at a moment in American history when social change was a primary public interest, highlighted by the Great Depression (Veler and Cooke, 2020). This alone suggests the importance and impact of a project like the Parkway to the American public: the creation of jobs and the economic activity that comes from construction was perhaps enough to justify federal investment. The fact that the Parkway would meander through a region that was struggling financially also pushed the project to the forefront.
The Parkway’s second push to completion came in the form of Mission 66, a project that followed in the decade after the end of World War II. The end of the war brought with it an unprecedented boom in public interest in the national parks, which amped up the number of people visiting each year. The project, a celebratory measure for the National Parks Service’s fiftieth anniversary, pumped additional money into revitalizing and modernizing different parks’ facilities, making them more accessible to the general public. The Parkway was of chief interest in this project, as it even then was the most heavily used park in the system, having been used by over five million people in 1956 alone. However, the goal of Mission 66 for the Parkway was not to repair it, but to complete it, as well as to “develop an understanding of what the Parkway is as a basis for good public relations with the thousands of neighbors, dozens of towns, the tourist industry, state agencies and local organizations” that surrounded it (Lauro 2010). The complete Mission 66 budget for the Parkway was just over 31 million dollars, and with the additional funding the Parkway was all but one section completed, as well as a myriad of recreational structures in towns off the Parkway, and picnic tables and drinking fountains at overlooks. All of these additions and improvements contributed to the vitality of the Parkway.
Historically, roads have been designed primarily to transport goods and people from place to place. One of the first major documented roads in history, the Appian Way, was a major thoroughfare for the Roman Empire, especially within the Italian peninsula. The Appian Way was referred to as the “longarum regina viarum, or queen of long-distance roads” (Editors, 2017). In its prime, the Appian Way was used primarily for travel and trade, a direct contrast with the Blue Ridge Parkway, a road used primarily for scenic experiences as other faster highways are available for more direct travel. However, many of the influences of the Appian Way are visible within the Parkway. Both the Appian Way and the Parkway were and are extremely popular and heavily used, and each of the roads uses milemarkers as a means of navigation (see fig. 2 and 3). The National Parks Service even warns travelers that GPS systems do not work well on the Parkway and suggest that travelers keep an eye out for milepost markers in order to find their way. In this way, the Parkway is a return to the Appian Way—the creation of a traveling experience that is more than going from place to place and is instead also a deeper encounter with the world.
The cultural impact of the Parkway upon southern Appalachia has been significant: the construction of folk art centers, marking of trails and waterfalls, and connection through the region has been a tourism revitalization. The experience of driving on the road itself is enough to convince a traveler of the region’s beauty— “since the road often follows the crest of the ridges, with the land falling away sharply on either side, driving the Parkway provides the rare experience of simulating flight without leaving the land—gliding down the gaps, soaring up the other side” (Schumann, p117). Along the Parkway, there are tons of overlooks onto stunning panoramic views of the Blue Ridge, and plenty of places to park and hike into the Appalachian wilderness. In this way, the Parkway emphasizes the natural beauty of the mountains and the importance of nature to the region.
In more concrete terms, one of the larger cultural centers along the Parkway is the Folk Arts Center just outside of Asheville, NC (see fig. 4). The Folk Arts Center highlights and exhibits southern Appalachian folk crafts, like beading, dollmaking, pottery, quilt making, Cherokee crafts, and more. Its existence and impact are heightened by the existence of the Parkway, and because the Parkway itself is so frequented, the center brings that much more recognition and appreciation to the cultural crafts of the region. Both the cultural and natural beauty of the southern Appalachian region are highlighted by the Parkway on a national level, and as a result the region receives much more recognition and appreciation than it may have otherwise.
The actual design of the Blue Ridge Parkway was incredibly specific and planned—Stanley Abbott, the New York architect put in charge of laying out the Parkway, was incredibly focused on what he called “the spice of the Parkway,” which referred to a wide variety of views as one travels the Parkway, ranging from sweeping mountain views to intimate experiences with fields of cattle (Designing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 2019). The entirety of the Parkway, unlike many other national parks, was planned down to the smallest detail. Perhaps it would have been easy for the road to follow the peaks of mountains only, and to skip the valleys entirely—however, Abbott was more interested in displaying the nuances and variety of southern Appalachia. He described what may have been considered a bland experience of one grand view after another as akin to a musical fortissimo and noted that “‘fortissimo mixed with a little pianissimo’ creates a more interesting song” (Designing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 2019). This poetic observation reflects the value that detail oriented design instilled into the experience of driving on the Parkway—the variety between imposing views and shake-roofed buildings along the side of the road create that very curated experience that the original designers had in mind.
Recently, road design has largely fallen away from the influence of landscape architects. Liz Sargent, ASLA, a historical landscape architect based in Charlottesville, Virginia, noted at a conference in 2016 how uncommon it is for modern landscape architects to be trained in road design while they are still in school (Sargent and Ford, 2016). Stanley Abbott’s passion and interest in the Blue Ridge Parkway led to the ultimate completion of the project—designed to be low speed and enjoyable for the drive’s entire duration, Abbott’s care for the variety of the outcome ultimately made the Parkway what it became— “an ever-changing road position for maintaining the interest and pleasure of motorists” (Sargent and Ford, 2016).
Some of the most breathtaking segments of the Parkway are viaducts—long bridge-like structures that are suspended over rocky or otherwise impassable terrain. The Parkway’s viaducts are a clear intersection of Stanley Abbott’s interest in the beauty of southern Appalachia and the incredible engineering that made the Parkway itself possible. Not only is the experience of the drive a dance between the imposing and the intimate, the road exists as a dance between the beauty and preciseness of landscape architecture and the sharp mathematics of road engineering and construction. Perhaps the most impressive of the Parkway’s viaducts is the Linn Cove Viaduct near Grandfather Mountain, NC—constructed as the last leg of the Parkway and completed in 1987, it is an incredibly complex system that is still considered one of the most complicated bridge structures in the world (see fig. 5). An engineering feat, the viaduct exists as a result of concerns from Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain, about the possibility of the Parkway damaging the mountain’s fragile ecology. The Parkway’s engineers faced a tough conundrum—building a highway without damaging the fragile ecosystem of one of Earth’soldest mountains. The following construction of the viaduct made a statement akin to one of the Parkway’s original goals: highlighting the natural beauty of the landscape. The viaduct itself was constructed from the top down, minimizing environmental impact from construction almost completely as no additional construction road was required for heavy on the ground equipment (History of the Linn Cove Viaduct, 2019). The Linn Cove Viaduct, as well as the other viaducts along the Parkway, exist explicitly as environmentally protective features, something that the Parkway itself exemplifies.
The careful intersection of art and design with science and engineering created what is so often referred to as America’s favorite drive. Viaducts, being some of the most complex concrete bridge structures in the world, exist as a testament to the Parkway’s focus on natural beauty and the environment. In addition to this focus on the environment, the emphasis that Stanley Abbott was able to place upon variety in the landscape and the traveler’s experience was inherently made possible by engineers and construction workers familiar with the landscape. Within the historical context of the functionality of roads as well, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an extension of the ideals placed forth by ancient roads like the Appian Way, highlighting ancient methods of wayfinding and navigation. Problems the Parkway has come to face revolve around a balancing act between the National Parks Service and other entities seeking either to develop the land around the Parkway or, as it was in the days of the Parkway’s construction, resistance to giving up land for the road. Today, the care and upkeep of the Parkway is managed by working closely with the individuals that own the land and views adjacent to the road (Morrison 2010). There is comfort to be found in the longevity of the problems that the Parkway has faced in its seventy-five years of life—the majority of the problems the road faces are not new, which suggests a personal responsibility to those left in charge of its upkeep to continue cultivating an experience that is beneficial to the millions of people that visit the Parkway each year.
My personal experiences on the Blue Ridge Parkway are shared by millions of other people every year. Having the opportunity to see natural and cultural beauty in the state I call home is a privilege given to me and to others by the intersection of design and science. Federal investment in the Blue Ridge Parkway allows for the continued lifting up of Appalachian beauty, and while the federal government will likely never be finished investing in the Parkway, it will never have been for nothing. The Parkway is a gift that continues to give—it connects travelers to the past, to nature, and to culture, and that is a governmental investment that will always be worthwhile.