Driving through time

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the backdrop for so many personal histories, so many stories of growing up.

Camping trips in the mountains. Driving from Cumberland Knob to Linville Falls. Memories from summer camp.

In our memories, the park seems indelible and permanent; a monument to the past that will continue to exist for future generations.

But the parkway as we know it almost didn’t exist at all.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic road running through North Carolina and Virginia, connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park. But, were it not for some accidents of history — one bad speech, a red leather photo album full of scenic views, one public official’s preference for mountains to valleys — the parkway would have been routed through Tennessee instead.

The Blue Ridge Parkway’s colorful and often surprising history has been made available to the public through the website Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, a collaboration between UNC historian Anne Whisnant and a team led by Natasha Smith in the Carolina Digital Library and Archives. Through interactive maps, thousands of photographs, oral histories, and feature articles, the website offers unprecedented access to archival documents and information about the Blue Ridge Parkway. And, through its Overlooks feature, the site begins to tell the dramatic history of the park itself.

The maps, in particular, make Driving Through Time so extraordinary.

Initially, North Carolina’s bid to host the parkway was strong, especially after Tennessee delivered a “vague, disorganized, whiny, and weak,” first pitch, Whisnant says. North Carolina representatives gave FDR (then president) a photo album full of scenic views from their proposed parkway route. But the committee responsible for making a recommendation on where to route the parkway supported a route divided between Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

N.C. State Highway Commission Chief Locator R. Getty Browning kept campaigning for the North Carolina and Virginia route. He sent a letter to the man responsible for the ultimate decision: Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. The letter urges Ickes that the parkway didn’t belong to any one state. “It is a national project and…must be in keeping with national, not local, desires and needs,” he said. The letter goes on to express Browning’s surprise that the committee, “having once started along the crest of the great watershed and attained the high altitudes and the magnificent scenery that it presents…would have abruptly departed from this natural highway.” We may never know what ultimately persuaded Ickes to overrule the recommendation of the committee, but by doing so he ensured the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway as we know it today.

On the Driving Through Time site, you can explore interactive maps, links, and photographs. The maps, in particular, are what make the site so extraordinary. They’re interactive, georeferenced (the historical map has been stretched and matched to the landscape), and can be overlain to provide a very real sense of the conflicts inherent in the creation of the parkway.

Read more from the Endeavors article by UNC faculty member Melissa Geil.

Published October 1, 2012.