News Tip: Blue Ridge Parkway's Controversial History

"Looking at the Parkways history can give us a wonderful window into the intense politics of public and private tourism development," says Duke's Anne Whisnant

 

DURHAM, N.C. -- With the foliage on the Blue Ridge Parkway approaching its fall peak, a Duke University expert on the Parkway urges people to "look beyond the leaves" at the road's rich and controversial history.

The Parkway, the most-visited site in the National Parks system, is now viewed as a universally beloved project that highlights the natural beauty of the mountains.

But the 469-mile, limited-access scenic highway winding through southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina was controversial from the start, as different interest groups battled to have it serve their needs, said Anne Whisnant, Mellon grant project manager at Duke's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.

"Looking at the Parkway's history can give us a wonderful window into the intense politics of public and private tourism development," said Whisnant, whose book on the history of the Parkway will be published by the University of North Carolina Press next year.

During Parkway planning and construction between 1933 and the road's completion in 1987, wealthy or politically well-connected landowners such as Grandfather Mountain's Hugh Morton battled to ensure the road brought tourists to their doorsteps, Whisnant said. Meanwhile, some poor farmers saw their property chopped into unusable pieces by a road that provided them no direct access, and Native Americans resisted pressure to become a "living exhibit" on the roadway.

The road, which appears to meld so seamlessly with the natural landscape and local culture, was actually a hard-fought public-works project, she said.

And the issues aren't settled: With the Parkway playing a central role in the southern Appalachian tourist industry, the struggle between promoting tourism and preserving the landscape continues.

"Understanding this political jockeying will help people who love the Parkway understand how better to protect it," Whisnant said.

Whisnant can be reached for further comment at (919) 668-1902 or by email.