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Recalling a 52-Year Project Through the Blue Ridge Mountains

Difficult challenges had to be overcome to get the parkway built.

Tue October 27, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Eric Olson

For those who love fabulous mountain scenery and cool, clean air, there may be no better way to find it in the southeast than the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The leisurely, two-lane highway stretches through Virginia and North Carolina for 469 mi. (754 km) past high peaks, thick forests and lush meadows of wildflowers.

In short, the Parkway gives its visitors a chance to relax and enjoy the bounty of nature.

Planned, built and maintained by the National Park Service (NPS), the Parkway took more than five decades to fully complete but, as a result, the road crosses some of the most spectacular terrain in the eastern United States.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the most popular park in the NPS, but never more so than in the autumn as the region’s countless trees begin to transform their colors into dazzling reds, oranges and yellows.

“I think that the experience for visitors along the Parkway is as varied as the visitors themselves,” said Dr. Carolyn Ward, CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a private fundraising organization that works with the NPS as stewards of the road.

“Some people come to the Parkway for solace and to watch the sunset; some come for adventure and outdoor activity like hiking, camping, biking or to have picnics. Others come for the memories they had there as a child. It offers so much for people that I think that it is seen as a highly personal experience and that makes it special.”

A Depression-Era Idea

The Parkway was first proposed in the early 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression as a way to connect two relatively new national parks: Virginia’s Shenandoah and North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Initially, the route was intended to go through a large section of Tennessee to get to the Smokies, but after a series of often heated discussions and hearings, the decision was made to plan the road along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and bypass the Volunteer State completely.

This decision also kept the Parkway at higher and more picturesque elevations, but proved to make construction more difficult.

After approval by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, land acquisition was the first step to making the motorway a reality.

The hard economic times had left many trained engineers, architects and laborers unemployed. The advent of the Parkway, however, gave these people good jobs, particularly in the poverty-stricken mountains.

No Easy Task

Difficult challenges would have to be overcome to get the project built. For instance, in many parts of the region, there were no paved roads to move men and equipment to the job sites. There also was the problem of few reliable maps, reluctant landowners, bad weather and snakes.

But, with an initial budget of $16 million, ground was finally broken on Sept. 11, 1935 at Cumberland Knob just south of the North Carolina/Virginia border.

The construction was divided into 45 different zones with work going on simultaneously at several different non-connected sites.

Private contractors employed mostly local people, although Roosevelt’s various New Deal programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), did many jobs on the Parkway.

Dynamite had to be used to blast through solid rock to create the 26 tunnels along the route, all but two of which are south of Asheville, N.C., at the southern, and most rugged, part of the Parkway.

There also were dozens of bridges and hundreds of parking areas, overlooks and other developed portions needed before the Parkway could be considered complete.

By the time America entered World War II in 1941, about one-third of the project was finished. The conflict, though, slowed the construction considerably as federal funds were diverted to the nation’s war effort.

Motorists began driving on the Parkway in the late 1930s and that number increased significantly after the war and for the next several decades as new sections were opened.

Work progressed to the point that by 1968 only a 7-mi. (11.2 km) section around Grandfather Mountain, near Blowing Rock, N.C., was left.

But that part of the construction took almost 20 years.

Inspired Thinking Was Needed

One of the goals of the Parkway was always to create the road with as little impact as possible to the area’s abundant natural beauty and wildlife. In addition, the designers of the route wanted it to blend into its surroundings.

In order to get the road around Grandfather, it became clear that something unique would have to be considered to maintain that blend on the mountain and protect its delicate ecosystem.

As a result, engineers hit upon the brilliant idea of building a viaduct that curved and undulated the roadway around the lower reaches of the peak.

Finally, work on the 1,243-ft. (378.8 m) segmented concrete bridge got going in 1979.

Cranes were brought in to install support beams on poles with rebar run through them. The 153 precast segments, each weighing 50 tons (45.3 t), were trucked to the site and custom cranes lowered them into place. The only work done at ground level was drilling for the seven footings.

Built for $10 million, the Linn Cove Viaduct moves car traffic just feet from the granite sides of the mountain with a view that on a clear day will stretch for 50 mi. (80.4 km).

With its completion, the entire Parkway was formally dedicated on Sept. 11, 1987, 52 years to the day after the route was first begun.

Today, construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway is all maintenance work, Dr. Ward said, including road paving and structural upgrades. However, she also said that due to the number of visitors in the park, $500 million in maintenance work needs to be done to keep it current.

Still, she said that the Parkway’s needs need not detract from what it gives visitors.

“My Ph.D is in Forestry and as a professor I have taught about the value of nature,” she said. “There are a lot of studies that show the innate connection that humans have to nature and so we know that there is something about the stimuli that our brains receive when we go to places like the Parkway that helps us feel better and more relaxed. In today’s stressful world, that is just invaluable.”

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