Building the Blue Ridge Parkway

Early in the 20th Century, there were very few National Parks in the eastern portion of the United States. Forward-thinking dreamers in the government purchased the lands for Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the late 1920’s, and that led to the idea of a plan for a scenic motor road that would connect the two parks and their respective states, Virginia and Tennessee.

In its beginnings, the project was originally known as the Appalachian Scenic Highway. Early plans for the roadway called for it to span three states: Virginia, North Carolina, and Tenneseee, but a specific route could not be planned until funding was secured in late 1933. A few months later, North Carolina and Tennessee began arguing about the end point of the road, and each state sent their own proposals followed by months of lobbying federal officials. Finally, in late 1934, after two heated hearings, the announcement was made that the roadway would be set following North Carolina’s proposal, a route that would follow the crest of the Blue Ridge and go through the towns of Blowing Rock, Linville, Little Switzerland, Asheville, and end at Cherokee, rather than the Tennessee route which would have partially gone through North Carolina and headed west around Linville with a terminus in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ultimately, North Carolina was chosen for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most important being that the route through it was more scenic with higher elevations, versus the low-ground route by several streams that was proposed through Tennessee.

Congress formally designated the road project as the “Blue Ridge Parkway” and placed it under the oversight of the National Park Service, an agency that oversees the road and its lands to this day. Ground was broken on September 11, 1935, at Cumberland Knob just south of the NC/VA border. Work on the roadway was divided into 45 different zones, and work was done in several different non-connected areas simultaneously, mostly by private contractors who hired unemployed men from the local labor pools.

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