The Cherokee Indians of North Carolina and the Monacan, Saponi, and Tutelo Indians of western Virginia were among the earliest inhabitants of the Blue Ridge, leaving artifacts and changes in the landscape as evidence of their existence.
Many of the fields still visible at the base of the mountains date back centuries to ancient American Indian agricultural methods of burning and deadening the trees and underbrush to provide needed grazing and crop land. Mountain and river names along the Parkway also reflect the American Indian influence.
The idea of the Blue Ridge Parkway resulted from a combination of many factors in the 1930s; the primary one being that jobs were needed for the trained engineers, architects, and landscape architects left unemployed by the Great Depression.
In addition, thousands of mountain families were already on the verge of poverty. The recent openings of two popular eastern parks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, were already attracting tourists to the naturally beautiful, but financially poor, area. The increasing availability of the automobile made motoring vacations possible.
Actual construction of the Parkway began late in 1935, although there had been planning for two years. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had visited Virginia’s first Civilian Conservation Corps camp while they were working on the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park.
Liking what he saw, he soon approved the concept of constructing a scenic motorway linking the two new parks, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The route through Virginia was fairly easily established, but a rather bitter rivalry developed between North Carolina and Tennessee for the rest of the route, as both states recognized the economic benefits that would arise in the near and far term.
After much wrangling in Congress over acquisition, funding, and the location of the road, it was decided that the Parkway should follow the crest of the southern Appalachian mountains through Virginia and North Carolina, and that the necessary rights-of-way should be purchased by the states.
Then, these would be turned over to the federal government to be administered by the National Park Service as a park. Although the Parkway differs from the usual national park in its narrow land-holdings (at times shrinking to a width of only 200 feet), it is still managed like any site in the National Park Service.
The lead architect – a landscape architect –for most of the project was the young Stanley Abbott, a Cornell University graduate. Abbott was influenced by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park in New York and the surroundings of the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC.
He wanted to create a park-like environment that would blend in with the natural surroundings and showcase not only panoramic views of the mountains, but also agricultural settings, streams and forests, and as it turned out, local folkways.
Progress was slow at first, as CCC crews surveyed deep into the mountains and realized the enormity of the task at hand. No maps, reluctant landowners, extreme weather conditions, rocky terrain, and snakes were only a few of the obstacles encountered.
Many mountain roads were little more than ruts and could not even accommodate the equipment needed for construction. Great care was taken to design and build the roadway so that it blended into its natural surroundings.
Construction took place in sections as land was purchased, rights-of-way approved, and contracts secured. Progress was steady until World War II when funds were diverted for the war effort. There was a slowdown in construction again in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, by 1968, the only task left was the completion of a seven-mile stretch around North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. In order to preserve the fragile environment on the steep slopes of the mountain, the Linn Cove Viaduct, a 1,200-foot suspended section of the Parkway, was designed and built. This was considered an engineering marvel.
Overall, some twenty-six tunnels were blasted through the mountain ridge, with dozens of bridges needed to make rivers and creeks passable.
More than 200 parking areas, overlooks, and developed areas were incorporated into the design so that motorists could enjoy a leisurely ride through the mountains.
The road itself ascends to more than 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam overlook in North Carolina, and descends to just over 600 feet at the James River in Virginia.
Hundreds of easements and agricultural use permits were negotiated with Parkway neighbors in order to ensure views of rustic rail fences, livestock, and shocks of corn and wheat, with no intrusive billboards and minimal residential development.
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was officially dedicated on September 11, 1987, fifty-two years after the ground breaking, although various sections had already been in use for decades.
Cultural resources activities of the area through which the Parkway runs are ongoing.
See map of the parkway and surrounding area.
We would like to thank:
- Peter Givens, of the Blue Ridge Parkway
- the National Park Service; Virtual Blue Ridge
- Tim Treadwell, of NCNatural, for information for this site.
(This page was updated in November 2012.)