Images provided by the National Park Service
“The first thing I remember is the silence. Late at night, sitting on the grass at the Waterrock Knob overlook near the southwestern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, gazing into the darkness over Cherokee, North Carolina. Town lights and stars in the distance. A light breeze whistling, but at that hour, few visitors, few cars, and virtually no other sounds.” Anne Whisnant (author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History)
Camping trips in the mountains. Driving from Cumberland Knob to Linville Falls. Memories from summer camp. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the backdrop for so many personal histories, so many stories of growing up. 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.
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.
For example, you can see maps of the routes Tennessee and North Carolina proposed, a historical map that shows a 1909 scenic highway that was a precursor to the parkway, and a map of where the parkway actually went. When you put all these things together, Whisnant says, it allows you to place yourself back in 1934 and see what could have been.
“And what I love about that,” she says, “is that it conveys to me one of the great lessons of history. History is not inevitable. It is not inevitable that things turned out the way they did. I think it gives us a sense of our power in the present to shape the future.”
Driving Through Time provides open access to the vast materials of three major collections of Blue Ridge Parkway artifacts: the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC; the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters (a division of the National Park Service in Asheville); and the North Carolina State Archives. Before this website went live, if you wanted to see the 10,000 historical photos housed in the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters in Asheville, you would have had to make an appointment, go there in person during their limited hours of operation, and then rummage through all of the photos one by one. Now the photos are available to everyone, at any time, and are searchable by date, subject, milepost, and map location.
Phil Francis, the Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, says “Anne and her staff have done an incredible thing” by digitizing the archival collections. “This information has been made available to the public in an inexpensive and easy to access way.” Moreover, Francis adds, the digital copies of these resources “provide a high degree of protection for those resources. It was a wonderful gift.”
Driving Through Time also features an extensive set of K-12 curriculum materials developed in collaboration with Cheryl Bolick in UNC’s School of Education. Teachers from all over the country can use the materials as part of their history, social studies, and geography courses. There are units on the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, the WPA, and the national parks. “Driving Through Time is a great example of how we can let students do the work of a historian, because students are working with primary sources,” Bolick says.
Whisnant first visited the parkway in the late 1970s with her parents, who were escaping the oppressive southern Alabama summer heat by taking a mountain vacation. Her story is not at all unusual; the parkway has had almost 800 million visitors since 1941. And every person has her own tale to tell about the trip. With Driving Through Time, we finally get to hear the Blue Ridge Parkway’s own story.