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Research Paper on National Parks

This is a sample history paper on the Blue Ridge Parkway and how there were competing interests for its development. it is provided free of charge from Ultius, the global leader in connecting you with freelance writers.

Development of the Blue Ridge Parkway: Competing Interests and the Redefining of the National Park Experience

National parks have a long tradition in American history. Historically, the federal government acquired large amounts of scenic lands and set them aside to be a part of the National Park system where they would hopefully abstain from being urbanized. While the west coast has grand parks like Yellowstone, the east coast also has a strong history of parks and tourism as well. Connecting the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina is the Blue Ridge National Parkway. This 500 mile stretch of paved road was developed in the 1930’s as a major land development project with multiple states and interests involved. Simultaneously, as the automobile became affordable for the middle class, the context of tourism changed to include scenic motorways which could be enjoyed by simply driving and stopping to appreciate the majestic landscapes. As the Blue Ridge Parkway redefined how tourists can enjoy National Parks, intense federal, state and local involvement during a time of economic turmoil during the Great Depression resulted in one of the most massive and unprecedented land development projects in United States history.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was one of the first roads to be developed for a purpose other than for efficient transportation. As the automobile became easily available to most classes of individuals, the need for new roads spurred during the early 1900’s. The railway was quickly being replaced for a more personal traveling experience where one would not have to rely on schedules and designated stations. As other roads were being built, however, the Blue Ridge Parkway had an entirely different purpose then just getting from point A to point B. Rather than just being a standard road, it “was established as a connection between the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks to showcase the beauty and cultural lifestyle of the region to the motoring public.”

This Parkway was entirely different from other roads because of the “emphasis on traditional cultural landscapes intended to educate, soothe, and inspire urbanized Americans by allowing them to experience ‘the look of homespun in an east that is chiefly silk and rayons.’”  In contrast to previous notions of just using roads for travel, this new road was intended for enjoyment by the general public. This gave the motorway an element of tourism, which was unheard of. Therefore, this element of enjoyment while driving not only defied the traditional notion of a National Park, but redefined it to include the Parkway as well. For the first time in American history, a road was intended to not only be a means of transportation, but also as a massive tourist attraction designed to attract middle class travelers.

Promotion of Middle Class Tourism

Indeed, the Parkway was intended to promote the development of middle-class tourism. The tourism aspect was very important within the context of the Great Depression. As unemployment rates were high and economic stability was marginal, a large scale project designed to attract tourists was appropriate. In fact, development of the Parkway was a part of the New Deal where the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was hired to help the region climb out of the Great Depression.  Thus, on one end, the development of the Parkway served the purpose of giving individuals short term employment during the tough economic times. On the other end, the Parkway was an economic investment. When the idea of the Parkway first came into the scene in 1933, “the state, like the nation, was only barely into its second decade of serious road construction.”  This is why planning a scenic motorway was such a daunting task. The issue of tourism also had to be addressed. Indeed, Whisnant remarked that “Road building and easy travel by automobile were crucial to the growth of a true national parks system and an ethic of national middle-class tourism.”  The economic need of a tourist industry inspired the developers to pay particular attention to the overall driver experience. In order to attract tourists, the Parkway had to be designed from an aesthetic perspective. This emphasized the importance of planning.

The tourism perspective heavily influenced the early planners of the Parkway. Stanley Abbott, one of the earliest proponents of the Parkway, emphasized the notion that “the idea of a scenic route was paramount to the planners’ and developers’ objectives.”  That is why the National Park Service (NPS) took such a rigorous role in its development. One of the most attractive aspects that were decided upon was the notion of early American Heritage. In fact, the NPS worked diligently “to combine the growing interest in heritage tourism with the traditional emphasis on scenic appreciation.”  Naturally, the NPS turned to utilizing symbolic elements: “relaxation, inspiration, and cultural assurance of earlier generations.”  By combining American interest with natural scenery and a beautiful driving experience, the NPS sought to drive lots of traffic into the Parkway to enjoy a very rural experience of America’s history.

As a result, the driving force of the Parkway’s development was Harvard landscape architect Henry Hubbard’s book, An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design.  Hubbard’s work emphasized on and motivated park builders to focus on scenic beauty rather than the functional purpose of roads. This meant that rather than focusing on a new model of park and road development, a more basic and traditional approach was utilized.  While it was agreed that the Parkway would focus on scenic enjoyment, the issues of location and commercialization were still left to be decided upon. Consequently, this resulted in government, state and local conflict and intervention, as well as other interests.

Problems During Construction

Since the road had to be built through three states during economic turmoil, there were emergent problems as well. The first, and most problematic, issue was the competing interests of the states in contrast to the NPS. The 1916 National Park Service Act “gave the National Park Service (NPS) a ‘dual mandate’ to ‘conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.’”  This meant that the most important aspect of the Parkway was preservation and a design that would both emphasize scenic beauty and ensure that future generations would have the availability to enjoy it as well. These goals were economic leading up to WWII to a certain extent. A Parkway tailored towards its visitors would certainly help bring more tourists to enjoy it. However, the development of the Parkway also stirred intense local interest by the states.

The intimate involvement by diverse parties epitomized the competing interests of the park. State and local officials were more importantly concerned about the economic prosperity that the park would produce in the years to come. Whisnant lamented that “In the case of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a key dynamic from the 1930’s onward has been the not-always-harmonious interaction between NPS and the regional tourism industry.”  The tourism industry was more oriented towards the economic opportunities that would emerge. For instance, Hugh MacRae of “Wilmington, North Carolina, a real estate developer who had built the upscale Linville resort community…saw the Parkway as a component in a recreational development plan for the area that would ‘assure its prosperity for all time.”  Prime examples of the local controversies over the Parkway are the regional battles over where the Parkway would be located. Whisnant remarked that there were “tortuous dialectics of public and private purpose, landowner’s frustration with the eminent domain…and Asheville’s fight with Knoxville, Tennessee, over the Parkway’s location.

Another example is the fact that the states set up local lobbyists and hired tourist oriented businessmen to help guide development on behalf of the states.  Finally, despite the fact that many southerners did not support New Deal legislation, most were eager to accept the development of the new Parkway. Clearly, the more romanticized interests of the NPS to deliver a fully scenic experience were not the only means to an end that the local states wanted. They wanted to reap the benefits of traveling motorists through their cities. Unfortunately, this caused problems for the local residents as well, a third group of people impacted by the development of the Parkway.

Since the NPS acquired land from locals and then altered it to represent cultural history of earlier times, many locals were affected. One major aspect was the use of force to remove people. For instance, “Some had to be forcibly removed to make way for parkway development, though the NPS occasionally granted lifetime leases for aged mountaineers to occupy dwellings on parkway land, where they helped enliven and authenticate the park service’s ode to rural America.”  This means that individuals that helped preserve the vision that the NPS had were welcome to stay, while others were not. Davis further lamented at the extent that the NPS went to preserve this historical cultural context:

“The NPS designed entrance stations and gas stations to emulate local building types, erected endless miles of rustic rail fence, restored historic buildings and grouped them together in themed developments, and celebrated romantic local figures and regional crafts in wayside exhibits. Structures that did not fit appropriate stereotypes were modified or removed”

National Park Service and Its Vision

Essentially, the 500 mile stretch of road was modified to meet the needs of this NPS vision. If buildings were modernized or even recently erected, they were forcibly removed. In retaliation, locals rebelled against the NPS by refusing to move and even threatening legal action. However, since the federal government was also intimately involved in the Parkway’s development, it was often times in vain. Even more troubling, “Local residents were also dismayed to learn that they were precluded from reaping the benefits of increased tourist traffic due to proscriptions against billboards and roadside stands.”  Once again, this represents the conflicting interests of the NPS and state officials. By not allowing billboards and advertisements along the Parkway, the local towns were denied the advantages of the increased traffic into the area. The overarching emphasis on scenic appreciation was thus, a double edged sword in some cases. While the Parkway did bring in traffic, it was not always utilized for commercial purposes.

Despite some negative aspects of the Parkway’s development, the NPS vision of the road was ultimately achieved. As Hammitt remarked in a recent study of the tourists perception of the Parkway, “although an aesthetic experience may be less important than more practical needs, the pleasure of driving is measurably enhanced by the parkways design to improve the aesthetic quality of life.”  Hammitt’s study also concluded that the Parkway did accomplish the scenic vision that was initially intended. While most respondents claimed that highways were pretty dull, most people surveyed stopped an average of 15 times, illuminating the fact that as a road, the Parkway was indeed actualized as “another tourist option.”  Indeed, the legacy of the Parkway persists to this day to being “the All-American highway with beautiful views.”  This reflects both the persistence of the NPS and the intense support that the federal government gave as well. The Parkway successfully redefined the tourist experience from the motorist context. Tourists can now enjoy the marvels of nature and cultural history without even stepping foot out of their car. Finally, Hall epitomized the legacy of the Parkway by stating that “it has become a museum of the American countryside.”

Conclusion and Discussion

As we have seen, the Blue Ridge Parkway changed the way that tourists experienced nature and challenged the traditional notion of a National Park. Moreover, from its early development and onward, intense federal, state and local interests played an integral role in the development of the massive project. By design, the park was not intended for simply a means of transportation from one point to another; instead, it was designed to be a scenic experience where tourists would not have to even get out of their vehicles. Before being built, the Park was carefully planned to serve a few vital functions. Firstly, short term employment for the CCC helped give young men jobs in a time of national economic difficulty. Long term, the park was designed to attract tourists so that the area could enjoy future economic prosperity.

In enticing middle class tourists to visit the Parkway, the NPS focused especially on utilizing symbolic elements that represented rural American cultural history. Despite the NPS’s admirable vision, state officials used the Parkway as a commercial opportunity. States went as far as lobbying and hiring tourism oriented businessmen to help plan the Parkway so that it would meet economic demands as well. During the development, some locals were forcibly removed because they did not meet the NPS’s criteria of being reminiscent of historical American society. Even worse, locals were even prohibited from using billboards and other marketing strategies to reap the benefits of the increased traffic. Despite this, the original vision by the NPS of a preserved Parkway that catered to traveling motorists was met. The legacy of the Parkway remained that it was a scenic tribute to rural American history.

Bibliography

Davis, Timothy. “A Pleasant Illusion of Unspoiled Countryside”: The American Parkway and the Problematics of an Institutionalized Vernacular.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 9 (2003): 228-246. JSTOR (accessed April 23, 2011).

Hall, Karen. The Blue Ridge Parkway. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Hammitt, William, and Francis Noe. “Visual Preferences of Travelers Along the Blue Ridge Parkway.” National Park Service. http://npshistory.com/series/science/18/index.htm (accessed April 23, 2011).

Whisnant, Anne. Super-scenic motorway: a Blue Ridge Parkway history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Whisnant, Anne. “Exhibition Reviews.” Journal of American History 96, no. 3 (2009): 797-803

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