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Blue Ridge Parkway reaches milestone

Motorcyclists ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Steeles Tavern, Va., in this Oct. 30, 2008, photo provided by the Virginia Department of Tourism. The parkway’s groundbreaking took place 75 years ago in Cumberland Knob, N.C. (AP Photo/Virginia Department of Tourism, Scott K. Brown)

Motorcyclists ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Steeles Tavern, Va., in this Oct. 30, 2008, photo provided by the Virginia Department of Tourism. The parkway’s groundbreaking took place 75 years ago in Cumberland Knob, N.C. (AP Photo/Virginia Department of Tourism, Scott K. Brown)

Zinie Chen Sampson
AP Writer

Floyd, VA — Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway began as a project to put people back to work during the Depression.

But 75 years later, the winding roadway has evolved into one of the United States’ most-visited national park sites, drawing about 17 million people annually and bringing about $2 billion to surrounding areas.

This year the National Park Service is celebrating the parkway’s 75th anniversary of “America’s Favorite Drive.”

Since its groundbreaking on Sept. 11, 1935, at Cumberland Knob, N.C., on the Virginia border, the parkway has become an integral part of the mountains and the Appalachian communities that lie along its 469-mile route.

With a top speed of 45 mph along its curving roads, the parkway connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It starts at Rockfish Gap, Va., intersecting Skyline Drive, and winds southwest through Virginia into mountainous western North Carolina.

A team led by landscape architect Stanley Abbott, a devotee of pioneering American parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted, conceived the parkway as a chain of recreational areas and scenic views that would integrate naturally with the mountainscape. Road builders used stonework for tunnel portals, bridges and guard walls, for example, to retain a rustic architectural style. Planners laid out the parkway’s curves to match the mountainsides’ contours, rather than remove parts of the mountain to make way for the road.

Twenty-six tunnels — 25 of them in North Carolina — were cut into mountain ridges, rather than blasting the slopes away to conform, and bridges were built over land that was removed, instead of backfilling natural drainage areas.

Planners also created roadside vistas that motorists could experience while driving, along with places to get out of their cars to take in the views, said Gary Johnson, the parkway’s chief landscape architect. Abbott also suggested using easements as a tool to preserve the Appalachian scenery, he said.

Floyd, where Virginia’s state route 8 and U.S. 221 intersect a few miles off parkway milepost 165, has become an outpost for artists and musicians.

At the parkway’s southern end, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, in Cherokee, N.C., houses tribal artifacts.

The tribe’s eastern contingent occupied southeastern states in large numbers until the U.S. government forced them to move to Oklahoma in 1838. A handful of Cherokees, however, fled into the mountains and their descendants won back their land. Some later traded their parcels to the U.S. government so the parkway could be built.

Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe, 85, says the government took his late father’s land in exchange for a plot closer to town, where Wolfe still lives. The parkway has been a welcome gateway into the Cherokee area, he said.

In its 75th year, the parkway faces challenges, including federal budget cuts that affect staffing, landscaping and maintenance, and air pollution from Midwestern coal-fired plants that can cloud mountain views.

Park officials and preservation groups also are concerned about encroaching development on “America’s Favorite Drive” as much of the land along the parkway is privately owned.

“You get a sense of what was once farmland now is commercial developments and subdivisions viewable from the parkway,” Johnson said. “The whole sense of land-use and quality of scenery has changed.”

According to the National Park Service, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina is heading a coalition of land-preservation groups seeking federal funds to buy land or conservation easements along the parkway.

Recent surveys show visitors would be less likely to return to the parkway if scenic views are compromised, so preserving views has become a priority.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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