For more than forty years now, my family has vacationed in a small cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, near the tiny village of Laurel Springs. We built the cabin in the early 1970s, though we began visiting the area long before that. My father first came with my mother and sister in the mid-1950s, when he was in medical school in Winston-Salem. On Saturday mornings, they would drive up to Doughton Park, a large recreation area on the Blue Ridge Parkway, eat lunch at the Park’s coffee shop, hike in the woods and meadows nearby, and sometimes spend the night in the Park’s rustic lodge.
After my father joined a medical practice in Raleigh in 1964, the trips became longer and more frequent. Now with three young boys, my parents must have appreciated not only the beauty and tranquility of the place but also the wild spaces for their children to roam and play in. I have vivid memories of hiking in Doughton Park’s woods, running in the Park’s famous high meadows, eating ham biscuits at the Park’s coffee shop, and sitting by the lodge’s outdoor fireplace on starlit summer nights. We sometimes camped in the Park’s campground, and we often took day trips further up and down the Parkway.
In the early 1970s, my father asked a waitress at the Doughton Park coffee shop about local real estate, and before long he had bought a twelve-acre parcel of land off a country road near Laurel Springs. There, we built a cabin of my father’s own design. It’s a small structure but has served us well – on the first floor, there’s a large room with high ceilings and a fireplace, combining kitchen, dining room, and living room, and, off to the side, two small bedrooms. Upstairs there are two more small bedrooms. The land is half rolling meadow, half wooded hillside. The gravel driveway we built, through the meadow, is now lined with tall pine trees, and the hillside above is now forested so thickly it’s impossible to walk to the top.
Growing up, I loved that cabin and the land around it. I explored every inch of the property and even drew a map of it, giving names to the footpaths that crossed the hillside and the little creek that tumbled down through the mountain laurel. I explored further afield as well: hiking along the country road at the bottom of our hill and the cow pastures, trout streams, and dense forests that bordered it. But it was Doughton Park, with its high meadows, steep bluffs, and rugged valleys, that I loved more than anything. It was only a few miles from the cabin, and we often went every day when we were there. We would sometimes drive up to the coffee shop in the morning for breakfast, return in the afternoon for a hike, and later take an evening drive to look for deer. We would even go up in the winter, when no one else was around.
Originally called The Bluffs, 6,000 acre Doughton Park was created in the 1930s when the Blue Ridge Parkway was routed through this part of North Carolina. It was one of the first parts of the Parkway to be completed and remains its largest recreation area. In the 1950s, it was renamed for Robert Lee Doughton (1863-1954), a local landowner and politician, who was instrumental in getting the Parkway built. Mr. Doughton (pronounced “dow-ton”) was born, lived, and died in Laurel Springs; his house stands to this day across from the Laurel Springs post office, and his grave is in the cemetery at Laurel Springs Baptist Church. He was a U.S. congressman from 1911 to 1953 and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for most of the period from 1933 to 1953. A fiscal conservative, he nonetheless admired his fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he generally supported the New Deal, which included the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway through his home district.
The northern and western borders of Doughton Park are formed by the Parkway itself, which here follows the crest of the mountains, traveling at more than 3,000 feet above sea level through rolling highland meadow. The other borders of the Park are traced by steeply descending mountain ridges: Flat Rock Ridge along the southern side of the Park and Cedar Ridge along the eastern side. Within these borders is the rugged and remote watershed of two mountain streams, Basin Creek and Cove Creek. Together, the double valley – or double gorge – is known as Basin Cove.
The area is wilderness now, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pioneer families lived here in small cabins along the creeks, with plots of cleared land for farming and footpaths connecting them to one another and the world outside. Looking up, the settlers could see the sheer cliffs, rock faces, and steep sides of Bluff Mountain and its neighbors. Today, Doughton Park is a combination not only of uninhabited wilderness and landscaped recreation areas, but of gently rolling meadows, steep forested hillside, and dense creek valleys.
There are about 30 miles of hiking trails in Doughton Park. Growing up, I knew them all. The longest are the four trails that descend into Basin Cove: the wide Grassy Gap Fire Road is both the longest and most gently descending; the Flat Rock Ridge, Cedar Ridge, and Bluff Ridge Trails are steeper and more strenuous, though they get you down to the valley floor faster. (A good strategy is to go down one of the ridge trails and then return via Grassy Gap.) Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are hiking those trails with my family. We would leave early, taking lunch, water, and our dog Maggie, who would often disappear for hours at a stretch – we would hear her barking a mile away and worry that she was lost or had encountered an animal bigger than she was. But she always eventually found us, probably because we made so much noise ourselves, clapping and whatnot – a ranger had told my father that was the way to ward off rattlesnakes.
Once you’re in Basin Cove, you can hike up the Basin Creek Trail to the foot of Bluff Mountain, where you’ll find, in a small clearing by the creek, the most famous attraction in Doughton Park: the Caudill Cabin, an abandoned log house, 16 by 18 feet in size, on stone piers, with a wood-shingled roof and stone chimney. It was built by Martin Caudill in 1890 for his large and growing family. Located high up Basin Cove, the cabin is about 1,500 feet directly below Wildcat Rocks, where it is visible to Parkway travelers from a dramatic overlook near the lodge. For nearly seventy-five years, a sign at Wildcat Rocks has told visitors about the Caudill Cabin, its occupants, and pioneer life in Basin Cove. (Another, even-better preserved pioneer cabin in Doughton Park is the Brinegar Cabin, built in 1886 and now on the National Register of Historic Places; it’s right on the Parkway itself, at milepost 238.)
(Most of the color photographs in this post are my own; the black-and-white photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are from either “Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway” or the Historic American Engineering Record [HAER] at the Library of Congress – see “Works Cited” for links.)
Downstream from Martin Caudill’s cabin was the cabin of Harrison Caudill, his father; and other families lived nearby. A flood in 1916 killed several residents and destroyed most of the man-made structures here; the Caudill Cabin survived, but the family abandoned the area soon after, and the Cove was never again a significant human settlement. In 1938, as the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built and Bluffs Park assembled, the National Park Service purchased the Caudill Cabin; it has been a popular exhibit at the Park ever since, even if most visitors only see it from the cliffs above. The cabin has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s, my father would try, often unsuccessfully, to point it out to my sister when she was little; later, in the early 1970s, we hiked down to it for the first time; and it remains a highlight of Doughton Park for family and friends who visit us.
The video below shows author Randy Johnson hiking up Basin Creek to visit the cabin with three descendants of Martin Caudill.
Besides the trails in Basin Cove, Doughton Park also contains a lovely walk that parallels the Parkway itself, known as the Bluff Mountain Trail. And, then there’s the Fodderstack Trail, which departs from the parking lot at Wildcat Rocks and follows a mountain ridge due east, forming a loop at the end before returning. This has always been a favorite hike of my family. It’s only about two miles long, round trip, but it includes diverse terrain and beautiful views of Basin Cove. (When I was younger, there was a steep path that descended straight to the Caudill Cabin from the end of Fodderstack, but it doesn’t appear on official maps of the Park today.)
As my siblings and I have aged, we walk more and more in the meadows behind the lodge – where we ran as children. The terrain there is hilly but not too strenuous and affords good views not only of Doughton Park’s grassy highlands but of the distant Blue Ridge mountains, which roll out to the southwest as far as the eye can see. We always end up at Alligator Back, another sheer face of Bluff Mountain, with its spectacular views of both Basin Cove and the Parkway itself. In a 1961 guidebook to this part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I read as a boy, author William Lord says of Alligator Back that “the view about you is a wonderful hurly-burly of hills.”
For the past twenty-five years, I have lived far from North Carolina – in Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. For most of that time, when I was able to come back with my children, we stayed mostly in Raleigh, where my parents live. If we could stay longer – in the summers, for example – it was the beaches of North Carolina that tempted us. I think I once went five years without setting foot in the cabin.
But as my parents aged, my children grew up, and my career made somewhat fewer demands on me, I found myself coming more frequently to North Carolina and plotting more determinedly to be in the mountains. Last summer, I drove down from Massachusetts and spent two weeks at the cabin by myself. I wrote in the mornings and rode my bike on the Parkway in the afternoons. Occasionally, I would drive into Sparta, the Alleghany County seat, to buy groceries and check my email.
That two-week stay was a revelation, and I haven’t been able to get the place out of my mind since.
When I was younger, I was sure that one day the area around the cabin would become overdeveloped. A childhood in booming Raleigh led me to think that ceaseless growth was the way of all settlements, “empty” land only a building site in waiting. I always imagined little cabins like ours, or worse, sprouting up all around us, and soon the peace and quiet of the place would be lost.
In fact, that never happened. The area around Laurel Springs has developed very slowly, if at all, with only minimal impact on the environment. Christmas tree farming is now the dominant agricultural industry in the area, replacing dairy farming, but it’s hardly an intrusive business, at least as far as I can tell. There are also more motorcycles now than there used to be, especially on weekends, but their increase has been offset by a decline in automobile tourism in the area. In other words, things have evened out over the decades, with every little growth balanced by a modest decline. The result is that the place seems to have kept its quiet charm without changing much one way or another. The fact is, Laurel Springs looks and feels much like it did forty years ago, neither booming nor dying.
But up the road, at Doughton Park, the future is more uncertain. A cloud has formed over the place, and it doesn’t seem to be dissipating. To explain what I mean, I should back up a bit.
The story often told about the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway involves President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia. In the summer of 1933, FDR’s first summer as president, he was touring a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Shenandoah National Park with Sen. Byrd and others when he was treated to a short trip on the new Skyline Drive. The President apparently so enjoyed the trip, with its spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley, that Sen. Byrd remarked how nice it would be if the Skyline Drive were extended all the way down through Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. The road, he told the President, would not only connect the two parks, improving access to them, but it would also bring jobs and tourist dollars to southern Appalachian communities hard hit by the Depression.
The idea for a scenic road through the southern Appalachians had been bandied about for a while. A “Crest of the Blue Ridge” highway, stretching 350 miles from Marion, Virginia, to Tallulah, Georgia, and passing through Boone, Blowing Rock, Linville, Little Switzerland, Asheville, Hendersonville, and Brevard, North Carolina, had been proposed as early as 1906 by Dr. Joseph Hyde Pratt of the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, but the idea did not survive World War I.
Then, when the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains Parks were formed in the 1920s, part of an effort to bring western-style national parks to the eastern part of the country, proposals emerged to build a park-to-park connecting road that would help bring people to these remote areas. But it took the power of FDR, and the economic urgency of the Depression, to make Sen. Bryd’s vision of a great southern mountain road a reality. Even so, the ambition of the project, and the speed with which it was initiated, is breathtaking when viewed from our era of government gridlock.
By the fall of 1933, just months after the President first heard the idea, $4 million had been appropriated by the Department of the Interior to begin locating, designing, and building a scenic road between the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks; and in December of that year the first employees were hired, including a young landscape architect from New York named Stanley Abbott. By late 1934, just a year later, the entire route had been plotted and land acquisition begun; and, in 1935, road construction began just south of the NC/VA state line, near what is today Cumberland Knob. In 1936, the Blue Ridge Parkway itself was established as an agency of the National Park Service. By the end of the 1930s, a third of the road, including the section through what is today Doughton Park, was complete. Soon after, construction halted for World War II, but, after the war, the goal of completing the Parkway was assisted by a massive influx of federal funds, and almost the entire Parkway was completed by the mid-1960s. For the next two decades, only a 7.5 mile stretch around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina remained unbuilt, and when the Linville Cove Viaduct was finished in 1987, the Blue Ridge Parkway was officially completed, about 50 years after the project first broke ground.
Today, the Parkway travels an uninterrupted 469-mile route through two states, 29 counties, seven congressional districts, and the land of nearly 5,000 adjacent property owners. It was the first, and is perhaps still the most famous, “truly rural scenic parkway of such magnitude” in the world (Burggraf). It is also an innovative “linear” or “elongated” park with numerous wayside attractions. At the height of its popularity, as many as 21 million people a year rode it for some length, the most visited park in the U.S. National Park Service.
But the Parkway is not just a means of travel and recreation. From the beginning, it has interpreted, through its wayside exhibits and programs, the Southern Appalachians for the rest of the nation; it has been an important source of jobs and economic development for a historically poor part of the country; and it has preserved land and natural resources from private development, much as our other national parks have done.
The parkway is different from those other parks, however, by being essentially a road, even as it is different from most roads by being a park. The idea of a “parkway” can be traced back several centuries, but the immediate inspiration for the Blue Ridge Parkway was the Westchester County Parkways of New York, built between 1913 and 1930 and including the Bronx River Parkway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Saw Mill River Parkway, and the Cross County Parkway. There were several innovative features of these roadways: most importantly, they were designed for scenic pleasure and recreation, rather than simple convenience. They were thus curvilinear, not straight, with limited access and little or no cross traffic. Slower speed limits were instituted, and a relatively wide right of way was acquired to preserve views and landscapes. No billboards or commercial traffic (e.g., freight trucks) was allowed.
A publicly funded scenic parkway in a place like Westchester County, New York, however, was hard to preserve; and many of those roads today, although still comparatively scenic, are used for high-speed commuting, not pleasure driving. Still, the early influence of the Westchester Parkways on the design of the Blue Ridge Parkway is undeniable; in fact, Stanley Abbott, the Parkway’s first resident architect and later its first superintendent, was working for the Westchester County Parkways when he was hired in late 1933 to oversee the design and construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
What was unique about the Blue Ridge Parkway, compared to the Westchester roads, was its immense length, its end points in two national parks, and its truly rural location in a part of the country without great wealth. Abbott’s design for the Parkway also introduced several elements not present, or not present to such a degree, in the Westchester County projects. First, and perhaps most important, was Abbott’s formula for the Parkway’s width, a formula which met considerable initial resistance. It involved outright acquisition of approximately 100 acres of land per mile of roadway – amounting to an unheard of right of way averaging approximately 825 feet, or 412.5 feet to either side of the roadway’s center. (By comparison, roads of the time were generally constructed with a right of way of 50 to 75 feet; even the right of way for the Westchester Parkways only averaged around 200 feet, one-fourth what was proposed for the Blue Ridge Parkway.) In addition to the outright acquisition of 100 acres per mile in “fee simple” right of way, Abbott fought for an additional 50 acres per mile (or another 400 feet total in width) in “scenic easements” – that is, restrictions on the development of adjacent private properties.
The beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Parkway were achieved, in other words, partly by siting the road along the crest of the mountains, partly by locating it away from population centers, but partly also by acquiring a wide enough right of way that its “natural” integrity would be permanently uncompromised. As historian Anne Mitchell Whisnant has put it, much of the visual appeal of the Parkway is “borrowed” from its neighbors: what you see from the road is not necessarily Parkway land. This was the genius of Abbot’s vision: “the horizon would be the boundary . . . there would be nothing in view from the Parkway for as far as the eye could see that would displease the traveler” (Swaim 44).
The second innovation can probably be traced to Abbott’s training as a landscape architect (Cornell, 1929): it was his emphasis on fitting the roadway into the landscape as naturally as possible. On the Parkway, there would be no at-grade road crossings, only a seemingly endless, gently curving, unobtrusive roadway. Every detail of the surrounding landscape, from road shoulders and parking overviews to split-rail fencing and stone guardwalls, to campgrounds and picnic areas, even the signage, would be designed in a way that “fit the Parkway into the mountains as if nature had put it there” (Gignoux 35).
Third, Abbott was convinced that the uninterrupted top-of-the-ridge siting of the Skyline Drive could not work for the 500-mile length of the Blue Ridge Parkway; visitors would tire of relentless mountaintop vistas. So the Parkway was designed for as much scenic diversity as possible, often traveling along the crest of the mountains but often descending into other, equally pleasing landscapes. The design was like “following a mountain stream for awhile, then climbing up on the slope of a hill pasture, then dipping down into the open bottom lands and back into the woodlands” (Swaim 45). As we’ll see below, this preference of Abbott’s for scenic variety is more evident in the northern part of the Parkway (including Doughton Park) than the southern, the route below Blowing Rock, NC, based on a more unrelenting “mountain-top” route than Abbott proposed.
Fourth, Abbott and his team were committed as much to cultural preservation as to natural preservation. True, there was more destruction, and relocation, of human presence in the siting and design of the Parkway than is generally thought; but in many places, the culture of the southern Appalachian people was preserved to an extent – for example, in the Brinegar and Caudill Cabins in Doughton Park.
Finally, a key part of Abbott’s design for the Parkway was its wayside recreation areas. His original idea was to provide some kind of “bulge” every 25 miles or so – a place for visitors to get out of their cars for part of a day, or more, and hike, picnic, view an exhibit, eat in a park restaurant, stay in a park lodge or campground, or shop in a park store. Additional land would be acquired in certain locations, going well beyond the 1,000 foot right of way used for the “linear” part of the park. These recreation areas would be the “gems” on the “necklace” of the Parkway. Five were planned and completed in the early years of the Parkway, including Doughton Park, the largest of them all. Although Abbott’s vision of 19 wayside parks was never fully realized, the Parkway is today known as much for these areas, attractions in their own right, as for the road itself.
Of course, a vision is one thing, implementation is another. If Abbot’s dream of the Parkway was of a road that looked like it had always been there, designed by Nature herself, the actual story of the Parkway’s location, design, and construction is as full of conflicts and contradictions, economic interests and human artifice, as any undertaking of its kind. The story of the routing of the Parkway, for example, could itself fill a book. Some of the literature about the Parkway treats its construction as a triumph of professional design, with landscape architect Abbott, and his two location engineers, Hendrik Van Gelder in Virginia and Edward Abbuehl in North Carolina, operating with carte blanche from Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, carving their beautiful road through 500 miles of Southern Appalachians with only their aesthetic principles to guide them.
There may be some truth in that story when applied to the northern half of the Parkway, the route from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, across the James River, by the Peaks of Otter, Roanoke Mountain, and Rocky Knob, and through what was then Bluffs Park to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, a route which seems to have been arrived at relatively easily and approved relatively early in the process – in fact within half a year of FDR and Sen. Byrd’s trip to the Skyline Drive. But the story of the southern routing of the Parkway, from Blowing Rock to the Great Smoky Mountains, is another story altogether. Throughout 1934, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina fought a pitched battle on behalf of their preferred routes. From the point of view of Tennessee’s delegation, after arriving at Blowing Rock, the Parkway should veer sharply west into their state and then travel south over a somewhat lower elevation to the western gate of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was the route, in fact, preferred by Stanley Abbott, who thought the North Carolina way too high, too rugged, and too expensive. There was also something to be said, politically, for a route between the two national parks that would be shared by three states, rather than just two.
But the North Carolina delegation, including Governor Ehringhaus, Rep. Doughton, and the business interests of Asheville, was adamant that the southern route should stay in North Carolina the whole way, proceeding from Blowing Rock through Linville and Little Switzerland, passing Mt. Mitchell, the Craggy Gardens, Asheville, and Mt. Pisgah, and ending in the Cherokee Indian Reservation at a new eastern gate to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a route that bore some resemblance to Joseph Hyde Pratt’s earlier plan for a “Crest of the Blue Ridge” highway, but it was largely laid out by R. Getty Browning, chief locating engineer for the North Carolina State Highway Commission. The route was high in elevation, dramatic in scenery, and expensive to build, requiring literally dozens of tunnels and viaducts, to say nothing of negotiating the many competing public and private interests along the way.
By the middle of 1934, the momentum seemed to be moving Tennessee’s way, but after several tumultuous public hearings, and who knows how much backroom dealing, Secretary Ickes wrote to the two governors in November, 1934, informing them that the North Carolina route had been selected. Both Anne Mitchell Whisnant and Richard Quinn tell the story in fascinating detail, but the ultimate reason why the eastern route won out will probably never be known. Was it, as North Carolinians have long held, that that way is simply more beautiful? Was it, as Ickes himself implied, that Tennessee had been the recent beneficiary of much federal largesse in TVA projects? Did FDR friend and North Carolina native Josephus Daniels (who had a home in the North Carolina mountains) play a role? Or was there opposition to Stanley Abbott’s stated preference for a scenic highway at a lower elevation than the North Carolina route, with its series of stunning mountaintop views?
The story of the Blue Ridge Parkway is also the story of thousands and thousands of complex, complicated, and often controversial real estate transactions. True, the Parkway in some places passed through national forest and other easy-to-acquire tracts of land, and in some places it was the beneficiary of large private donations (e.g., the Moses Cone and Julian Price tracts); but for much of its route, Parkway planners had to acquire the road’s right of way and scenic easements acre by acre, from thousands of private landowners, big and small, some willing to sell during hard economic times, others reluctant to give up any land or rights for a project they were uninterested in or even opposed to. The very beauty of the Parkway, and its “natural” fit into the landscape, in other words, belies its origins in a huge, legal, land grab, one in which government officials and agencies used their awesome power of eminent domain and condemnation to acquire the private property of American citizens, many of them uneducated and poor. At the same time, some large landowners with government connections, like the Doughtons, may well have benefitted financially from the project.
The politics of all this is largely invisible when you drive the parkway today. Abbott’s dream of making the road look as if it were always there was in many ways realized; but that appearance is an illusion. This “natural” landscape was written by human beings, with very particular agendas in mind, on top of a landscape that was already written by social, political, and economic interests. And even after the land was acquired and the road built, the Blue Ridge Parkway continued to participate in the human conflicts and socioeconomic struggles of its surrounding culture, despite pretending not to.
Take, for example, one of the more disturbing periods in the story of Doughton Park. In a digital history project recently published online, students in Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s fall 2013 History 671 Introduction to Public History course at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill describe officially-sanctioned racial discrimination at Doughton Park in its early years. Using both primary and secondary sources, they write about how, when the Park opened in the late 1930s, African American visitors were not allowed to use the “meadows” picnic area on top of Bluff Mountain, precisely the place where my parents brought us to run and play in the 1950s and ‘60s and where my siblings and I continue to walk today, often hiking from the lodge to Alligator Back through the beautiful and famous high meadows of the Park. Apparently, when the Park first opened, the “woods” picnic area nearby was open to all, but the “meadows” facility, deemed nicer, was restricted to whites only.
According to the students’ website, when a group of African American visitors from Winston-Salem demanded use of the meadows picnic area in July, 1941, Park Superintendent Stanley Abbott asked an assistant to draw up a “Negro Master Plan” meant to provide better (but still segregated) facilities for African American visitors to the Park. The plan was never implemented, but the students gloss over exactly how the problem was finally resolved, writing only that World War II came along and, after the war, National Park Service facilities everywhere were desegregated.
There are other ways in which the Blue Ridge Parkway has hidden its own particular brand of cultural and social violence. Take, for example, the Caudill Cabin at Doughton Park, such an important part of my own family’s history with this place. In a fascinating online article titled “Reinterpreting the Caudill Cabin,” Cassandra McGuire shows how the cabin was used by Stanley Abbott and other Parkway officials to perpetuate a distorted and, in some ways, pernicious view of the residents whose land was taken to build the Parkway and its recreation areas.
From the beginning, Abbott referred to the Caudill Cabin as an example of the “extreme isolation of mountain folk”; but McGuire reminds us that, before the 1916 flood, the cabin had not been isolated at all, that Basin Cove had been dotted with cabins, and that there had been anywhere from twenty to fifty families living in the valley, linked together by a shared church, school, and economic and social interests. The 1916 flood destroyed all that, though Martin Caudill’s cabin survived, a function of its location high up Basin Creek. Its “isolation,” then, was not an essential feature of the mountain way of life, as Abbott seemed to believe, but an historical accident. And yet early signage in Doughton Park not only mixed up details of Caudill family history and exaggerated the number of children who lived in the structure, it also perpetuated a stereotype about local residents that was simply untrue.
Early residents of the area have also often been represented as poor – dirt poor – even as squatters on their land, a perception that makes it easier to bear the stories of their later dispossession and relocation. But the Caudills, like the Brinegars, legally owned the land where their cabins sit today. The Brinegars owned over a hundred acres on the mountaintop along the northeastern corner of today’s Doughton Park; and, according to a 2006 “cultural landscape report” about this section of the Parkway, the Caudills owned as much as a thousand acres in the valley below Bluff Mountain (13). According to McGuire, one Caudill descendant has even claimed that Doughton Park ought rightfully to be called “Caudill Park.”
Who, then, owned Basin Cove when Bluffs Park was created in the late 1930s? The Caudills and nearly everyone else who had lived there left after the 1916 flood. But did they sell the land or just abandon it? And if they sold it, whom did they sell it to, and for how much? Randy Johnson, in his Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, writes that the whole Cove was purchased in 1930 by Robert Doughton – one imagines at a good price, given its recent destruction by flood and its abandonment by the families who once lived there. Occasionally, you read that Doughton later donated the land, over 5,000 acres, for the park that would one day bear his name. But all the accounts I’ve read of the acquisition of the Cove refer to its “purchase” in 1937-38, just as Section 2-C of the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built. If so, was it right for Congressman Doughton to profit, not only from the Caudills’ misfortune in 1916, but from his own role in the U.S. government’s decision to build the Parkway, to route it so close to his home in Laurel Springs, and to build its largest recreation area in a place where he and other family members were such significant landowners?
To complicate matters further, the land acquisition map copied here, from the Blue Ridge Parkway archives, shows Basin Cove in the 1930s as a hodgepodge of private parcels of land – there’s no indication that the whole thing was owned by any single person, whether a Caudill or a Doughton.
As we’ve seen, the Blue Ridge Parkway was meant to be a scenic drive through a beautiful and unspoiled southern Appalachian landscape. It’s nearly impossible, when you’re traveling the Parkway or walking in one of its recreation areas, not to appreciate its natural beauty. But I can’t help but want to see behind and under that surface. How exactly did this landscape come to be? What voices were silenced in its production? What conflicts suppressed in its final instantiation? What cultural assumptions are invoked in the very artificial design of this quintessentially “natural” landscape?
Finally, what’s so natural about a public park designed primarily for the private automobile? Isn’t that really what the Blue Ridge Parkway is: an outdated, outmoded testament to what Lewis Mumford once called the American “religion of the motorcar”?
All that said, the Parkway’s success over the last three-quarters of a century is irrefutable. The road and its attractions have for so long been so popular that one can’t help but admire the achievement of Stanley Abbott and others who designed and built it. According to focus groups in the 1980s, the Parkway has provided a welcome escape from the stress and routine of everyday life, an opportunity to view the scenic beauty of the Virginia and North Carolina mountains, an important contribution to local economies through travel and tourism, and needed recreational opportunities. In addition, according to Barry M. Buxton and Steven M. Beatty, “Perhaps no other road in the world interprets the natural and cultural history of a region so well as the Blue Ridge Parkway does the Southern Appalachians” (i).
But can the Parkway survive into the twenty-first century? In a massive management plan published last year, Parkway officials acknowledge a host of pressures that are prompting a rethinking of what the Blue Ridge Parkway is and how it should adapt to changing times. They include increased private encroachment on the Parkway from housing and business development, especially around such population centers as Roanoke, Boone, and Asheville; new kinds of road use – especially by motorcycles, bicycles, and recreational vehicles – that Parkway planners simply did not envision; and, of course climate change and other threats to the health of the Parkway’s flora and fauna. But perhaps the two most pressing challenges facing the Parkway today are, first, eroding public investment in such shared national, state, and local resources, and, second, declining visitorship to the Parkway itself, probably the most surprising and worrisome development of all.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Outdoor Recreation Review Commission found that “driving for pleasure” was the most important and frequent recreation activity of Americans. If you asked young people today about “driving for pleasure,” I’m not sure they would even know what you meant. I’ve written in other posts about declining rates of automobile ownership and use in our country, especially among young people. Can the parkway survive such a huge generational shift away from the private automobile, and automobile touring – a shift that, in most respects, is probably a good thing for the planet?
And does that shift account for declining use of the Blue Ridge Parkway? According to an article in the Roanoke Times, in 2013, the Parkway attracted its fewest visitors since 1979: 12.8 million visitors, a drop of 40 percent from the all-time high of 21.5 million in 2002. According to the National Park Service, the drop “was primarily due to several lengthy weather-related road closures during the first three months of 2013,” as well as the government shutdown of October, 2013. But a downward trend in Parkway use has been noted since at least 2003.
Meanwhile, an increasingly stingy federal government has cut the Parkway budget so much in recent years that staffing there has declined over the last decade from 240 full-time employees to 170. The cuts have affected services, leading to closed facilities all along the Parkway, even during high season, and even at attractions like Doughton Park, which has closed popular facilities like its picnic grounds for extended periods in recent years.
In fact, Doughton Park may well be ground zero in this cultural shift in the use of our national parks. In 2011, much to my family’s disappointment, the Park closed, for the first time in more than 60 years, its famous lodge and coffee shop, claiming that it could no longer find a concessionaire willing to manage them. For three years now, we have waited for the facilities to re-open, but they remain empty. The official position of the Parkway is that the closures are temporary, but it’s impossible not to fear that one day we’ll drive up to Doughton Park and find wrecking crews leveling the old structures and allowing the land there to return to forest, meadow, and wilderness.
Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. In the 1960s, as the “Unbuilt Doughton Park” website shows, two very different visions for the future of Doughton Park were proposed. In one, the Park would expand dramatically, the size of both the lodge and coffee shop doubling and a visitor’s center and other new amenities built. It was a reminder of Stanley Abbot’s original vision for Doughton Park, in the mid-1930s, which included a man-made lake and golf course in Basin Cove.
In the other, very different, proposal, all the land in Basin Cove would be designated a federal wilderness area, forever protecting and preserving that tract in as wild a state as possible.
For good or ill, neither proposal was adopted, and, in a sense, Doughton Park, like the Blue Ridge Parkway that travels through it, has stood still for more than 50 years, essentially stuck in the past. As the “Unbuilt Doughton Park” authors put, “Since 1969, Doughton Park has been in an elongated phase of atrophy.”
It’s a worrisome situation. But for now, all I can think about is summer in Laurel Springs: the chill air of morning, the sweet breeze of midday, the sound of crickets, unending, at night. Walking down the gravel drive in the afternoon, I can hear the tinkling sound of a small creek, the rustling of the underbrush. Peering up, I have never seen such green in all my life. And from the Parkway, looking out at the far horizon, the mountains fade softly into blue – mountains as far as the eye can see.
The Blue Ridge Parkway’s most recent General Management Plan was published in Asheville, NC, Jan., 2013. It can be downloaded here.
The Cultural Landscape Report for Doughton Park and Sections 2A, B and C, Blue Ridge Parkway, written by the Jaeger Company under the direction of the National Park Service, was published in Asheville, NC, in 2006. It can be downloaded here.
Barry M. Buxton and Steven M. Beatty (eds.)’s Blue Ridge Parkway: Agent of Transition was published in Boone, NC, by the Appalachian Consortium Press in 1986. It includes chapters by Gary Everhardt, Frank B. Burggraf, Leslie Gignoux, and Douglas Swaim, among others.
Barry M. Buxton’s Brinegar Cabin Historic Resource Study was published by the Blue Ridge Parkway, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, in 1988. It can be downloaded, along with the official 1949 Blue Ridge Parkway Guide Book, here.
“Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway” can be found here. It includes Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s “Routing the Parkway, 1934” and Cassandra McGuire’s “Reinterpreting the Caudill Cabin,” among other resources.
Environment America’s Death by a Thousand Cuts, America’s National Park System: Underfunded & Under Threat, published in Jan., 2014, can be found here.
Randy Johnson’s 2010 blog post, “Basin Creek Trail to Caudill Cabin in Doughton Park,” which includes the video of his hike to the Caudill Cabin, can be found here. His book Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway (A Falcon Guide) was published by Morris Book Publishing in Guilford, CT, 2003.
William G. Lord’s The Blue Ridge Parkway Guide, Section B, from Roanoke, VA, to Blowing Rock – Boone, was published by The Stephens Press in Asheville, NC, 1961.
The July 22, 2014, Roanoke Times article about declining visitorship on the Blue Ridge Parkway can be found here.
Richard Quin’s report on the Blue Ridge Parkway for the Historic American Engineering Record, HAER Report No. NC-42, was published by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1997. It can be downloaded here. HAER photographs and drawings of the Parkway at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, are available here.
Donald H. Robinson’s Camper’s and Hiker’s Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway was published in Riverside, CT, by The Chatham Press in 1971.
The “Unbuilt Doughton Park” project (fall 2013) can be found here.
USGS Topographic maps, like the two of Whitehead Quadrangle, NC, used above, can be found here.
The website of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association is here.
The website of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is here.
The website of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway is here.