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NPS Expansion: 1930s







New Deal



NPS 1933-39




Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s:
Administrative History

Chapter Four: New Initiatives in the Field of Recreation and Recreational Area Development
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J. National Parkways

The modern parkway idea, as it is understood in the United States today, had it origins in county and municipal undertakings such as Westchester County Parkway in New York built between 1913 and 1930. Parkways, like highways, may serve either a commercial or a recreational function. According to a report issued by the Natural Resources Board in 1934, more than half of the traffic over the highway system in the United States during the preceding year had been recreational traffic. The report estimated that 60 percent of the total use of the American automobile was for recreational purposes. The increasing population of the country and its needs for outdoor travel made construction of scenic highways or parkways highly desirable. [70]

While the Westchester County parkways were being constructed, Congress began to apply the "parkway" idea locally in the District of Columbia. Congress authorized its first parkway project in 1913--the four-mile Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway that connected Potomac Park with Rock Creek Park and the Zoological Park. Some fifteen years later on May 23, 1928, Congress authorized construction of the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway that would link the District of Columbia with Mount Vernon in commemoration of the bicentennial of Washington's birth. The act specifically called for the "planting of shade trees and shrubbery and for other landscape treatment, parking, and ornamental structures" as well as right-of-way provisions to protect adequately the beauty of the highway. On May 29, 1930, this highway was renamed the George Washington Memorial Parkway and enlarged to extend from Mount Vernon to Great Falls, Virginia, and from Fort Washington to Great Falls, Maryland (Alexandria and the District of Columbia excepted). The George Washington Memorial Parkway was added to the National Park System as part of the reorganization of 1933, becoming the first recreational area to be incorporated into the system. [71]The Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was also transferred with the other National Capital Parks, although it was not classed as a separate unit of the National Park System.

In actuality the first parkway to be built and administered by the Park Service and the first parkway to be authorized by Congress beyond the District of Columbia vicinity was the Colonial Parkway in Colonial National Monument. This parkway, however, was always considered as an integral part of the monument rather than a separate administrative unit. When the monument was authorized on July 3, 1930, the legislation providing for its establishment directed the Secretary of the Interior

to make an examination of Jamestown Island, parts of the city of Williamsburg, and the Yorktown battlefield . . . and areas for highways to connect said island, city, and battlefield with a view to determining the area or areas thereof desirable for inclusion in the said Colonial National Monument, not to exceed two thousand five hundred acres of the said battlefield or five hundred feet in width as to such connecting areas. . . .

In 1931 the Park Service let contracts for grading the first nine miles of what would ultimately become a twenty-three mile parkway between Yorktown and Jamestown. [72]

A new era for national parkways began with Congressional authorization of the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace parkways in the 1930s. Both parkways began as public works projects during the New Deal and were later transformed into units of the National Park System. The National Park Service considered these two parkways as "pioneers in their respective fields of national recreational and historical motor travel." [73] These parkways were not short county or metropolitan roadways serving local travel needs but rather protected interstate roadways traversing hundreds of miles of scenic and historical rural landscape. According to a Park Service pamphlet printed in January 1938 the national parkways were a new type of development in the park system consisting of

an elongated park area devoted to recreation, which features a pleasure vehicle road through its entire length and is kept free of commercialism. [74]

The parkway was a road constructed in a manner that would protect, yet make available for public enjoyment the outstanding scenic and historic points of interest along the route. A particular aim of the parkways was to prevent the erection of billboards, signs, and other works that might mar or detract from the natural beauty along the roadway. [75]

In answer to the question of "what is a parkway, and what is the difference between it and an ordinary expressway or highway," the National Park Service formulated a definition of this type of road in 1938. A parkway was defined as a development of the highway that differed from the usual highway in at least eight respects. According to this definition that was articulated to Congress by Assistant Director Arthur E. Demaray in 1938, the parkway (1) was designated for noncommercial, recreational use; (2) sought to avoid unsightly buildings and other roadside developments that mar the ordinary highway; (3) was built within a much wider right-of-way to provide an insulating strip of park land between the roadway and the abutting private property; (4) eliminated frontage and access rights and preserved the natural scenic values; (5) preferably took a new location, bypassing built-up communities and avoiding congestion; (6) aimed to make accessible the best scenery in the country it traversed, hence the shortest or most direct route was not necessarily a primary consideration; (7) eliminated major grade crossings; and (8) had entrance and exit points space at distant intervals to reduce interrruptions to the main traffic stream. [76]

The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park served as a prototype for the Blue Ridge Parkway. President Herbert Hoover, who vacationed at his camp on the Rapidan River in the area being acquired for Shenandoah, promoted the idea of the Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge. Initial planning for the parkway began by the National Park Service at Hoover's behest in 1931 and four work camps were established in 1932 to begin work using relief funds. [77]

Among other provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Administrator of Public Works was authorized to prepare a comprehensive program of public works, including the construction, repair, and improvement of public highways and parkways. Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, along with others, seized the opportunity to propose the construction of a scenic roadway linking Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks as a public works project. In November 1933 President Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes embraced the proposal provided that the states of Virginia and North Carolina donated the necessary rights-of-way. The states agreed to do so and on December 19, 1933, the National Park Service received an initial allotment of $4,000,000 to start the project. Planning for the Blue Ridge Parkway was to be carried out by the Park Service while actual construction was to be the responsibility of the Bureau of Public Roads. [78]

Extensive field reconnaissances were made of the nearly 500-mile distance between the two parks in 1933-34, and during fiscal year 1935 some 90 percent of the parkway route was located. In the latter year bids were received for the construction of the first section of 12.5 miles south from the Virginia-North Carolina state line to Roaring Gap. Plans were initiated for the development of a group of areas along the parkway route for "scenic preservation and recreational use." As construction proceeded on 120 miles of the parkway in fiscal year 1936 two recreational demonstration areas were commenced along the parkway with Works Project Administration funding. [79]

On June 30, 1936, President Roosevelt signed into law an act establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway as a unit of the National Park System. The law provided that

all lands and easements conveyed or to be conveyed to the United States by the States of Virginia and North Carolina for the right-of-way for the projected parkway . . . together with sites acquired or to be acquired for recreational areas in connection therewith, and a right-of-way for said parkway of a width sufficient to include the highway and all bridges, ditches, cuts, and fills appurtenant thereto, but not exceeding a maximum of two hundred feet through Government-owned lands as designated on maps heretofore or hereafter approved by the Secretary of the Interior, shall be known as the Blue Ridge Parkway. . . .

The law authorized the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to correlate and coordinate recreational development on lands within their respective jurisdictions that were in close proximity. The Bureau of Public Roads would build and maintain the parkway and authorization was granted for the connection of the parkway with local forest roads. [80]

By June 1939 Director Cammerer was able to report that 113 miles of the parkway were graded and surfaced, an additional 20 miles graded, and 90 miles under grading contracts. The Roanoke-Asheville unit was the first section of the parkway to be opened for travel. During the following year a continuous paved unit between Adney Gap, Virginia, and Deep Gap, North Carolina, was opened to travel, and bids for concessions to operate motor services and eating facilities were solicited. [81]

The Blue Ridge Parkway was well on its way to completion by June 1941. In addition to the 140-mile paved unit, 150 miles were graded and hard surfaced, and another 170 miles were graded or under grading contracts. Some 750,000 visitors had used the parkway and its facilities during the preceding year. [82]

The 469-mile parkway was largely completed by the early 1970s. Today the scenic parkway, averaging 3,000 feet above sea level, embraces several large recreational areas, interprets mountain folk culture, and preserves scenic resources. Over the years the Park Service has developed a five-fold mission for the parkway which has become one of the best known and most heavily used recreational areas established by the bureau in the 1930s:

(1) to link the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks through the mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina, (2) to provide quiet leisurely motoring, free from the distractions and dangers of the ordinary speed highway, (3) to give the visitor an insight into the beauty, history, and culture of the Southern Highlands, (4) to afford the best type of recreational and inspirational travel, and (5) to protect and preserve the natural scenery, history, and wildlife within the Parkway confines. [83]

The Natchez Trace Parkway was the second major national parkway to be authorized during the 1930s. It was a projected 500-mile roadway through a protected zone of forest, meadows, and fields which generally followed the historic route of the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. The Old Natchez Trace was once an Indian path, then a wilderness road, and finally from 1800 to 1830 a highway binding the old Southwest to the Union made famous by Andrew Jackson's use both before and after the Battle of Chalmette. [84]

While construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway was getting underway in fiscal year 1934, preliminary studies were made of the proposed Natchez Trace Parkway. On May 21, 1934, Congress authorized an appropriation of $50,000 for a survey to determine the feasibility of building such a parkway, and survey and location work were carried out in collaboration with the Bureau of Public Roads. Following the completion of the survey in late 1935, the project was allotted $1,286,686 in Works Project Administration funds and plans were prepared and submitted to the State of Mississippi for more than twenty-five miles of right-of-way acquisition. [85]

Contracts for the construction of thirty-four miles on three Mississippi sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway between Jackson and Tupelo were awarded on June 30, 1937. The contracting process followed acceptance of title to the rights-of-way for the three sections by the federal government. The rights-of-way were acquired on the basis of 100 acres to the mile in fee simple, plus an additional 50 acres per mile of scenic easement control. [86]

On May 18, 1938, Congress passed legislation adding the Natchez Trace Parkway as a unit of the National Park System. The language and provisions of the act were almost identical to that in the act for the establishment of the Blue Ridge Parkway. [87]

By June 1940 grading and bituminous surfacing were completed in a thirty-four mile section of the parkway between Jackson and Tupelo, Mississippi The following year it was reported that an additional sixty miles were either graded or under construction in Mississippi, and a nine-mile stretch of parkway north of the Tennessee-Alabama border was also under construction. The first contract for the construction of a five-mile section between the Tennessee-Alabama border and Florence, Alabama, was advertised for bids to be opened early in July 1941. [88]

Construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway proceeded slowly over the years. By 1979 some 333 miles of the projected 4.48-mile parkway were completed. The finished portion linked many historic and natural features including Mount Locust, the earliest inn on the Trace, Emerald Mound, one of the largest Indian ceremonial structures in the United States, Chickasaw Village and Bynum Mounds in Mississippi, and Colbert's Ferry and Metal Ford in Tennessee. [89]

While the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace parkways were placed under construction, a number of other national parkway proposals were surveyed and studied by the Park Service. The list of parkway proposals investigated by the agency during the 1930s included:

  1. Oglethorpe National Trail and Parkway from Savannah to Augusta, Georgia
  2. Extension of Blue Ridge Parkway to New England via Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York
  3. Green Mountain Parkway in Vermont
  4. Extension of George Washington Memorial Parkway to Wakefield, Virginia
  5. Parkway connections between Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and between Great Falls, Virginia, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

A number of other parkway proposals were recommended to the Park Service for consideration:

  1. Mississippi River Parkway, extending from Itasca State Park, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, following the general course of the river
  2. Parkway extensions from the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway at Natchez, Mississippi, to the vicinity of Laredo, Texas, and from the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace at Nashville, Tennessee, to the vicinity of Louisville, Kentucky
  3. Anthony Wayne Parkway from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Toledo, Ohio, following the general course of the Maumee River, and on to Detroit, Michigan
  4. Parkway along the Oregon Trail and the Columbia River Gorge. [90]

The growing popularity and use of both national and state parkways already developed and the numerous surveys and proposals for additional parkways prompted many to call for the formulation of a national parkway system plan by 1939. The problem of judging the merits of each new parkway proposal from a national perspective was becoming more complicated as the number of proposals increased. A national system plan would effect a coordinated and integrated system of national parkways and would serve as a basis for the consideration of individual proposals for national parkways and the coordination of the various state parkway programs. [91]

Chapter Four continues with...
National Recreation Areas (Reservoir-Related Areas)


Last Modified: Tues, Mar 14 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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