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Skyline Drive, Virginia

[Photo]
View from Skyline Drive
Photo by Afagen via flickr used through creative commons license

Skyline Drive is the only public road that travels the length of the National Park Service's Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, measuring 105 miles of roadway. The drive runs the entire length of the northern and southern crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, Skyline Drive is a testament to the expanding movement for conservation, public outdoor recreation, and regional planning that gained momentum in the 1920s and became the hallmark of Federal policy in the 1930s. Due to its proximity to Washington DC, Skyline Drive became a showcase for the work of the CCC and public works agencies in the eastern United States. Designed as the backbone of Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive illustrates the principles of naturalistic landscape design adapted and advanced by the National Park Service in the early 20th century. Today Skyline Drive, with its numerous overlooks, splendid scenery and graceful road alignment, remains one of the most complete and intact naturalistic park roads of the 1930s and one of the most popular recreational roads in the eastern United States.

[Photo] CCC work camp in the Shenandoah
Photo courtesy of the Shenandoah National Park, NPS
Skyline Drive: Planning and Implementation

The idea for Skyline Drive originated in the 1924 Report of the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee, which recommended establishing a National Park in the southern Appalachians—this had long been a favorite theme of National Park Service Director Stephen P. Mather, who served under President Warren Harding. Mather believed that the automobile would make such a park accessible to the eastern cities of the United States. The idea for Skyline Drive materialized under the administrations of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since the establishment of the National Park Service in 1917, Mather had promoted the construction of state-of-the-art roads within the national parks and, in 1924, Congress began to make annual appropriations for the construction of roads in National Parks. In 1926, the National Park Service formed an interbureau agreement with the Bureau of Public Roads (U.S. Department of Agriculture), through which park roads were built according to the most up-to-date engineering and standards of road design.

[Photo]
Waterfall below big meadow on Skyline Drive
Photo by GaryFGarcia via flickr used through creative commons license

In the late 1920s, the Landscape Division of the National Park Service, which was located in the Western Field Office in San Francisco, developed a design process and aesthetic standards for the construction of roads, bridges, guardrails, culverts, overlooks, and other road structures that would harmonize with the natural environments of the parks. In 1930, Charles Peterson of the Landscape Division was transferred east to work on the design of the Colonial Parkway and establish an eastern office of design at Yorktown Virginia, which later became the Eastern Division of the Branch of Plans and Design, which became responsible for the planning and design of Acadia National Park and the new Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain Parks. All this coincided with Governor Harry Floyd Byrd of Virginia’s desire to promote conservation statewide and organize efforts to acquire land for the new Shenandoah National Park, which began in 1926. William E. Carson, Byrd’s former campaign manager, was appointed the Chairman of the newly created Virginia State Commission on Conservation and Development. Knowing that President Herbert Hoover was tremendously fond of trout fishing, Carson in the spring of 1929 convinced Hoover to establish a fishing camp, Camp Rapidan (later Camp Hoover), on the upper Rapidan River. Aware of the implications for the future of the park if such a road was built, Carson commented to Hoover that a useable road was necessary to provide safe access to Camp Rapidan and to connect it with Skyline. Hooverendorsed the idea—the beginnings of what would later become Skyline Drive—but as the result of the stock market crash the project was temporarily shelved and money was not forthcoming from Congress. It was under the New Deal programs of Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt that the funds and manpower were found to construct Skyline Drive.

[Photo] CCC work camp in the Shenandoah
Photo courtesy of the Shenandoah National Park, NPS
The CCC and Creation of Skyline Drive

The newly created Public Works Administration established by executive order on June 16, 1933, channeled special allotments to fund capital improvements in national parks, such as roads and buildings. The CCC, created in 1933, pulled its manpower from unemployed and generally unskilled young men. The CCC camps assigned to National Parks, under the direct supervision of the resident landscape architect for each park, carried out various conservation projects, including landscape naturalization, creating sidewalks and park villages, and constructing roadways.

Development of the new Shenandoah National Park was placed under James R. Lassiter, the engineer-in-charge of the park project, who later became the park’s first superintendent in 1935. Skilled technicians directed the CCC work. The CCC camps provided the manpower to improve and beautify Skyline Drive by rounding and flattening the slopes of the drive and planting them with sod and native plants.

[Photo]
FDR eating at a CCC Camp
Photo courtesy of the Shenandoah National Park, NPS

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC was employed in all aspects of developing the new National Park for visitor enjoyment, including improving the Appalachian Trail and constructing recreational facilities. President Roosevelt visited the CCC camps in the Shenandoah three months after the first two CCC camps were established at Skyline andBig Meadows. Although Shenandoah National Park's establishment was over two years in the future, Roosevelt wanted to bolster public confidence in his public works programs. Followed by newsreel photographers and newspaper cameramen, Roosevelt ensured that the uplifting image of Shenandoah's CCC camps was flashed around the world. During the President's brief stop at Camp Nina , the President was treated to a brief pageant entitled “The burial of old man depression and fear and the return of happy days.” An object labeled ‘fear” was set afire and “Old Man Depression” was revealed in effigy before being set to fire. The President commented, “That's right, burn him up.” The bugler played “Happy Days are Here Again” as the president applauded.

The CCC disbanded in 1942, and during World War II Shenandoah National park used Civilian Public Service camps, which employed Conscientious objectors from World War II, to aid in park maintenance, fire fighting, and clearing former building sites. The first work on Skyline Drive began in 1931. By September 15, 1934, the entire 33.9-mile central section between Thorton Gap and Swift Run Gap was completed and opened to the public. Despite the desire to limit the amount of cut and fill and follow the natural topography as closely as possible, hundreds of thousand of cubic yards of earth and rock had to be excavated to prepare the roadbed, a job requiring 134 pieces of major equipment and eleven blacksmiths to keep everything in good repair.

[Photo]
View from Skyline Drive
Photo by Afagen via flickr used through creative commons license

All but the hard surfacing of the North District was completed at the time of Shennandoah’s dedication by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 3, 1936. On August 29, 1939, 97 miles of roadway were open for motorists to drive the entire length of the park—from Front Royal at the northern end to the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway at the southern end. The unraveling panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont Plateau and Shenandoah Valley could be enjoyed by the American public. More than 4 thousand laborers worked to build Skyline Drive, and it has become one of the most heavily traveled recreation roads in the nation. Skyline Drive’s design embodies the principles and traditions of naturalistic landscape architecture as exhibited in the park and parkway movement of the early 20th century. It is also representative of the scenic road construction advanced by the National park Service in the 1920s and 1930s. Numerous overlooks were based on scenic vistas. The natural outcrops of rocks with their inherent picturesque character, which characterized the rugged terrain of the Blue Ridge, were accentuated wherever possible. Skyline Drive was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on April 4, 1997.

 

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