It’s a fact – The Blue Ridge Parkway is officially one of the country’s most visited National Parks. Snaking through two states from the Great Smoky Mountains of N.C. to the Shenandoah Valley of V.A., the Parkway drew over 15 million visitors in 2016 – and despite record rainfall last year, it shows no signs of slowing down today.
So for this #TBT, we’re jumping back in time to take a look at the history of our beloved Blue Ridge Parkway and the 52 years that it took to build it – beginning with a fortuitous visit that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid to Skyline Drive in Virginia back in 1933.
So slow down and travel with us through five decades of history to find out how the Parkway came to be, and where it’s headed from here.
Asheville was originally left out of the loop.
Today, the parkway runs from the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in Virginia to U.S. Route 441 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, North Carolina, but the original concept had the parkway turning at Blowing Rock, N.C. to include the Unaka Mountains, which would have skipped Asheville entirely.
Obviously, Asheville wasn’t havin’ none of that – especially since the city was in dire economic ruin at the height of the Great Depression. The Asheville Chamber of Commerce + other city leaders joined forces to lobby against the proposed route in favor of a road that passed through Asheville, and an intense battle between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina began.
Want more Parkway facts? Keep reading to find out how long it took to complete, how many tunnels you’ll go through if you drive the whole thing, and more.
It was the idea of a Virginia Senator.
When the Blue Ridge Parkway was first envisioned, people in the U.S. needed work. Trained engineers, architects, and landscape architects were left unemployed after the Great Depression, and thousands of families + mountain towns were verging on poverty, including Asheville.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Virginia’s newly-constructed Skyline Drive in 1933, then sitting U.S. Senator Harry Byrd saw his chance to plant the seed of a “park-to-park” skyway that would connect Shenandoah National Park + the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Roosevelt liked the idea so much that he convened the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee and asked that a planning team be created.
It took over 52 years to complete.
After Asheville won the fight on the proposed route, the “park-to-park” idea became a reality… And construction officially began in 1935. Due to no existing maps, reluctant landowners, extreme weather conditions, and rocky terrain, construction crews quickly realized that the task of building a 469-mile road through the mountains was way bigger than they had originally anticipated.
Despite the construction challenges, parkway progress was steady until World War II, when construction funds were diverted to the war effort.
But work continued, and in 1968, the last task on the to-do list was the completion of a seven-mile stretch around Grandfather Mountain. Because of the area’s fragile environment, construction had to be approached with care. The result is perhaps the Parkway’s most iconic section – the Linn Cove Viaduct – a 1,200-foot suspended section of the road. It was considered an engineering marvel.
Ready for a few more Parkway facts to share on your next road trip?
- There are 26 total tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway – 25 are in N.C.
- It has consistently been the most visited National Park in the U.S. since 1946, and has twice the amount of visitors per year as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone combined. Last year, it was unseated by Golden Gate National Recreation Area in S.F.
- The highest peak east of the Mississippi – Mt. Mitchell – is accessible from the Parkway. The highest point on the Parkway is Richard Balsam Overlook on the Jackson-Haywood county line.