The Blue Ridge Parkway is the setting for some of my earliest memories and some of my fondest memories. I’m certain that many thousands of other people would say the same.
The Parkway has become so much a part of our lies that it is hard to imagine the mountains without it. But, of course, it wasn’t always here. Construction started in 1935. The segment leading to Waterrock Knob didn’t open until 1959.
Early construction on the Parkway
Summit of Richland Balsam in the 1930s
Today, looking at these places, one thing is obvious. Had the Blue Ridge Parkway not been created in the 1930s, it might not be there today. Given a delay of thirty years, the outcry over a road desecrating the mountain summits would have almost certainly brought the project to a halt.
An almost forgotten incident illustrates the changing attitudes toward the scenic road.
Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway extended from 1935 to 1987. During that same half century, officials pursued a two hundred mile extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway into Georgia.
As contemplated in 1937, the extension would branch off from the southernmost point of the Parkway at Beech Gap, near the current milepost 423. From Tanasee Bald it would cross Panthertown Valley, skirt Cashiers and Highlands in North Carolina, and approach Brasstown Bald and Springer Mountain in Georgia before terminating near Kennesaw Mountain, north of Atlanta.
Except for a 1953 field study of the proposed route, the effort languished for more than twenty years.
That changed when Representative Roy A. Taylor of Asheville went to Congress in 1960. One of his first initiatives was to promote the Parkway extension, and his bill authorizing $35,000 for a study was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in August 1961.
Map of proposed extension - July 1963
(Click to enlarge)
Within two years, the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service submitted a report grading the project as “highly recommended.” Agreement by both agencies was crucial. The Parkway was a unit of the Park Service and the extension was routed to make the most of Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina and Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. Any acquisition of private land for the road would not only cost much more, but disrupt farms and homes along the way.
Taylor continued to champion the project, even after it was voted down twice in Congress. When he became chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, Taylor had the leverage to get a bill passed. In January 1968 Congress authorized 87.5 million dollars for the Parkway extension.
This legislative victory grabbed attention. In Georgia, real estate advertisements promptly touted “land for sale along the proposed Blue Ridge Parkway Extension.” On the other hand, a letter writer to an Atlanta newspaper warned “the Parkway extension will destroy more than 50 of the 75 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia.”
In 1969, details of the linear park emerged. Plans included picnic areas every twenty miles, a pioneer homestead in Rabun County, Georgia’s Plum Orchard Valley, and the Rattlesnake Knob visitor area near Highlands, providing access to Cliffside Lake. A recreational development slated for Panthertown Valley would offer overnight lodging, dining, a 120-unit campground and a spur road to the top of Toxaway Mountain.
An ominous turning point came in November of 1970. Vocal opponents of the road packed a public hearing in Georgia. A spokesman for the state Game and Fish Commission expressed concern about the impact of the extension on the environment of the North Georgia highlands. Conservation groups coalesced for a long fight.
Meanwhile in North Carolina a different obstacle arose. A real estate company, the Liberty Corporation, owned 40,000 acres in Panthertown and surrounding areas, directly in the path of the Parkway extension. The first prospective route threatened Liberty’s plan for a resort development of second homes, a golf course and lodge. Liberty intended to dam the headwaters of the Tuckasegee to create a lake, which would have inundated Schoolhouse Falls. Construction of the Parkway was acceptable to Liberty, but only if it complemented their own development plans. Environmentalists in North Carolina raised alarms over the irreparable harm to the unique natural features of Panthertown posed by the Park Service and Liberty proposals.
The Parkway extension did gain support in South Carolina. In July 1976, the General Assembly passed a resolution promoting a new route, connecting with the North Carolina link at the state line near Whitewater Falls. The path in South Carolina would meander westward for forty miles, through the most mountainous region of the Palmetto State.
South Carolina’s overture was not enough to save the Blue Ridge Parkway extension, though. After several more years attempting to iron out differences with environmentalists and developers, the Park Service calculated the rising costs of construction and abandoned the project in the early 1980s.
Liberty Corporation’s development in Panthertown never materialized either, and eventually, the Forest Service acquired the huge tract for the Nantahala National Forest, commemorating the addition as the “Roy Taylor Forest” in 1982.
One of Congressman Taylor’s final acts before leaving Washington in 1977 was to introduce a bill, later signed into law, adding 900,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
A bronze plaque beside the Blue Ridge Parkway honors a man whose hopes for the scenic road’s southern extension never became reality. It bears the words:
“Man in his wisdom has made many wonderful and useful things, but no man can make a wilderness.”