Why the Unbuilt Parkway

By Anne Mitchell Whisnant

This exhibit emerges from my realization of two larger truths that inform my teaching and practice as a historian.  One truth is about history (and about the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway, specifically), and the other is about being a historian.

The truth about history is that things that happen aren’t inevitable — despite what much history teaching implies.  History does not unfold as a seamless story in which one event leads logically to the next.  And rarely does anyone fully envision how things will turn out.

Instead, at almost every point where something does happen, other things don’t happen. Someone, or some group, or government, or other actor makes a choice, makes something happen, influences the future.  Meanwhile, there are almost always other choices that could have been made.  And those other choices are not just things that we see looking back. Usually, they were options that someone in the past saw or proposed.  The story of history, in many ways, is the story of these negotiations or struggles — individual, collective — at each point to figure out what should happen next.

To understand the reality of such moments of decision — what I and others call the “contingency of the past” — is to remember that while historians look backward, people in the past were living forward.  They did not always know what it would be best to do next. Circumstances, opposition, and other factors made certain options impossible.  Many of the most interesting stories of history are the stories of how one alternative, one option, got chosen, while others got left behind.

Contrary to what is frequently thought, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s history has been full of such decision points.  Yet the Parkway’s history has often been discussed as if the vision for this park emerged, nearly fully formed, from the minds of one or two key individuals (especially early designer Stanley Abbott) working in the 1930s.

It’s a lovely thought.  But it doesn’t fit the evidence left to us from the past.  What the past leaves us are archives littered with plans for Parkway features that never came to fruition. From recreational and visitor facilities proposed but not built, to whole sections of the motor road itself that were proposed but unfinished, to alternative routes not taken, the Parkway we have today embodies choices made and not made, possibilities realized and unrealized. It represents an evolving vision of what a proper “scenic motorway” could and should be.

Book jacketIn my 2006 book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (University of North Carolina Press) and, in a more concise way on the Driving Through Time website, I have told some of the stories about the decisions that shaped the Parkway: the decision to build the southern end along the North Carolina route instead of what some argued was the “logical route” through east Tennessee (see the background image on this site), the decision to reduce the right-of-way through Little Switzerland in response to landowner pressure, the decision to re-route the Parkway across the Cherokee Indian lands of western North Carolina’s Qualla Boundary, and the decision to run the Parkway lower along Grandfather Mountain than originally proposed.  

In my book I also devoted brief attention to other decisions such as the abandonment of more than twenty planned recreation areas and the proposed Parkway extension to north Georgia.

In all of these cases, I talked about the “politics” of the Parkway — the question of who had the power to press their plans to be implemented and who did not.  That is still a very important idea, as it is a window on power structures in society.  Those power relationships, in the case of something like the Parkway, end up written on the landscape.

But in the seven years since Super-Scenic Motorway came out, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the Parkway’s history with many audiences — at public libraries, retirement homes, scholarly conferences, and commemorative events.  I’ve also become involved in advocacy for the Parkway and the National Parks — which are (and have been for more than a decade) under significant budgetary duress.

In those conversations, I’ve realized that there is another — perhaps more positive — benefit that can come from studying the unrealized choices in the past: empowerment in the present. When we realize that people in the past (like us) saw only dimly what the future might hold, and when we understand that they made choices, even in that un-knowing, about how to proceed, we can see that we in the present are no different.  Rather than being completely subject to faceless forces beyond our control, we hold some power to shape our future.  We have some options, and we can choose among them, or press our political leaders and policymakers to choose the ones we favor.  And we can leave other paths untrod.

One of the best ways to explore this truth about the past and the present is to look carefully at those moments in the past where something that was apparently possible was not done.

This brings me to the second truth — the one about doing historical work. In my more than twenty years becoming a professional historian, one of the things I’ve had to wrestle with is accepting the fact that no historian, no matter how meticulous, can turn over every stone and understand every facet of the things she tries to research.  Time, distance, practicality (e.g., the unavailability of archives),  a failure of vision, or an inability to understand how all the parts fit together all conspire to make any piece of published historical writing a fragmentary representation of a complex and, at some level, unknowable past.  

If a historian hopes to get her work published within a reasonable time, she must accept this.  She must be willing to conclude her research when she thinks she has reached the point of diminishing returns.  She must be willing to select and build her analysis on the materials she has found to present the most compelling, internally cohesive, and faithful account she can.  But she also must leave some (frequently intriguing) bits and pieces she has found on what amounts to a cutting room floor.  She must also accept that there are things in the archives she just cannot get to if she hopes to finish a work in her lifetime.

When I submitted the manuscript for Super-Scenic Motorway to the UNC Press in the fall of 2005, I was painfully aware of these realities.  Having worked on the manuscript eight years beyond its earlier form as a doctoral dissertation, it was time to stop.


Yet there remained a rather fat folder in my file cabinet labeled “BRP Book — To Do.”  There were archival materials at the National Archives branch in Philadelphia that I had not looked at.  Boxes and boxes pertaining to the Georgia Parkway extension (addressed in my manuscript in a brief epilogue) remained untouched at Parkway headquarters in Asheville.  And those are only the un-mined materials I was then aware of.  I have since learned of others.

But it seemed best in 2005 to stop and publish what I had, built as it was on the best materials I then had access to and had processed.  Increasingly, things I was uncovering were reinforcing things I already knew — not changing them, and I felt confident that the manuscript could stand on its own.  It already seemed too long, so there was no space to squeeze in other stories that I did have interesting pieces of.

Still, I never stopped thinking about those other stories, or being curious about the materials I knew were in the archives that had not been included in the book.

In 2012, I finally got an idea about how I might both tell some of those stories — and look more closely (with my students) at those moments of contingency in Parkway history. I stumbled upon a news story about the National Building Museum’s Unbuilt Washington exhibit, which in 2011 displayed plans for monuments and memorials that were proposed but never built in the nation’s capital.  This exhibit called to mind those fragments and dead-end stories I had left out of my book about Parkway roads not taken, and I imagined a way to bring some of those stories (themselves still a bit fragmentary to me) into public view under the thematic rubric of the “Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway.”

The idea seemed especially well suited to a university class project in digital public history. Since the topics at hand were not ones I knew well, but for which I did know archival resources existed, students could do authentic, independent research and develop their own expertise.  They could bring to light stories that are not well known to the public and provoke others to learn more.

And in delving into these episodes, furthermore, they would become sensitized to the contingency of the past and present, learning, I hoped, how to develop a questioning posture about the status quo: if this, then why this?  What else might have been?  Why didn’t those other options come to be?

In being pushed to build and deploy a virtual exhibit on these topics within one semester, meanwhile, students would come to terms with the realities of the historian’s work — with sometimes not knowing exactly what happened, or not having time or resources to offer definitive answers about the past.

Thus the Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway came to be.  I know we have learned from creating it (and if you are interested in the more specific details of how we executed the project, they are available here). Future UNC-Chapel Hill public history classes may refine and expand it. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy exploring it, and that you contribute what you may know about these episodes in comments on the site.