Exclusive Book Excerpt: ‘Blazing Ahead,’ On The Rivalry Behind The Appalachian Trail

September 26, 2017
Blazing Ahead
Photo courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy‘Blazing Ahead’ traces the rivalry of Benton MacKaye (left) and Myron Avery, key founders of the Appalachian Trail.

The following excerpt has been abridged and condensed from Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, and the Rivalry That Built the Appalachian Trail, by Jeffrey H. Ryan (AMC Books, 2017), available now from AMC, as well as from other online and retail locations.

The decade since Benton MacKaye had first proposed the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1921 held little public conflict. But a series of events was about to force the AT community to choose sides in a battle over the trail’s very purpose and meaning. The fallout would test loyalties, inflict lasting wounds, and literally and figuratively affect the course of the trail in the decades to come.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, regional automobile parkways moved from planners’ drawing boards to actual roads on mountaintops, accelerated by the booming number of drivers. In 1910, there was one car owner per 200 U.S. residents. In 1915, it was one in 40. And from 1920 to 1930, the number of registered car owners in America surged from 8 million to 23 million, a shift driven largely by the availability of Henry Ford’s $490 Model T.

With more drivers on roads than ever before, the nascent parkway movement had enough horsepower to drive it up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Benton MacKaye, however, envisioned a different route.

MacKaye saw the AT as a means of permanently enticing city dwellers out of overcrowded urban areas, where roads and subways moved “people each day from places where they would rather not live to places where they would rather not work, and back again.”

MacKaye wanted to build residential communities, where people could work and play without having to commute at all. Sustainable jobs in forestry and agriculture were the backbone of his economic plan, “a project to develop the opportunities—for recreation, recuperation, and employment—in the region of the Appalachian skyline.”

Meanwhile, the National Park Service (NPS) was developing its own view of the role of the car. During the 1920s, the first NPS director, Stephen Mather, had tried to balance the need for roads with the need for wilderness. In a 1923 report, he stated: “I am firmly against overdevelopment of the parks by too many roads.…We must guard against the intrusion of roads into sections [of National Parks] that should be kept for quiet contemplation and accessible only by horseback or hiking.”

Mather also cited a migration toward the national parks, not only of tourists but of new inhabitants to adjacent communities, seemingly offering real evidence of MacKaye’s theory:

This year 271,482 automobiles registered in our parks. They came from every State in the Union, Canada and Mexico . . . [The parks] draw travel as nothing else does. The slogan “See America first”13 has become a household expression, and this means that the parks and monuments are becoming more and more the vacation grounds of the American traveler. More than 60 per cent of the park visitors come in their own private automobiles. They are the potential settlers, potential investors. This is worth a lot locally, but is also worth a great deal nationally, for it relieves the overpopulated areas of the East and distributes their overplus where it is needed and can do the most good.

MacKaye must have been pleased that the urban-to-rural shift was at least partially underway. But the rapid adoption of automobiles and the subsequent rise in road building were bringing seismic change to the countryside. No project exemplified this more than Skyline Drive.

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After suffering a stroke, Mather left his office as NPS director in January 1929. His replacement, the longtime assistant director of NPS and the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Horace Albright, presided over the ongoing development of Skyline Drive, a mountaintop roadway proposed for the Shenandoah Range that was taking shape with remarkable speed.

By late July of that year, a committee to evaluate potential new national parks in the southern Appalachians was in the field, inspecting sites in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. By December, the committee had identified an immediate choice: the area that would become Shenandoah National Park, citing Shenandoah’s proximity to general public (40 million Americans lived within a day’s ride), its natural splendor (“many canyons and gorges with beautiful cascading streams” and “splendid primeval forests”), and its historic interest (“mountains looking down on valleys with their many battlefields of Revolutionary and Civil War periods and the birthplaces of many Presidents of the United States”).

But the most exciting thing the prospective park had going for it, the committee wrote, was a human-made feature that could be added to it: a mountain-top road that would follow a continuous ridge, looking down on the Shenandoah Valley some 3,000 feet below.

Skyline Drive’s rapid development caught the AT community by surprise. Much of the maneuvering for the road had been done away from the public eye, with no hearings nor public debate. Boosters had used legal maneuverings and political connections to enable the roadway’s advancement before there even was a national park to put it in.

In early July 1932, MacKaye met with Myron Avery and Harold Anderson, the secretary of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), in Washington, D.C., to discuss just how rapidly the project was evolving—in many places in the very path of the AT itself. It’s fitting these three men sat down to plot their response. Ultimately, two of them would take one fork on the philosophical trail, and one would take the other.

The three agreed to go to the ridge top to see the proposed route themselves, but it was too late. The official groundbreaking for what became the 34-mile section of Skyline Drive from Swift Run Gap to Thornton Gap, Va., occurred on July 18, 1931, less than one week after MacKaye, Avery, and others visited the site.

Back home that summer in Shirley, Mass., MacKaye worked on an article about opportunities for nature study along the AT. The reality of a paved road over parts of his envisioned wilderness footpath must have weighed on him. Instead of creating islands of refuge from the mechanized world, the trail was becoming a refuge for it.

He decided to propose an alternative. In collaboration with Anderson, he drew up a plan for the “Appalachian Intermountain Motorway”: an interstate highway from the Adirondacks to the Great Smoky Mountains that alternatively followed valleys, climbed mountain flanks, and, where necessary, went through mountain passes. His well-considered alternative to the growing skyline-road movement would ensure that drivers and hikers would gain majestic views—and that, perhaps, motorists would be inspired to leave their cars and discover the recreational opportunities all around them.

MacKaye took his plan to Washington and met with NPS officials several times. But as far as they were concerned, MacKaye’s idea had little appeal. NPS was firmly behind Skyline Drive, and potentially other skyline routes like it, because the president, the U.S. Congress, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the motoring public were behind it.

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By now, Skyline Drive was one-third complete and picking up speed. In October, Anderson wrote to MacKaye to say he had recently driven the completed 34 miles with Myron Avery and other members of PATC. The ride had convinced Anderson that the road would be a sensation with motorists. Anderson then raised an idea that would determine his fate—as well as that of MacKaye, Avery, and the AT.

The best solution for routing the AT through Shenandoah National Park, Anderson wrote, would be to leave the ridgeline to cars and instead run the trail along the mountains’ flanks. Anderson asked MacKaye to write to Avery, in an attempt to help Avery understand what the latter should already know:

The Appalachian Trail should above all things be a wilderness foot-path and that while so far as possible we will want to have a skyline trail, it may be necessary in some sections, such as the Shenandoah National Park, to depart from this general idea and that we should as far as possible seek the primitive environment for the Trail. . . . I cannot help feeling that Myron with all his indefatigable energy and enthusiasm has not fully grasped the idea of the Appalachian Trail. . . . The whole question of road vs. trail is very fundamental.

MacKaye agreed. In May 1932, while attending the Southern Appalachian Trail Conference in Highlands, N.C., he told the gathering: “A wilderness is like a secret. The best way to keep it is to keep it. Keep the wilderness wild. Do not manicure it.” Avery was absent.

One month later, the scene repeated itself in reverse at the Sixth Annual Appalachian Trail Conference in Rutland, Vt. This time, MacKaye sent a proposal in his stead, unequivocally opposing skyline drives and calling ATC to adopt a policy encouraging parkways and highways to be located along the “lower flanks and levels” of the Appalachian ranges. Avery, who was in attendance, took a neutral stance on MacKaye’s proposal, reportedly helping produce the stalemate that ultimately doomed it.

After the conference, Avery wrote to MacKaye, saying that pot stirring “doesn’t help what we are trying to accomplish.” But there was little “we” left between the father of the Appalachian Trail and the man who rolled up his sleeves to get it built. MacKaye and Avery’s philosophical differences concerning the relationship between the trail and wilderness came to a bruising conclusion at the 1935 Appalachian Trail Conference in, of all places, Shenandoah National Park.

Here again MacKaye was absent but sent a powerfully worded proposal, once again asking conference members to categorically oppose skyline roads, reminding attendees, “The Appalachian Trail is a wilderness trail or it is nothing.”

Again MacKaye’s call fell short. Avery and his followers believed their top priority was creating and retaining an uninterrupted path from Georgia to Maine. They weren’t willing to risk losing what they had built in the name of wilderness ethos alone. When Anderson and a few other MacKaye loyalists offered a version of MacKaye’s proposal, Avery interceded with an entirely new approach. Federal agencies, he argued, should be encouraged to relocate and rebuild the trail when projects of merit interfered with the existing trail.

Avery’s proposal passed, and he didn’t stop there, presiding over sweeping changes to ATC bylaws that resulted in removing MacKaye followers from positions of power. Toward the end of 1935, several months removed from the fallout, MacKaye wrote a letter to Avery, capturing on paper his feelings about their divergent views.

“Here then is the first issue between us,” MacKaye wrote. “You are for a connected trail—whether or not wilderness. I am for a wilderness trail—whether or not connected.”

One month later, Avery responded with a six-page letter:

It is very pleasant to sit quietly at home and talk of primeval wilderness, and to think of a Trail that will make and maintain itself. But to bring such a Trail into being requires hard work, hours of labor under broiling suns and pouring rains, camping out in all kinds of weather, as well as incessant “office work” in connection with guidebooks, maps, markers, publicity, and a thousand and one other details. It is, don’t you think, significant that the majority of those who are loudest in their demands and in their abuse of workers, have covered little of the Trail and have done little physical labor on it.

Six weeks later, MacKaye wrote back to Avery. Rather than wade into the choppy waters of the wilderness debate, the nearly 57-year-old founder of the Appalachian Trail offered an observation:

For sometime past I have noticed in you a growing, self-righteous, overbearing attitude and bullying manner in your expression. Your statements to me now—of assumption, distortion, and accusation—constitute a piece of insolence which confirms my former observations, as well as various reports of your conduct which have come to me from individual club members in the North and South. In your present frame of mind, therefore, I feel that further words are futile.

Shortly thereafter, the two men most responsible for creating a 2,190-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine stopped talking to each other. They would never speak again.

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Jeffrey H. Ryan

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.