The following is an excerpt from the 2017 book, Blazing Ahead, by Jeffery H. Ryan.
In the aftermath of the unexpected loss of his wife, Benton MacKaye moved in with his brother Hal and Hal’s family in Yonkers. Soon thereafter, Benton received an invitation from his close friend and the editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Charles Harris Whitaker, to recuperate at Whitaker’s farmstead in Mount Olive, New Jersey.1 Whitaker had consistently come to Benton’s aid through the harrowing days immediately following the loss of Betty. He had helped identify her body at the funeral home and received her cremated remains on Benton’s behalf.
MacKaye moved to Whitaker’s farmstead in June 1921. Without a partner or any immediate job prospects, he spent his days developing and refining an idea that was taking root in his mind and coming to life on the pages of his diary and notebook. From his early teens, MacKaye had displayed a unique gift for viewing the landscape holistically. In the beginning, he carefully catalogued what he saw on his expeditions in the countryside. In his twenties, his climbs to mountain summits widened his perspective. He witnessed and pondered the interactions of man and nature playing out around him. His forestry training added a critical dimension to his understanding of sustainable practices and the need to establish dedicated recreational lands. His exposure to progressive economic and political ideas, through formal and informal education, brought philosophical thought into the equation. His time with Whitaker added another dimension.
In the early 1920s, progressive urban planners and architects—such as MacKaye’s host, Charles Whitaker, and Whitaker’s friend Clarence Stein— worked exclusively on community-scale projects. Their work would lead to the development of planned communities, such as the town of Radburn, New Jersey, which would influence urban planning for generations to come.
But MacKaye’s vision encompassed far more than that of a single community. His was a bold, new plan for the entire Appalachian Range: a recreational and economic plan that evolved around a footpath extending “the full length of the Appalachian skyline—from the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south—from Mt. Washington to Mount Mitchell.”2
Whitaker saw the potential for MacKaye’s idea and set up a meeting with Stein, who headed the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Community Planning, to discuss next steps. On July 10, 1921, MacKaye, Whitaker, and Stein met at Hudson Guild Farm, a facility then operated as a recreational retreat, in Netcong, New Jersey. All three men were enthusiastic about the plan—so much so that Whitaker offered to run an article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and Stein agreed to promote the plan through his committee.
MacKaye may not have known just how famous his grand plan would become, but immediately gaining the support of influential backers had to be a refreshing change. Now he could get busy preparing his article for October publication. The finished piece, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” was, and is, a tour de force. (The full article can be found in Appendix A.) MacKaye began by making a well-considered case for more recreational land in the eastern United States:
It fortunately happens that we have throughout the most densely populated portions of the United States a fairly continuous belt of under-developed lands. These are contained in the several ranges which form the Appalachian chain of mountains. Several National Forests have been purchased in this belt. These mountains, in several ways rivaling the western scenery, are within a day’s ride from centers containing more than half the population of the United States…The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities. The rugged lands of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.3
MacKaye then evoked the image of a “giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds,” to establish the lay of the land in the reader’s eye. Beginning on Mount Washington, MacKaye conducted an aerial tour of the region and illustrated how the mountains and surrounding lands could offer us “opportunities for recreation. . . possibilities for health and recuperation . . . 25 acres of grazing and agricultural land,” as well as opportunities to practice sustainable forestry.4
First there would be the “oxygen” that makes for a sensible optimism. Two weeks spent in the real open—right now, this year and next—would be a little real living for thousands of people which they would be sure of getting before they died. They would get a little fun as they went along regardless of problems being “solved.”
Next there would be perspective. Life for two weeks on the mountain top would show up many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below. The latter could be viewed as a whole—away from its heat, and sweat, and irritations. . . . Industry would come to be seen in its true perspective—as a means in life and not as an end in itself.5
MacKaye’s plan included four components:
1. The Trail: “The beginnings of an Appalachian trail already exist,” MacKaye wrote, citing the “good work in trail building” by the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. Regarding management, MacKaye proposed that “the trail should be divided into sections, each consisting preferably of the portion lying in a given State, or subdivision thereof. Each section should be in the immediate charge of a local group of people.”6
2. Shelter Camps: Modeled on the lean-tos, or open-sided shelters of the Northeast, MacKaye suggested building enough of them “to allow a comfortable day’s walk between each.” He also stipulated that “as far as possible the blazing and constructing of the trail and building of camps should be done by volunteer workers…The enterprise should, of course, be conducted without profit. The trail must be well guarded—against the yegg-man [burglar] and against the profiteer.”7
3. Community Groups: MacKaye proposed establishing “little communities” near the trail where people could live in private domiciles that were communally owned. “Each camp should be a self-owning community and not a real-estate venture. The use of the separate domiciles, like all other features of the project, should be available without profit.” MacKaye envisioned these communities could be used to host “summer schools or seasonal field courses” or “scientific travel courses… along the trail.”8
4. Food and Farm Camps: MacKaye felt the development of food and farm camps along the trail “could provide tangible opportunity for working out by actual experiment a fundamental matter in the problem of living” and “provide one definite avenue of experiment in getting ‘back to the land.’ It would provide an opportunity for those anxious to settle down in the country: it would open up a possible source for new, and needed, employment.”9
The last two facets of MacKaye’s regional plan would never come to fruition. Most Americans were not ready to embrace communal living or farming. But, as Whitaker and Stein predicted, the hiking community and the general public were ready to get behind the idea of MacKaye’s “super trail.”
Two months after the Appalachian article appeared, MacKaye presented his plan to the annual meeting of the New England Trail Conference (NETC), a consortium of outdoor clubs and other organizations interested in creating and connecting New England trails. (MacKaye’s friend and AMC president Allen Chamberlain had co-founded NETC five years earlier.) The NETC meeting energized those in attendance, including a highly regarded city planner from Boston named Arthur Comey, who would come to play an integral role in the development of the Appalachian Trail (AT). It is likely that word of the AT spread quickly within the represented groups.
MacKaye spent the winter of 1921–22 in Shirley, where he began working on a manual for “those who would actually ‘scout’ the trail on the ground.” The project soon included more than determining the placement of the footpath; it became an exercise in determining the “industrial potential” of various locations along the Appalachian Range.10
By the spring of 1922, Benton resolved to get more energy behind the AT project. Between March and June, he reconnected with old friends and made new ones in the interest of promoting his new trail. In Boston, Allen Chamberlain arranged another meeting with hiking advocates and foresters. MacKaye also spent a month in New York, where he met Raymond Torrey, an avid hiker, guidebook writer and editor, club organizer, hiking activist, and columnist for the New York Evening Post. Torrey arranged an April meeting between MacKaye and influential members of the New York hiking scene. The next day, Torrey’s article in the New York Evening Post ran under the headline, “A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia!” and treated the general public to its first map of the AT.11
MacKaye then headed to Washington, D.C., to meet with a number of old friends from his USFS years, as well as Robert Sterling Yard, the president of the National Parks Association, and Arno Cammerer, the assistant director of the National Park Service. Both men would resurface as part of a drama involving the AT a dozen years hence.
By early summer, Benton MacKaye was back in the familiar territory of Shirley Center. His finances were also in familiar territory: He was broke. He spent the summer and fall poking away at his trail-scouting guide and pouring most of his energy into his next great work, a book that he called The New Exploration.12 As a result, his AT idea began losing momentum.
At this critical stage, Clarence Stein helped MacKaye refocus. During Thanksgiving of 1922, Stein visited Shirley Center, and the pair formulated a new four-point plan that would support both the creation of the AT and the social initiatives that were part of MacKaye’s vision.13 The most important trail-related initiative was to create a consortium of thirteen regional hiking groups (including NETC and the recently formed New York–New Jersey Trail Conference) to formally adopt and build the trail. The implications of this act were significant and would come to impact the building, maintenance, and philosophy behind the AT. The creation of the federation would take the burdensome task of managing the siting and building of the trail out of MacKaye’s hands. Perhaps Stein appealed to MacKaye to give it up so that MacKaye could dedicate his time to the socially progressive aspects of the trail project. Perhaps he pointed out that managing wasn’t MacKaye’s forte; ideas were. Maybe MacKaye came to the conclusion himself. In any case, MacKaye would continue to be recognized as the visionary behind the Appalachian Trail movement and would continue to provide the grand overview and guidance the project needed in this stage of development.
Another initiative was to seek assistance from state governments to help build the trail. Pennsylvania and New York were deemed likely candidates due to existing connections. The last two action items produced by the “Thanksgiving summit” were to find funding for a new MacKaye initiative (studying ways to increase manufacturers’ industrial efficiency along the Appalachian Range so workers would have more time to enjoy the trail), and finding a publisher for The New Exploration.14
At the January 1923 NETC meeting, MacKaye inspired the attendees by
reiterating the reasons he first conceived of the trail.
This is not to cut a path and then say—“Ain’t it beautiful!” Our job is to open up a realm. This realm is something more than a geographical location—it is an environment. It is the environment, not of road and hotel, but of trail and camp. It is human access to the sources of life.15
From 1923–25, MacKaye’s energy was pulled in three directions: promoting the AT; writing his new manuscript, The New Exploration; and carrying out regional planning jobs through a new organization called the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). Launched in April 1923, the RPAA membership boasted America’s leading practitioners of architecture, transportation design, and community development. Three of the most active members were MacKaye, Clarence Stein, and the prolific journalist Lewis Mumford. The three would remain collaborators and friends for decades. Stein helped put MacKaye’s theories into an actionable framework. Mumford helped explain them. And they all challenged each other with spirited intellectual debate.
The RPAA agreed to take on the “regional planning features” of MacKaye’s AT project. MacKaye spent the summer working on the plan, which included surveying parts of the trail in New Jersey.16
To maintain momentum on the trail-building aspect of the plan, MacKaye, Stein, Major Welch (the chief engineer of New York’s Palisades Interstate Park Commission), and Raymond Torrey (the New York Evening Post columnist) organized a late October 1923 conference at the Bear Mountain Inn in Rockland County, New York. The three-day meeting offered the chance to update attendees on the status of the trail and to make plans for its continuation. Welch also presented his design for the AT trail marker, the famous combination of letters that forms the now-familiar logo.
In the wake of the conference, movement was incremental and diffuse. First, MacKaye was commissioned by Survey Graphic magazine to write an article in which he “calculated, in horsepower, the units of potential energy available through coal and water resources along the Appalachian spine.”17 In 1924, he drafted an extensive report for the RPAA, made an appearance on behalf of the organization and the AT project in Washington, D.C., and spent his summer on a paid regional planning project that involved travel throughout New York.18
Meanwhile, by late 1924, having made little progress in surveying and procuring new sections of trail, the RPAA realized that, in order for the Appalachian Trail to come to fruition, the hiking community needed to be recruited to build it. The first step was to formally organize the federation of hiking clubs posed by Stein and MacKaye two years before. In December, a number of trail-community luminaries, including Allen Chamberlain, Major Welch, and MacKaye, attended the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation in Washington, D.C. While there, they discussed meeting in early 1925 to create the new trail planning and oversight entity.
On March 2, 1925, the first Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) convened in Washington, D.C., at the Hotel Raleigh. The array of speakers included MacKaye, Stein, and the country’s current, and first, director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, “who commended the activities of volunteer trail-blazers and mentioned ‘the possibilities of developing a Trail service’ to further trail developments throughout the country.”19
The most important organizational decision made at the conference was the election of officers. Major Welch was named chairman; Verne Rhodes of the USFS became vice-chairman; and Harlean James was named secretary; Clarence Stein, Raymond Torrey, Frank Place (one of the founders of the New York–New Jersey Trail Conference), and Arthur Comey (who had earlier given a riveting presentation on “going light” as a backpacking technique20) were among those named to the board who had been with the project from almost the beginning.
Most curious was that MacKaye wasn’t elected to the board, although he was appointed a position: field organizer. Whether MacKaye was offered a position on the board and declined or whether it was an oversight is not known. But the election of officers at the first Appalachian Trail Conference would impact MacKaye’s relationship with the ATC, as well as his influence within the organization and the trail community at large over time.
With the trail work now in the hands of the ATC, MacKaye poured more energy into regional planning. He became interested in the concept of “commodity flow,” or the global movement of natural resources, commodities, and people initiated by industry, and wrote a three-part series on the subject for the magazine The Nation. He also created a report on open spaces for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and continued his work on The New Exploration, which was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in fall of 1928. The work sustained him emotionally, if barely financially. The RPAA was able to pay him a small stipend for project work on occasion, and articles and commissioned studies provided sporadic income.
Following the 1925 ATC, the AT project continued bumping along, mostly due to the efforts of individual clubs. The NY–NJ Trail Conference was among the most active, blazing new trail through its territories. In the Northeast, members of AMC were scouting routes to link existing trails. But the ATC was not coordinating efforts. One reason could be that its chairman,
Major Welch, was busy serving on the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission, an assignment that required significant meeting and travel time.
When the New England Trail Conference convened in January 1927, MacKaye met with Major Welch and Arthur “Judge” Perkins to discuss the ATC’s status. Judge Perkins was a retired Connecticut lawyer who had acquired an intense interest in hiking and trail work in his 50s. Perkins had the time and inclination to take the reins of the ATC, and the trio quickly decided it should be so.21
Perkins was perfectly suited for the job. He had already made a name for himself in the trail community as president of AMC’s Connecticut Chapter and chairman of the NETC’s committee of through-trails. No armchair adventurer, Perkins was so inspired by the AT project that he spent the summer of 1927 scouting a possible route for the AT from the summit of Katahdin
to Moosehead Lake, in Maine, and then along the Connecticut–New York border. He also started scouting around for clubs and individuals south of New England to help build out those sections of trail.22
The most important of those recruits would approach him first: a 28-year-old named Myron Avery.
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1 Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye, 143.
2 Benton MacKaye, “Memorandum on Regional Planning,” (1921), 19–25. Papers of the MacKaye Family, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.
3 Benton MacKaye, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects 9, no. 10 (October 1921): 326.
4 Ibid., 326–327.
5 Ibid., 327.
6 Ibid., 328.
10 Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye, 157–158.
11 Ibid., 159.
13 Ibid., 164.
15 Benton MacKaye. “The Job Ahead,” from New England Trail Conference speech (January
1923). Papers of the MacKaye Family, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.
16 Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye, 182.
17 Keller Easterling, Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 30.
18 Clarence S. Stein, Report of the Commission of Housing and Regional Planning to Governor Alfred E. Smith and to the Legislature of the State of New York (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Company Printers, 1925).
19 “Brief Proceedings of the Appalachian Trail Conference Called by the Federate Societies on Planning and Parks” (Washington, DC, March 1925). Papers of the MacKaye Family, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.
20 While hiking with ultralight gear is currently a focus of backpackers and manufacturers, it is interesting to note that Arthur Comey was a staunch proponent of the idea more than 90 years ago. You can read his “Going Light” pamphlet online at outdoors.org/articles/amcoutdoors/the-dawn-of-ultralight-backpacking/.
21 Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye, 212.
22 Robert A. Rubin, “The Short, Brilliant Life of Myron Avery,” special issue, Appalachian Trailway News, Trail Years: A History of the Appalachian Trail Conference (July 2000): 27.