The Blue Ridge Parkway unravels gracefully across the landscape, at times suspended from high cliffs and etched into rocky crags, then deftly shifting gears to skim over hayfields and past log cabins bound by split-rail fences.
The road seems unfazed by mountain topography. The Parkway moves so harmoniously through the scenery and lays so gently on the terrain, it seems possible that perhaps the Parkway was there first, or at the very least born at the same time as the mountains themselves.
“I can’t image a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a 10-league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail,” said Stanley Abbott, the chief landscape architect of the Parkway during its construction in the 1930s.
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway celebrates its official 81st anniversary in 2016. It is a unique unit of the National Park Service, a scenic roadway through the rural mountain area of Western North Carolina and Virginia. It both moves people from place to place and also binds the region together.
The task facing early Parkway designers was enormous, with little more than vague parameters of where to put the Parkway. Blazing a scenic road through high and rugged mountain passes in the 1930s was an engineering and artistic feat. It also pushed the boundaries of competing American ideals.
Blazing a scenic road through high and rugged mountain passes in the 1930s was an engineering and artistic feat.
The country was in the midst of a burgeoning national park movement, and many in the general public had already accepted a popular concept of preserving America’s grand landscapes. Meanwhile, a love affair with the automobile had likewise gripped the country. These two notions gave rise to the Parkway concept.
Yet merging the two was not easy.
“A road and a park are very different things,” said Ian Firth, a historical expert on Parkway design and professor emeritus in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia.
“Roads are meant to bring progress and development. A park is 180 degrees different. It is where you preserve something from progress and from development.”
Abbott, just 26 years old when he was hired as chief landscape architect for the Parkway, possessed both the skill and instinct to capture the Appalachian countryside and its sweeping mountain vistas from behind the windshield of an automobile. He often likened his approach to that of a cinematographer, training his camera on one frame after the next and eventually producing a 469-mile masterpiece.
While the Parkway’s design is often compared to art, Abbott and his colleagues applied a mathematical formula to achieve the serpentine line.
Abbott was a master of the spiral curve, a highly engineered and deftly calculated arc that eases cars gently into a curve and exits them smoothly. The turning radius broadens as you move through the curve, much like a spiral expands as it moves outward from the center. The Parkway owes its sweeping nature to the equation, which avoids the unpleasant centripetal force of standard curves. The formula was perfected by railroads in previous decades.
“They had all these cars they were pulling, and if you didn’t have a gentle change in curve, you had lurches, bumps, and screeches that were very uncomfortable for passengers and bad for freight and prone to derailment and accidents,” said Mary Myers, a Parkway expert on landscape architecture and chair of the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture department at Temple University.
Abbott deployed another geometric tool called the reverse curve, essentially two back-to-back spiral curves in opposite directions. Drivers barely exit one turn before they slalom into the next one. The reverse curve creates a rhythmic experience, as if swaying back and forth through the mountains.
“I don’t think you can find a better example of that beautiful line of grace,” Myers said of the Parkway. “The reverse curves do everything.”
Not only do they achieve a rhythmic motion, but they aim the car’s windshield toward the views, whether it’s a mountain vista on the outside curve or a rhododendron-capped boulder after rounding the bend.
While the Parkway changes often, the grade is gentle, another area of careful calculation.
The notion of Abbott penning the Parkway’s design in one fell swoop is far from the truth. Abbott plugged away dutifully from 1935 to 1944 until he was called into service for World War II. By then, only two-thirds of the road had been completed. Construction resumed immediately after the war and continued in sections until 1967. The final missing link around Grandfather Mountain wasn’t finished until 1987.