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Blue Ridge Parkway Digital History Now Online


A photo from the online collection. Tourists look at a scenic view from Fox Hunters Paradise in the Cumberland Knob Area of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, 1940s.

If you think driving the 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a long and meandering journey, just take a glimpse at “Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.” You will be amazed that the road was ever finished.

Even parks comprised of large tracts of contiguous lands are difficult to forge and fill with diverse facilities. Imagine a half-thousand mile patchwork of properties that need to be blended into a half-mile wide route for a road?

The new and multifaceted online history of the Parkway informs that painstaking, multi-generational process that took place between 1934 and 1987.

Driving Through Time” is an easily searchable database of newspaper articles, photos, planning maps, essays and oral histories focusing on the task of finding the route and building the road in North Carolina. The state first had to win the route from neighboring Tennessee. Ultimately, the Parkway got its start at Cumberland Knob, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia state line, and was completed at Grandfather Mountain, near Blowing Rock, NC.

The online project is a collaborative compilation of materials from The Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the North Carolina State Archives, and the headquarters of the Blue Ridge Parkway located in Asheville, NC. The Website was funded by a $150,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services administered by the State Library of North Carolina.

The Web site’s cornucopia of resources is sure to inspire.  Among the items are historic photographs, maps targeting private land for purchase, various alternate routes for the Parkway, and even eventual landscape plans for the completed road. Letters and documents track the various controversies that erupted during the siting phase for the Parkway. Oral histories permit site visitors to hear the story of the Parkway through the memories of workers as well as Park Service employees. Some oral histories are transcripts, others are literally audio files of their voices.

The site's materials can be explored chronologically, geographically, and by dozens of topics. A “GeoBrowse” function permits choice of locations along the Parkway areas with the ability to visually scroll through the entire collection of images, articles and other resources for a quick look-see. The maps in the collection are viewable against modern aerial images in Google. A transparency adjustment permits the old maps to be seen, then ebb away as detail from the modern aerial photo below emerges to show road locations and land forms.

“‘Driving Through Time’ makes the park’s history visible and accessible to historians, planners, local communities, landowners and anyone who wants to know more about this American landmark,” says  Anne Mitchell Whisnant, adjunct associate professor of history at UNC, the project’s scholarly adviser, and author of a Parkway history, “Super-Scenic Motorway.”

The depth of the resources may be most interesting to students of the Parkway—in fact, a major goal of the effort was to reach out to teachers with K-12 lesson plans that use the material. Nevertheless, the period photos are a wonderful way to anticipate a trip on the Parkway, the most visited unit of the National Park System. Check out the historical post cards. They really put you in touch with the romance of America's most scenic drive.

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