The Dream

Benton Mackaye

The Appalachian Trail is the continuing product of thousands of women and men; people who built, rebuild, and maintain the Trail. The first section of the Trail was cobbled together by the Palisades Interstate Park Trail Conference, predecessor to the current New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, in 1923.

Still, the existence of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is the result of two crusty New Englanders, one whose dream was born in 1921 and the other who drove himself and others to build the footpath.

A Dream

The Appalachian Trail was an idea born of a far-sighted and true Yankee, Benton MacKaye in 1921, after the First World War. In the preamble to his proposal, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning, MacKaye wrote:

“Something has been going on these past few strenuous years which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both—the high powered tension of the economic scramble. All communities face an “economic” problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing.

“…The problem of living is at bottom an economic one. And this alone is bad enough, even in a period of so-called “normalcy.” But living has been considerably complicated of late in various ways—by war, by questions of personal liberty, and by “menaces” of one kind or another. There have been created bitter antagonisms. We are undergoing also the bad combination of high prices and unemployment. This situation is world wide—the result of a world-wide war.”

MacKaye suggested a solution, of course:

“There are in the Appalachian belt probably 25 million acres of grazing and agricultural land awaiting development. Here is room for a whole new rural population. Here is an opportunity—if only the way can be found—for that counter migration from city to country that has so long been prayed for.”

In his description of this “Appalachian Project,” MacKaye identified four elements that would be constructed to make it whole:

An Appalachian trail “…a “long trail” over 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 Mt. Mitchell.”
Shelter camps “…equipped always for sleeping and certain of them for serving meals—after the function of the Swiss chalets.”
Community groups “…used for various kinds of nonindustrial activity. They might eventually be organized for special purposes—for recreation, for recuperation and for study.”
Food & farm camps “…the natural supplement of the community camp. Here is the same spirit of cooperation and well ordered action the food and crops consumed in the outdoor living would as far as practically be sown and harvested.”

MacKaye’s proposal includes some fairly Utopian concepts and eschews the private ownership of land or lots within the community groups or farm & food camps; individuals and families would have private domiciles, but the individuals would not own their homes. And, he points to a few communal enterprises active at the time, such as Camp Tamiment in Pennsylvania and the Hudson Guild Farm in New York, to show the feasibility of his scheme. Regardless, MacKaye was strong on ideas but had, apparently, little patience with the organizational minutiae needed to bring his proposal to fruition: “Organizing is a matter of detail to be carefully worked out. Financing depends on local public interest in the various localities affected.”

MacKaye’s words captured the imagination of some very dedicated dreamers and one very determined leader.

A Reality

Eight men, including Myron Avery, met and formed the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in Washington, D.C. in 1927 to build “a section” of the Appalachian Trail and support what was then the proposed Shenandoah National Park. The charter they created for the PATC reads:

“The name of the corporation shall be the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, its objectives shall be to build and maintain a portion of the Appalachian trail; to open, develop, extend, and maintain other trails for walkers, mountain climbers, and nature students in wooded and mountainous regions; to construct and maintain camp sites; to open shelters and permanent camps along the Appalachian Trail and other trails; to encourage the use of the trails by organizations and individuals; to collect data of interest to users of these trails concerning scenery, history, geology, botany, forestry, and wildlife; to prepare maps, guidebooks, and camping data; to test hiking, camping, and mountaineering equipment for better enjoyment of the out-of-doors; to educate the public in proper camping methods and safety in hiking, camping, and mountain climbing; and to foster public use appreciation and use of national and state parks and forest and other natural areas.”

It’s important to realize that, at that time, neither the Shenandoah National Park nor the Appalachian Trail existed.

Myron Avery was an engineer and planner. By all accounts, he was a man driven to accomplish that which he set out to do and one who drove those who allied themselves with him.

  • The dream of an Appalachian trail belongs to Benton MacKaye.
  • The fact that we have the Appalachian Trail is due in large part to Myron Avery.

The irony is, that these two had little use for each other.

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