ATC v Skyline Drive

PATC Worktrip near Skyland Resort c.1935PATC Worktrip near Skyland Resort c.1935

The project to build a “ridge road” along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia was incorporated into the proposal for a new national park as proposed by the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee in 1924.

This idea, proposed by L. Ferdinand Zerkel, was immediately popular with park proponents. Once the new Shenandoah National Park was established, the federal government was committed to construction of a “skyline drive.”

In fact, surveys for the new road began in 1931, although construction didn’t start until 1933. That this road would lead to a split within the fledgling Appalachian Trail Conference and a bitter falling-out between the author of the Appalachian Trail concept and the leader who made the Trail an on-the-ground fact was a supreme irony.

The Conceptualist

Benton MacKaye was a forester, planner, and conservationist born in Stamford, Connecticut. In 1921, he published a paper, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning, in the Journal of The American Institute of Architects that many think focused on the creation of an Appalachian trail. While MacKaye did speak to a long trail along the spine of the Allegheny/Appalachian mountains, his proposal is much more about wilderness and the benefits to be gained by those who participate in the backcountry communities he envisioned. There is a certain tendency toward socialism in his proposal, too.

The Builder

Myron Avery was, by all accounts, not made for a desk. He was a mover, a motivator, and a shaker. People either loved or hated him; there were few who knew him who did not have a strong opinion about him. While it’s probably true that without Benton MacKaye the concept of the Appalachian Trail might not have been born, it’s a fact that, without Myron Avery, there wouldn’t be an Appalachian Trail to hike.

The Controversy

MacKaye was vehemently opposed to a modern road with the encroachment of motorized traffic and commercial activity into the wilderness that he believed essential to the new Appalachian Trail. MacKaye wanted the Appalachian Trail Conference to adopt a resolution and work against the proposed ridge road.

CCC reconstruction of the AT near Black Rock c1935CCC Construction of the A.T.

The problem was that the chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference was Myron Avery, and Avery did not oppose the Skyline Drive. In fact, he embraced it. And, through his force of will and persuasiveness, he led the ATC (and PATC) to support the Drive and to cooperate with the federal authorities whose commitment to the Drive was unshakable.

Although other issues, including those of personality, contributed to the ultimate fracture, these opposing positions crystallized the conflict between Avery and MacKaye. MacKaye left the ATC and, in 1935, founded the Wilderness Society. Avery stayed and led the ATC until shortly before his death in 1952.

Although MacKaye would later acknowledge that there would be no Appalachian Trail without Myron Avery, the two never reconciled.

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