The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Happy Anniversary Shenandoah National Park

By Terry Lindsay

Issue: June, 1986

Shenandoah National Park is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The park covers 300 square miles of Blue Ridge Mountains from Front Royal to Waynesboro, Virginia. It is accessible by the 105 mile Skyline Drive. Besides over 70 overlooks, it has over 500 miles of hiking trails, including part of the world famous Appalachian Trail.

The first Europeans on this continent probably saw the Blue Ridge sometime in the early 1600s. The first person to write about the experience was Dr. John Lederer, a German physician and scholar in 1669. In general, settlement of the Shenandoah Valley began in the mid-1700's by Germans coming "up river" from Pennsylvania and by English and Scotts-Irish from Virginia's Tidewater region to the east.

By 1800, settlement of the lowlands around the Park area was generally complete. The mountains themselves, however, remained relatively uninhabited. It was not until about 1830 that people began moving to the mountains in large numbers. Good valley land became hard to get and people began moving farther up the mountain slopes.

It was these farmers, moving into the highlands in the mid-1800's who established the celebrated "mountain culture" of this area of the Appalachians. The mountain residents were generally farmers who grew what they needed and sold very little. Some supplemented their income by working in local industries like mines and sawmills, and many were tenant farmers who worked for absentee land owners.

During this same period, a resort industry began to develop. The most prominent of these resorts was founded in 1888 by George Freeman Pollock on Stony Man Flats. Later called Skyland, this attraction developed through the 1890's and early 20th century to become the foundation of Shenandoah National Park.

As the number of people moving into the mountain hollows increased, they began to have an effect on the land. Game, once abundant, began to disappear. As the land was cleared for crops and lumbering, soil erosion increased.

By 1900, when the population reached a peak, the land was wearing out. Unable to make a living, people began to move off the ridge. The building of railroads moved some of the local industries away from the base of the mountain and the death of the chestnut trees due to blight, deprived people of another source of income. By 1930, half of the people had moved off the ridge.

Congress authorized the National Park in 1926 but it was to be acquired by donation, without expenditures of any federal funds. The Park hung in a tenuous balance for the next 10 years while a campaign was waged to raise donations. Thanks to many private donations of land and money, and a large appropriation by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the needed acreage was acquired and land titles were transferred to the Federal Government.

Shenandoah National Park was officially established on December 26, 1936. The following summer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Park in a ceremony at Big Meadows on July 3, 1936.

During this time period, a separate development (the construction of the Skyline Drive) was taking place. Began on July 18, 1931, it would be in construction over the next nine years. Also during the 1930's, six CCC Camps (Civilian Conservation Corps) were placed in Shenandoah. The men of the CCC worked for 9 years building facilities for the new park as well as soil erosion control. They also constructed rock walls, developed utility systems and improved trails and fire roads. In short, the CCC made Shenandoah National Park ready for the millions of visitors to come in the following decades.

When the Park was authorized, about 450 families still lived in the area. All of them had to move out before the area could become a national park. Most people sold their land to the government and settled elsewhere. About 170 families who could not make their own arrangements were placed in "resettlement communities" around the Park. These families, were those who were tenants, or for some other reason could not afford to buy new farms. Thirteen individuals were given the privilege of spending the rest of their lives in the Park because of hardship or meritorious service. The last of these people passed away in 1978.

Today nearly 2 million people visit Shenandoah every year. It is enjoyed by more campers per acre than any other park in the country. We hope you will share in the 50th Anniversary celebration and also share in the mission of the National Park Service which is to preserve and protect Shenandoah National Park for the use and enjoyment of future Generations.

(This article was based on information prepared by Terry Lindsay, North District Naturalist, Shenandoah National Park.)

Editors Note...On July 3, 1986, a Commemoration of Park Dedication will be held at Big Meadows, mile 51, Skyline Drive, at 11:00am. There will be a special program with speakers, also special exhibits commemorating the gift of Shenandoah National Park from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the nation.