Went hiking yesterday in the magnificently massive mountains of Shenandoah National Park. On the way up Old Rag Mountain, I was making light conversation (in between gasping for breath) about various topics of historical interest and one of the group said, “Okay, Historian, how old is this trail we’re on?”
He meant it somewhat in jest, but shazam! I had an answer.
In February 1933, Frances Perkins sent President Franklin Roosevelt to his library and locked the door. Frances, the fiercely brilliant political animal that she was, wanted him to think long and hard on how to stop the free fall of America’s economy, and to come up with the solution that she had already figured out. Roosevelt was an educated man, schooled in history and the classics, and in the presence of literary example it didn’t take very long for him to seize on the same idea that has stood despots in good stead for thousands of years.
A hungry proletariat is a cranky proletariat. An idle proletariat will find something destructive to do (ask any toddler’s mother). A cranky, idle proletariat is a recipe for chaos. Perkins said it succinctly when she wrote, “Unemployment is the present pressing issue.”
So put them to work. Accomplish things with a massive, cheap labor force that would never be possible under normal economic situations. Push your programmatic agenda (whether it be temples, tombs, art, or sport) by offering it as the only option that comes with a pay envelope and a full stomach. That’s how Ramses built his pyramid, Qin Shi Huang built his Great Wall, and Caesar built his armies. Frances Perkins applauded; she didn’t care why welfare programs happened, only that they did happen.
So what did Roosevelt build? Among many other things, he built parks. He also appropriated land for said parks on a scale unprecedented since the annexation of Texas. His dear uncle Teddy might have had something to do with the inspiration for this, a little family one-upmanship and reincarnation of manifest destiny. Perkins and four other Cabinet members took Roosevelt’s memo about employing out-of-work Americans in national parks, dated March 14, 1933, and four days later produced draft legislation to create the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In order for the president to keep a close eye on his latest project, and to offer the opportunity for goodwill publicity photos, the first CCC camps were located near Washington, D.C. in the lower Shenandoah Valley. As early as 1926, the state of Virginia had begun buying land for a park in the Valley with a dual purpose. The upheaval of World War I had brought many young men from the Appalachians into the larger world, calling attention to some of the poorest and most isolated communities in the country. By creating a state park out of a large swath of the mountains, Virginia could simultaneously make some of the most economically depressed areas magically ‘disappear’ while bringing in thousands of tourists to drive state revenues. Because the land was ill-suited to agriculture and remote, land values were extremely low and the whole project required a relatively minimal outlay on the part of the state. One of the biggest advocates for the Shenandoah park was George Pollock, who shamelessly promoted his resort property at Skyland (on which he had massive, multiply-mortgaged liens) as the core property around which the park would form.
The dirty part of this whole enterprise was that a shadow campaign against the “fierce and uncouth” mountain folk had been going on for a long time, dating back at least as far as 1845 when Edgar Allan Poe published A Tale of the Ragged Mountains. (Ragged Mountain is now more commonly called “Old Rag”.) In 1933, a sociological study of the mountain people called Hollow Folk was published that described them as backward, ignorant, inbred, and irretrievably incapable of providing for themselves. A little too conveniently placed and conveniently timed, the study communities were around Ragged Mountain in the heart of the proposed park- turns out the researchers were deliberately pointed there by George Pollock, who knew he would not profit from the sale of his property if the park land deals fell through. With a nation outraged over carefully selected photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein and inflammatory headlines such as “Mountain Folk Know Nothing of Our Age” , those who protested the government taking land were ignored for their presumed benefit; “they have nothing to lose“.
Old Rag postmaster W.A. Brown on his farm, ca. 1933. Courtesy Library of Virginia collections.
Roosevelt needed the CCC to be doing something useful that looked good for the cameras, so he and Perkins hit upon the solution of building a road. They needed greater access to the park for future tourism, road building was hard, physical work that required a lot of people, and the federal government could claim the roadway and a hundred-foot right-of-way on either side by eminent domain. Thousands of young men, unmarried and between the ages of 18-24, (including two of my uncles) assembled at the CCC camps and were put to work building what would become the Skyline Drive. One of the signature aesthetics of the road was its faux-rural appearance, winding along the ridge tops bounded by stone walls and split-rail fences, which was deliberately created by the project’s landscape architect Harvey Benson.
Workers building a stone wall on the Skyline Drive. Courtesy NPS.
After Roosevelt made a highly-publicized tour of the Skyline Drive in August 1933, the popularity of the project quieted any further resistance from local residents. The communities of Weakley Hollow, Old Rag, and Corbin’s Hollow, among many others, disappeared as CCC workers dismantled buildings, removed possessions, and erased all indications of human presence from the land. Oral histories of local men who worked with the CCC tell a sad story of the displaced, though many also display optimism and trust in the federal government.
Farm in Corbin Hollow, ca. 1933. Library of Congress.
Around 1935, the parkland began to coalesce into a massive contiguous tract of 200,000 acres in eight counties. Workers fanned out off the Skyline Drive to build trails, shelters, cabins, and access roads for the tourists. FDR officially dedicated Shenandoah National Park in 1936 and it quickly became one of the most popular national parks in the country.
The hike up Old Rag is deceptively wild, with a well-worn dirt footpath winding up the spine of the mountain to the exposed granite crest that gives the mountain its ‘ragged’ appearance. However, if you look closely, you can see the rocky ‘steps’ of the trail are a little too regular, the cut of the banks a little too neat, and the flat spots in the hollows just a little too flat for nature. Those stones were laid by Corps workers and that flat spot may once have been a homestead. The park is no less man’s intervention than the hill farms that came before it, firmly date-stamped CCC: 1933.