THE BLAZING colors of autumn will be at their peak this week in the high reaches of Washington's western playground -- Shenandoah National Park. Before the season ends, half a million people will drive along Skyline Drive's 105 miles of spectacular scenery or hike the park's 400 miles of trails, perhaps spending a crisp night in a campground or rustic cabin.
But few visitors to this Appalachian treasure ever see what the leaves conceal -- broken foundations, a lonely chimney, tumbled stone fences, rusted tools and barbed wire, severed roads, overgrown cemeteries. These hidden artifacts are the remnants of an enduring mountain culture displaced by Shenandoah National Park when it was created 60 years ago.
The relocation of more than 2,000 mountain people in the 1930s, one of the nation's most difficult resettlement programs, remains a bitter memory to many Appalachian families and raises suspicions even today in the Virginia counties surrounding the vast federal park. Yet for all the heartbreak suffered by displaced families, the park stands as a miracle of environmental restoration -- one that transformed an exhausted and barren landscape into the glorious forests of today. Incredibly, Shenandoah National Park was created as much by man as by nature.
The notion of an eastern national park amid the breathtaking beauty of the misty blue and purple mountains had been developing for decades. A private 4,000-acre facility, Stony Man Camp (now the park's Skyland resort), had drawn Washingtonians since 1894 despite the seven-hour train ride and, at first, the austerity of tents, cots and water pitchers. In 1923 the National Park Service director recommended the nation have an East Coast mountain resort with a scenic drive. Independently, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club set about clearing a 95-mile route along the Blue Ridge that would become part of the club's own 2,000-mile Georgia-to-Maine footpath. In 1925 the Shenandoah National Park Association launched a "buy an acre" campaign, and more than 24,000 Virginians responded with minimum $6 purchases.
With public and political support mounting, Congress in 1926 established the first -- and second -- national parks east of the Mississippi: the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina and Shenandoah in Virginia. In 1929, President Hoover built a rustic getaway on a trout stream high up in Madison County, inside the park's boundary, introducing many influential visitors to the pleasures of the Blue Ridge. Finally, in 1934, the first 34-mile segment of Skyline Drive was opened and on July 3, 1936, Shenandoah National Park itself was dedicated by President Roosevelt.
Amid the celebration, it was easy to ignore a complex and troubling aspect of the park's creation: Acquisition of the land from those who lived on it. Until then, national park sites were largely unpeopled. But both Shenandoah and the Great Smokies had permanent residents, many with roots extending back 250 years. Inside Shenandoah's boundaries alone lived 465 families -- more than 2,000 men, women and children -- virtually cut off from the outside world and largely unaware of the gathering plans for a new recreation area. Descendants of 19th-century immigrants from the British Isles and Germany, most lived in remote ridges and hollows. The fertile lowlands had been claimed in the late 1700s, but many valley farmers also owned timber and mineral land in the mountains and allowed newcomers to homestead there indefinitely. Other mountain sites were claimed by squatters.
Decades of exploitation followed, propelled by the railroad and portable steam-powered sawmills. "By the beginning of the 20th century virtually very piece of land that could produce anything was used," says a National Park Service document. "Grazing pastures and subsistence gardens had replaced the forest. The soil eroded rapidly with the loss of proper groundcover, and soil depleted by constant farming produced less each year. Wild game was depleted, and large game such as deer were vanishing."
By 1900 the mountain population was only half of what it had been in the 1880s. Determined to make do, the remaining families clung to the land. They lived in simple frame houses or log cabins, gardened a few acres and heated with wood or kerosene. Water came from a creek or spring. Only a third of the families had a horse. Roads were deeply rutted, rocky and steep. Doctors usually were summoned only after folk remedies of natural herbs failed to work. Ministers traded preaching for produce. Some areas never saw a school. Social life centered around corn huskings, barn raisings, hog butchering, quilting parties, square dances or just visiting neighbors.
More than half the families earned less than $100 a year from intermittent day labor and the sale of produce, timber and baskets. The chestnut tree was the most valued of the forest species. Its bark contained tannin for curing leather; its wood provided durable fence posts and shingles and railroad ties; its nuts were eaten, sold, fed to hogs and used to attract squirrels for stewing. But the primitive tanbark business suffered a series of setbacks, first from a devastating chestnut blight that decimated the Blue Ridge forests in 1920s, and then from the development of chemical tanning and the relocation of new tanneries closer to railroad lines. To seal the park deal the Virginia legislature in 1928 passed the Blanket Condemnation Act and kicked in another $1 million to add to funds raised privately. Soon strangers appeared in the mountains: surveyors, commissioners, social workers, doctors. They talked of evictions, condemnation proceedings, proof of ownership, resettlement.
"People were really scared of them," said Dale Hoak, a Shenandoah National Park maintenance engineer whose grandparents' place was partially acquired. "They came in wearing coats and ties and high, black riding boots . . . . This was the 1930s and you didn't argue with the government."
Many mountain residents who could write appealed that their land be spared. Others simply did not understand the litigation process and did not appear in court for condemnation hearings. A sense of uncertainty and fear pervaded the hollows. Domestic violence and alcohol abuse increased.
"I don't think that unless you were there you can really understand what went on," local jack-of-all-trades David Dwyer told a Rappanhannock County audience at a program on the removal of the mountain people. "The thing I remember most is my mother and my four sisters crying because we had to leave . . . . I got angry and stayed angry for a lot of years at the Park Service for doing that."
By the time FDR entered office in 1933, a lack of funds had shrunk the proposed 500,000-acre park to 160,000 acres -- sparing many homes and farms -- but in 1935 the size rose to 176,430 acres. Roosevelt ordered the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and 1,000 men -- some from the mountains -- were hired at $25 a week to clear ridges and blast tunnels for Skyline Drive.
Not only were mountain people forced off the land, but most did not qualify for compensation. More than half -- 268 families -- did not own the land they had farmed and lived on for generations. Only 7 percent of the parkland was owned by full-time residents; most landowners lived in the lowlands. But two dozen families who were long-time squatters and with no legal deed were declared rightful owners -- only to be paid and ordered to leave.
With the Great Depression in full swing, real estate values had plummeted across the nation. As elsewhere, it was a buyer's market in the Blue Ridge. Of the 197 owners who received money, only 34 were paid more than $2,000. Cattle farms with fertile pastures were valued at $10 to $25 an acre, mountain parcels $1 to $5. In Rappahannock County, Robert Burke took $900 for his 98 acres. The Blue Ridge Copper Co. got $300 for 100 acres. Gordon Cave sold his church and 16 acres for $775. The largest land owner -- Staunton lawyer John Alexander -- held title to 24,000 acres spanning four counties -- but he was in prison for forgery and did not appeal the condemnation. Today all of his property is parkland.
Valley farmer Lee Long owned 1,100 acres atop the Blue Ridge and offered "to make all reasonable concessions to promote the park proposition and would even consider donating several hundred acres of the tract in timber and granting reasonable easements of passage over the grazing land if I am not disturbed in the ownership and enjoyment of the latter." The Interior Department rejected the offer. Public sentiment sided with the mountain people, but condemnations and evictions continued and were ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. One-third of the families left willingly. Some threatened violence. Others waited until the last minute, departing only when the sheriff and a CCC crew came to put them out. Melancthon Cliser, 62, owned a prosperous general store, service station, handsome white frame house and 46 acres. He refused to budge. He wrote letters to the Interior secretary, citing rights under the Constitution and the Magna Carta. They led him away in handcuffs in 1929 and piled his belongings by the dirt road.
Efforts were made to resettle families according to their abilities and aspirations. Twenty-four area farms outside the park were purchased by the state and given outright to the most needy families. More than 170 families qualified for homesteader projects and were placed in new rambler-style homes with outbuildings and acreage. But they also acquired a mortgage and other unaccustomed monthly bills; 20 years later not a single original mountain family still occupied a resettlement house.
Nearly two dozen elderly residents received permission to remain in the homesteads under a life-tenancy status. Annie Shenk was the last. After her husband died in 1943 she lived alone in her cabin for 33 years. Park rangers looked out for her, bringing firewood in the winter. In 1976, at age 89, she reluctantly moved to a nursing home, where she died three years later.
Some former residents were allowed to return to tend to orchards at harvest time. And those who wished could be carried back up the mountain for burial in family cemeteries. More than a hundred small cemeteries surround Skyline Drive.
For many, the move down from the mountains meant access to health care, education and training for marketable job skills. But some families rejected the new lifestyle and sneaked back to their cabins, only to be forced out again. Other families, homeless during the Depression, entered the park and began living in abandoned cabins. To discourage this, every vacated mountain homesite was destroyed by burning, bulldozing or disassembling. Outbuildings -- sheds, barns, smoke houses and spring houses -- did not escape. Of 2,000 homesites marking nearly three centuries of habitation by European settlers, only a single structure remains intact in Shenandoah National Park: Corbin Cabin in Nicholson Hollow, east of Luray, built in 1910 and restored in 1954 by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The decision to remove the mountain people has been debated in the Shenandoah since the 1920s. The wounds are still felt today.
"People didn't know what to do," said David Dwyer. "We didn't have a psychiatrist or therapist to go to. You were thrown out naked in the world. Some of them made it, some didn't do too well . . . . I think the way the park was handled was a disgrace. But maybe at the time it couldn't have been done any other way."
Fears of government land-grabbing were resurrected as recently as two years ago when the park undertook a "related land survey" focusing on eight adjacent counties that had forfeited considerable acreage and many homesites to the original park. Concerned by increasing valley air pollution and related environmental ills, the survey inventoried "the lands with a direct ecological or land-use relationship with the park . . . . The data will be used to create a sound technical base for future government planning activities by the Park and surrounding communties."
It's the "future government planning" that has alarmed landowners. "The locals believe the survey is a back-door process of taking more land, of finishing off the 525,000-acre ultimate boundary," said Louis Cable, a former Fairfax County park official who operates a bed-and-breakfast near Old Rag Mountain in Madison County. "Some areas have seen both sides of the issue, but in other counties there's just an awful lot of bitterness in their hearts and minds."
As we make the annual pilgrimage to Shenandoah National Park this fall, we might reflect on the words of Darwin Lambert -- the park's first employee and later its historian. In "Undying Past" he writes:
"Removal of the mountain people, to return the land to nature's way after more than 300 years of heavy exploitation by white people was an episode rare in history. Rare, too, is the half-century regeneration of wilderness. Where else has the supposedly inevitable trend toward civility, toward more consumption of earth's resources, been so completely reversed . . . ?"
Robert Kyle is a Washington area writer.