GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN, N.C., SEPT. 11 -- In deep summer, the 470-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is a cool retreat from civilization. Wildflowers sparkle at the edge of forests. Cattle graze in meadows, and wisps of cloud cling to mountaintops. The hazy undulations of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. Natural, serene, simple. And illusory.
When the last 7 1/2-mile segment was dedicated today, 54 years of meticulous planning and construction had transformed some of the nation's most rugged terrain and most abused farm land into what the National Park Service describes as "a museum of managed American countryside," where 22 million travelers are expected this year.
The parkway's success as a natural preserve is the result of tight control by the Park Service, whose landscape architects designed the route and supervised development of every scenic right-of-way in the face of interagency battles, early jurisdictional squabbles among Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee and disputes with land owners.
Its serenity also masks new problems brought on by five decades of growth along the Blue Ridge. But, with completion, parkway officials plan a renewed effort to safeguard the legacy.
Among those who clamored to be known as the parkway's originator, Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. dated his claim to August 1933, when he, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were inspecting a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the new Shenandoah National Park. Byrd suggested extending Skyline Drive to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
In a telegram to North Carolina's governor that year, he said a "tentative" survey indicated a road of about 175 miles in Virginia, 140 in North Carolina and 95 in Tennessee that would cost $16 million and put 4,000 men to work for two years.
The actual totals became $124 million and more than 52 years of work.
Construction began Sept. 11, 1935, but initial progress was stalled by bickering over routes. Almost every community with a fighting chance lobbied Ickes and others officials for a piece of the parkway. But the real fight, between Tennessee and North Carolina over which would get how much, dragged on until November 1934, when Ickes ruled that Tennessee would have none.
Thereafter, the guiding force was Stanley Abbott, a landscape architect from Cornell University who said control over recreational uses, cultural resources and agriculture would produce a unique roadway. "The only reason for the Blue Ridge Parkway," he said, "is to please the viewer" and never mind about jobs.
His first assignment, in the winter of 1934, had been to drive alone from Washington to the Smokeys to learn the territory, part of it unmapped. Here began many written descriptions still filed at parkway headquarters in Asheville, N.C., of harsh land and residents, of ice and snow, snakes, lonely cabins, corn-husk mattresses, moonshine stills, shotguns, mud and erosion.
On his return, Abbott's New York firm withdrew over a fee dispute, but he stayed to become acting superintendent. Under his direction, engineers and architects were told not to run the road from one spectacular peak to another but to present a balanced view of the land.
"Your composition," Abbott said in a 1958 interview, "is one of fields and fences, lakes and streams, and hills and valleys; and your problem is that of placing your roadway in such a position as best to reveal them. . . . You determine upon your location by these very large compositional considerations, balanced by other considerations . . . such as the opportunity for the intimate glimpses into the deep woods and into the flora of those woods. This affords contrast to the heroic panorama -- a stretch here along the crest, there on a mountainside, along a valley stream, through the woods, along the edge of a meadow, passing a mountain farmstead."
When the route was surveyed, in roughly 10-mile sections, state highway departments began acquiring land and deeding it to the federal government. Unlike the vast, sparsely populated areas that became western national parks, the Appalachian region had been settled for generations, and the project involved as many as 5,000 land owners.
Outward resistance was minimal, according to the current landscape architect, Robert Hope. The parkway was the first real road in many areas, and land owners generally welcomed it. The glaring exception was Hugh Morton, owner of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, where the "missing link" was dedicated today.
When he learned that the section, scheduled for construction in 1955, would cross the back of his mountain, highest in the Blue Ridge, he balked until a compromise route was approved in 1967. Before today, parkway traffic made a winding, 14-mile detour.
By the 1960s, environmental concerns had led to calls for a new, less damaging way to build this stretch. The result, after $10 million and four years of construction, was the Linn Cove Viaduct -- 1,243 feet of concrete in 153 sections, only one of them straight and traversing some of the new link's steepest terrain. Each section was lifted into place by cranes sitting before the previous section, so no construction equipment rested on the ground. Construction on the rest of the link began in 1968.
Scores of families were relocated along the entire parkway. Early in its history, Resettlement Administration funds were used to purchase more than 100 farms, considered "unproductive," to create five roadside parks: Pine Spur, Smart View, Doughton Park, Cumberland Knob and Rocky Knob.
During World War II, when workers were scarce and construction slow, the Park Service corrected the worst error in early planning: the 200-foot right of way suitable for municipal parks designed by Abbott's firm but not for mountain roads.
Abbott widened control through scenic easements. The original owners kept the land and were required to use it only for farming. In North Carolina, easements broadened control to 1,000 feet; in Virginia, somewhat less.
No living tree could be cut, no building or pole erected without parkway authorities' permission. Scenic easements were accompanied by agricultural lease-back permits, still in effect, for which the farmer pays a fee and is told how to treat the land. Parkway officials decide what may be planted, when to analyze soil, when to mow meadows, how to maintain fences.
Along the edges, resort and urban development encroaches, and the $7 million annual budget cannot buy enough land to hold it at bay. In an era when the heavy-handed federal intervention that created the parkway way is no longer an acceptable way to preserve it, officials are beginning to cooperate in seeing the parkway gracefully into middle age.
They are helping the National Forest Service coordinate timber cutting to spare scenic views; they are making their interests known to local planning boards and working on land swaps; they are trying to improving safety measures. They are going decidedly modern to save the past.