For much of the year, Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeously overgrown place. The underbrush sneaks over the trails, threatening to erase them. Off-trail, the views are densely wooded in every direction, tangled in Virginia creeper and prickly greenbrier.
This is why we have come in December, to search for things that are obscured when the park’s hollows and hillsides are green. Winter, my friend Sue Eisenfeld says, is bushwhacking season. This is when we might wander off-trail in the backcountry, discover concealed relics and still find our way back.
We are hunting for Aaron Nicholson’s home, or whatever remains of it. When the state of Virginia assembled Shenandoah National Park in the early 1930s out of a patchwork of privately owned land, Nicholson’s descendants were paid $783 for their 20-acre property here. Park records say the family had a 15-by-43-foot log home, a sizable barn, two outbuildings and an acre of orchards.
On a 1929 U.S. Geological Survey map, a black dot the size of a pinpoint seems to indicate that Nicholson lived right next to the Hughes River. So we are poking along the riverbank, a two-mile hike down from Skyline Drive, in a part of the park that is considered “wilderness.”
Bushwhacking is a comically inelegant exercise. Eisenfeld and I have to hike with our whole bodies, swinging our legs over fallen logs and flailing our arms to keep the thorns at bay. At least once, a low-hanging limb latches onto my backpack. Eventually, though, as our map promised, the homesite comes into view: a solitary, towering stone chimney in a forest of naked trees.
Most of Shenandoah is so wild and overgrown that it is easy to imagine that it was always that way. The park, about two hours west of the District, draws 1.2 million visitors a year for scenic overlooks off Skyline Drive or day trips on the Appalachian Trail through scenes that seem as untouched by man as any place we have in the Mid-Atlantic. Running along a ridgeline, the park seems far removed from development in the valley below.
But, as Eisenfeld writes in a new book that is part history, part hiking ode, this park has in fact been “de-peopled and re-wilded.” To create this vast expanse of nature, hundreds of families who lived and farmed here, who grew orchards and grazed livestock here, had to leave.
The park’s records do not indicate whether the Nicholson family willingly sold its homestead. Eighty years later, the fragments that remain easily blend into the forest. The few surviving fence posts were made out of trees that once grew here. The chimney, about 30 feet high, is stacked of the same light-colored granite-gneiss found throughout these hills.
Eisenfeld brought me here after I had read her book, “Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal,” which will be published next month by the University of Nebraska Press. Like her, I had hiked in this park for years, unaware of its history and the evidence of it that still lingers throughout. But, she says as we walk, “once you start seeing this, you see it everywhere.”
All around us are large rock piles, stacked decades ago by farmers picking over their fields. Stone walls suddenly visible from the trails mark boundary lines and fences that are no longer needed. The trails we walk, according to our old map, were roads connecting families here long before they became hiking paths for nature-lovers from the city.
Even the forest itself bears signs of the communities that once existed here. On land cleared years ago for pasture or farming, tulip poplars dominate the regrown forest; oaks and hickories haven’t had time to come back yet. Neil, Eisenfeld’s husband and a trained naturalist, can spot a former farm site by this forest succession.
Learn this history, and you begin to see Shenandoah in a new light: as a place that was once far from wild, that was lived in, from which families — if not all the signs of their former lives — had to be removed.
In the early 20th century, the United States already had several great national parks — Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier — all in the West. Advocates wanted a comparable park for the East Coast, where it would be accessible to more of the nation’s population.
Several states bid for the honor; the Virginia boosters who wanted a national park here promised that the land they had in mind was “pristine and uninhabited.” Businessman George Pollock led the push for about half a million acres that happened to surround his own Skyland resort in the Blue Ridge. “There are within the area, of course, a few small mountain farms,” he wrote to a committee considering the park, “of no great value.”
Congress authorized the creation of a park here in 1926, if Virginia could cobble together the land and donate it to the federal government. No one foresaw that the people who lived here would object.
When surveyors first appraised the area imagined for the park, they found 5,650 tracts of land and 3,250 homes, involving far more people than the state had expected and a far higher sum than it could afford to pay. Many of the families the surveyors encountered also relayed word that they did not want to sell.
The men charged with creating the park had to revise their ambitions, from 521,000 acres to, eventually, about 176,000. The reality of property values and private protest redrew the park’s boundaries into the jagged lines they are today. Still, more than 2,000 people lived within the planned final park borders. Faced with the prospect of negotiating with all of them, Virginia passed a law in 1928 allowing it to claim their land through eminent domain instead.
Some families took the money willingly. For the next decade, others tried to appeal their appraisals and even their fates, all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, several dozen people were given lifetime residency in the park. Most, though, had to leave — the last of them through eviction in the late 1930s, their homes locked behind them or destroyed.
This is the cost some people paid for what we consider today to be conservation.
For decades, the story the park told of itself made little mention of these families. Or, worse, the prevailing history described the “hollow folk” who lived here as hillbillies who spoiled the land with grazing and logging. Signs of homes, schools, churches, stores and mills were largely removed from the park, considered historically insignificant.
“For many years, we did not tell this story as well as we should have because we viewed ourselves as primarily a large natural-area park,” says Jim Northup, park superintendent since 2013.
With time, that attitude has shifted as the entire National Park Service has wrestled with the human history of places that had for many years been described as “natural.” A decade ago, the Byrd Visitor Center in Shenandoah unveiled an exhibit that retold this history with photos of the families proudly standing before the homes they built, alongside copies of the one-page appraisals they were given for their land.
The park now considers sites like Nicholson’s home to be important cultural resources. Shenandoah is seen as a place where nature meets history, where you can explore one or the other, or, as Eisenfeld has done, both.
“I can’t walk anywhere in the park without thinking about Native American history, without thinking about the early settlers,” Northup says. “Particularly when I walk past a place where I see a stone wall, and I wonder about the family that was living there, what life was like for them, how they sustained themselves.”
Shenandoah’s relationship to its former residents is still complicated, though. The park no longer removes relics from the backcountry, but it can’t do much to maintain them, either. About 100 family cemeteries exist in the park, some containing only a few unmarked gravestones. But many are located in congressionally designated “wilderness” areas, meaning there are no roads to make it simple for descendants or others who wish to visit.
While the park is more open now about this past, it is also guarded with the specifics: There is no map that will tell you where to find Nicholson’s home, no public brochure cataloguing all the cemeteries, no trail signs to lead you to abandoned stone walls and pottery shards.
History is part of the park experience today — curated in the visitor center, or easily seen from the Fox Hollow Trail — but the park doesn’t want hikers to pocket the pottery, or to get lost looking for the more obscure sources of it. So most of these sites remain unknown to all but descendants and a few devoted history-hikers who take pride in treading lightly.
That is what makes the discovery of a chimney in the forest, or a collapsing cabin around the Broad Hollow trail bend, so exhilarating. When Eisenfeld hikes in search of home sites she knows once existed, even places she has been before, she still doesn’t know what she will find. Chimneys crumble. Walls cave in. Headstones come into view that were overgrown last time.
If these relics were easier to find, there would be no surprise in stumbling on them, and no reward in trying to train your eyes to see the land differently. There would be no joy in being the first to call out from the middle of a briar patch “I think I found something!” There would also be less left to the imagination when you discover an old cookstove but no home around it, an old cemetery but no community nearby.
At Aaron Nicholson’s chimney, we try to reconstruct the full scene — our small way of paying respect. How would his house have been oriented? How large would it have been? Surely, it must have had two floors. And a root cellar. Did he draw his water from a spring, or straight from the river nearby? Who would he have seen passing on the road over the river that has today become a hiking trail?
What would he, and the others who lived here, think of the park today?
“They would not recognize this place,” Eisenfeld says of all of the people who lived here. The forest itself has changed, most of the chestnuts that once grew here wiped out by blight. Our wilderness is not the same as theirs.
The memory of these people also silently poses a question that runs through Eisenfeld’s book: Was it worth it? Does my own love of the park justify the Nicholson family’s loss when they left it? Confront the park’s history, and it’s hard to avoid this question. “Once you begin to know something,” Eisenfeld writes, “you cannot unknow it.”
“Everyone agrees national parks are great. But what if it’s your land?” she asks as we hike away from the Nicholson home and toward another dot on our old map. “I can’t really come to a conclusion about it.”
Maybe it would have been better if the families had been included in planning for the park instead of considered an impediment to its creation. Even then, Eisenfeld says, it’s hard to ever say that someone else’s suffering was a fair price for your pleasure.
“For me,” she later tells me, “it deepens my appreciation of a place to know what happened before, to know who lived there before, how they lived, what choices they made.”
National parks, Northup says, are a social construct. We decided as a nation to create this place, and we can just as easily decide one day to turn it over again to private hands. For any conservationist, that is a painful thought. But it is even more so once you consider the price other people paid for conserving this land in the first place: If we were to undo this, they would have lost their homes for nothing.
Our small hiking party went on to hunt for relics at another dot on the map, near Nicholson’s home. As daylight started to wane, we saw telltale rock piles, even a piece of rusting metal, maybe a barrel stave, but nothing resembling the stone foundation of a home where people would have lived. The forest may have finally reclaimed it. Or perhaps, on this day, nature was keeping the secret for herself.
Open year-round; hiking recommended during daylight. The park’s four main entrances are located in Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run and Rockfish Gap. Entrance fee is $5 for visitors 16 and older December-February; $8 from March-November. Car fee to enter is $10 per vehicle December-February; $15 March-November. Annual passes $30.
Lodges and campgrounds inside the park are closed in winter, but Front Royal, Sperryville and Luray offer lodging with easy park access. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club operates several primitive hike-in cabins inside the park in rehabbed historic homes that can be rented. $30-$90 a night. www.patc.net.
Food concessions in the park are closed in winter, so bring your lunch if you’re hiking, and stop for dinner outside the park on your way home.
The Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center, located near Big Meadows at Mile Marker 51 on Skyline Drive, tells the history of the park and includes historical reference material (plus bathrooms and a bookstore). In winter, it’s open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Open daily beginning March 28.
The park has more than 500 miles of trails, many through areas that were once inhabited. The Fox Hollow and Snead Farm Loop trails, across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, offer an easy hike to cemeteries and old homesites.