Blue Ridge Parkway Hits the Road Online

The history of the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s most visited National Park System site, is now online.

The new collection, “Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina,” was created through a collaborative project based at the UNC library.

“Driving Through Time,” available at, presents photographs, maps, news articles, oral histories and essays documenting development and construction of the parkway’s North Carolina segment.

The site invites users to explore parkway history chronologically, geographically or by dozens of topics from access roads and automobiles to wildlife and workmen. An interactive maps feature layers historical maps atop current road maps and satellite images. The comparisons provide insight into the parkway’s development and its impact on pre-parkway towns, farms, roads and topography.

The 469-mile parkway radically altered the landscape of 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties when it was built between 1934 and 1987, and its construction sparked intense controversy, said Anne Mitchell Whisnant ’91 (MA, ’97 PhD), adjunct associate professor of history and the project’s scholarly adviser.

Whisnant, author of the parkway history Super-Scenic Motorway and the children’s book When the Parkway Came, often was frustrated as she combed archives and historic documents and tried to translate conflicts about routing and land rights into words.

“I found myself thinking, ‘If only I could see and show what and where they’re talking about, it would be so much easier to explain the arguments,’” she said. “‘Driving Through Time’ makes the park’s history visible and accessible to historians, planners, local communities, landowners and anyone who wants to know more about this American landmark.”

At the heart of the project are thousands of items from three institutions that collaborated to create the site: The Wilson Special Collections Library; the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters (a division of the National Park Service, located in Asheville); and the North Carolina State Archives.

Materials in the online collection include:

  • Historic photographs showing construction of the parkway and images of communities it passed through,
  • Maps depicting private land parcels purchased for the parkway, proposed alternate routes, landscape planning and the completed parkway,
  • Letters and documents pertaining to the community of Little Switzerland in McDowell and Mitchell counties, which sued the parkway,
  • Oral histories from parkway designers and laborers, and
  • Images by the late N.C. photographer Hugh Morton ’43, depicting the parkway as it passed Grandfather Mountain, which he owned.

Eleven essays share more insight into the building of the parkway and its impact. Whisnant and her students wrote about issues including competition between the tourism and logging industries, the parkway’s impact on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and selection of the parkway route.

Also included are K-12 lesson plans that faculty from the School of Education developed to help students use the site’s extensive primary source materials and interpretive essays.

“Driving Through Time” was made possible by a $150,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services under provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, as administered by the State Library of North Carolina.

More online…

  •  “Visible From the Road,” from the September 1998 issue, about two alumni who worked to preserve the parkway’s view shed.
  • Behind theScenic,” from July 2006, about Super-Scenic Motorway.
  • Driver’s Ed,”  from January 2011, about When the Parkway Came. 


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