Our journey began in the Central Virginia community of Madison Heights, a suburb of Lynchburg, nestled along the banks of the James River at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.
Heading north on State Route 130, we soon intersected the Blue Ridge Parkway near Otter Creek, approximately midway between the cities of Lexington and Lynchburg.
Dating back to the mid-1930s, the Department of Interior’s Blue Ridge Parkway traces its origins to the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was originally christened “the Appalachian Scenic Highway.”
Though September 11th will forever be remembered as one of the darkest days in American history, it was on this storied date in 1935 that work began on one of the greatest treasures in all of Americana – a 469-mile long path that would serve as a vehicular natural history museum, art gallery and Appalachian safari for nearly 13-million visitors each year.
Unlike Interstates 77 and 81, which flank the Parkway, this two-lane byway is not designed to get motorists to a destination, but is instead the ultimate destination – and for good reason, check out these incredible pictures we took in a single afternoon!
One of the interesting stories in the history of the Parkway is unlike so many other public works, construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway did not cease during World War II. Instead, the CCC crews were replaced by conscientious objectors to serving in the world war.
In the end, construction of the Parkway took over 52 years to complete, with the final stretch around North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain opening in 1987.
Today, the scenic byway continues an additional 109 miles past its proposed ending point in Central Virginia on the Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive.
On this October afternoon, however, our family wasn’t concerned about the history of the incredible and scenic roadway, we just enjoyed taking a break from the interstate, taking a break from tractor-and-trailers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. To put it simply, we just enjoyed riding in a low stress environment where the maximum speed was 40 mph, ugly metal guardrails were replaced by natural rocks and gas station billboards were exchanged for 200-mile vistas of distant mountains.
“This is so cool dad,” exclaimed my daughter, as she leaped across Otter Creek on large millstones that date back generations.
A handful of minutes later, the two of us were posing for a picture atop what she described as “the biggest rock ever!”
Some thirty minutes later and no more than 3,500 feet down the road, our entire family was bravely walking the Harry Flood Byrd Memorial Bridge.
Described by visitors as “one of the highlights” of this part of the Parkway, the 1,040-foot vehicular bridge also doubles as a pedestrian walkway across the historic James River, leading to a piece of West Virginia history some 45-miles away from the nearest West Virginia county, a fully restored canal lock of the nineteenth century James—Kanawha Canal.
Originally surveyed by George Washington, the canal was intended to link the east flowing James River, which discharges into the Chesapeake Bay, to the northwestern flowing New / Kanawha River, which travels in the opposite direction, ultimately releasing into the Gulf of Mexico, via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
In a prophetic statement looking almost a century into the future, Washington worried whether Virginia – as was originally mapped – would be able to remain united, stating, “people’s faces are naturally turned in the direction of the flow of their rivers,” pointing out that eastern Virginians and their counterparts beyond the Blue Ridge were literally facing in different directions.
The canal was birthed by the Virginia legislature in an effort to create an eastern passage to the ocean for what would eventually become Southern West Virginia.
In the end, the formidable mountains of Appalachia proved too costly and impenetrable for the plan to succeed and the canal’s construction was halted in the Virginia town of Buchanan, only 63-miles from the New River.
If only the unforgiving terrain of western Virginia had been a little more cooperative, if only the Richmond legislature had placed just a little more emphasis upon seeing the project completed – if only. Perhaps there would be no West Virginia, perhaps there would have been no Civil War, perhaps American history would have forever been altered. If only.
At the risk of sounding like an incredible nerd, coming face to face with this 160-year-old restored canal was one of my personal highlights of the trip – just realizing the purpose behind its construction and understanding the implications of its failure.
Other highlights of the afternoon drive included the warm and colorful fall foliage and the opportunity to meet so many incredible people, who just like us, enjoyed taking a break from the interstate – choosing to spend the day capturing panoramic views and making memories as opposed to… anything and everything else!
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