In this guide, when Shenandoah's past is described, we have tried to tell the story based on the most up-to-date historical research. If certain elements of this story tweak your interest you are encouraged to read the many publications cited in the text and if you still want more, go to the publications cited and seek out their reference documents. One publication, "Shenandoah, The Story Behind the Scenery," by Hugh Crandell and Reed Engle, is especially recommended as an overview. It is well written and contains superb illustrations. It is available at the visitor centers or from the Shenandoah National Park Association.

Mountain Residents w/ Ranger Gibbs
Photo from National Park Service

Except for the stories in the rocks which are told later, our story begins about eleven thousand years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene glacial era, which was the last Ice Age. The form of the Blue Ridge was very much as we see it now. With a present-day topographic map we would have been able to identify all the familiar peaks and hollows. Hawksbill, then as now, was the highest point. There were cliffs on Mt. Marshall, waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon, and talus slopes on Blackrock and Trayfoot.

The climate would have been uncomfortably cold, though the most recent ice age was nearing its end. While the area of Shenandoah National Park was never glaciated there still were glaciers 200 miles to the north. The mammoth, mastodon, and long-horned bison were the dominant animals, though all three were now endangered species. Hemlocks, balsam fir, and gray birch grew in the Valley and the Piedmont and on the mountains, perhaps there were no trees at all; only an alpine flora of very small and hardy plants.

That was the setting when humans first appeared here. Hunter-gatherers moved in as the Ice Age was ending and the climate grew warmer. Over 10,000 years ago they left traces of their activities in both the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont. At several locations in the central District of the park including Big Meadows, Native Americans were visiting 8000 to 9000 years ago. At the time of contact with Europeans the Shenandoah Valley was settled by Monetan (Siouan) people and the adjacent Piedmont by the Monocans and Manohoacs of Seneca affiliation. At places suitable for camping - more or less flat areas beside the streams, near springs or seeps - the hunting parties left physical evidence of their passing: spear points, knives, scrapers chipped from stone, and the chips that were their byproduct. (As you might expect, these same sites were later used by more recent Indians, and then by the white settlers, and now by backcountry campers.)

In the post Ice Age period, the great mammals of the Ice Age became extinct. Slowly, the gray birches, firs and hemlocks, which do better where it's cold, retreated to the colder mountaintops. And they moved northward as well as upward - so that those we now find on the mountain are isolated, stranded, with no place to go. The Indians remained, but they were few in number and nomadic.

You might ask how can a glacier, or a tree, "retreat"? It's just a figure of speech. The glaciers melted, from south to north. A tree produces a great many seeds, which are spread in all directions by wind and water, birds, and mammals. Seeds that sprout where conditions are suitable will prosper; those that sprout elsewhere will die. By this means, over a period of many tree-generations, hemlocks retreated from the warmer lower elevations, but continued in the cooler mountains.

  More Recent Indians

Between 1,000 BC and the appearance of European settlers in Virginia, change accelerated. Soon after 800 AD, agriculture began in the valleys. Indians raised corn, probably squash, and possibly beans. Because farmers can't be nomads, a more or less settled village life developed. Pottery, which was unknown to the earlier Indians, came into use. Hunting (to say nothing of warfare) was easier after the invention of bow and arrow. Broken pottery and burial mounds show us where the villages were. Both are common in the Shenandoah Valley. On the mountains arrowheads, spear points, some broken pottery, and various stone tools have been found. Clearly, hunting parties roamed the mountains, and may have camped here for extended periods during the summers. But there were no permanent villages within what is now the park.

Even in the valley, villages were only semi-permanent. They were moved or abandoned when game or firewood got scarce, pollution became a problem, or the occupants fled from hostile raiders. Hunting parties sometimes burned forest areas in hunting drives to foster growing environments for berries and to draw deer to the forest edge and meadow habitats that they favored. The overall effect of the pre-colonial Indians on the Shenandoah area was minimal. Their weapons and tools were primitive and use of the land mostly seasonal.

When Jamestown was settled in 1607, the Powhatans occupied most of tidewater Virginia and their villages surrounded Jamestown. Farther west, in the Piedmont, were tribes of the Manahoac and Monacan confederacies. The Shenandoah Valley was sparsely populated. The Shenandoah Valley was unpopular because it was a dangerous place to live. Raiding parties from both the south and the north swept through the Valley from time to time (as did the Union troops of General Phil Sheridan during the Civil War).

By the late 1600s the use of the Blue Ridge by Native American had almost ceased. Disease brought by Europeans took a major toll. Initially, the Powhatans were friendly and hospitable toward the white settlers. The expanding white settlements put pressure on the natives. They yielded at last to the white man's pressure and moved westward, forcing the Monacans northward and westward before them. Pressure and movement continued for a century and a half until the Indians were mostly gone from Virginia.

  The First Explorer

The Colony of Virginia, by virtue of its Royal Charter, claimed lands that extended to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. In the mid-l600s settlement was almost confined to tidewater; the western lands were wilderness over which the colony had neither economic nor political control. Virginia therefore encouraged exploration. In 1669 Sir William Berkeley, Governor of the Colony, sent John Lederer, a "German scholar," to explore the Blue Ridge. This time frame is surprising when you consider that it did not occur until 62 years after the founding of Jamestown.

Lederer, with the help of three Indian guides, reached the crest of the Blue Ridge on March 18, 1669. He later made two more trips to the Blue Ridge, reaching the crest at two other points, and then went home to write his journal. Lederer reported wolves, beavers, "great herds of red and fallow deer feeding, and on the hill-sides bear crushing mast like swine." The "deer" were probably Virginia white-tail and wapiti (American elk); "mast" refers to acorns and chestnuts.

Because Lederer had no maps of the Blue Ridge and the peaks had no names, we can only guess, from his rather hazy descriptions, the points at which he reached the mountain crest. Various guesses include Manassas Gap (a short distance outside the park, to the north), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), Milam Gap (mile 52.8), Bootens Gap (mile 55.1), and Hightop (mile 66.7).

Lederer gets credit for being the first white man to climb the Blue Ridge, a somewhat questionable claim. A few white trappers and traders, no doubt, had crossed the mountains before Lederer. The true accomplishment of John Lederer should be more accurately defined. He was, so far as we know, the first person to climb the Blue Ridge and leave a written account of his trip. Lederer returned to his native Germany without following up on his expedition.

  Golden Horseshoes

Lederer's trip did nothing to promote settlement of the western lands. Virginians began to worry that the French, moving down from Canada, might get there first. To publicize the land beyond the Blue Ridge, Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716 led a party of men across the mountain to the Shenandoah River and back. Note that Spotswood's group went fewer than ten miles farther west than Lederer, 47 years earlier. Those are the bare facts. Filling in the details gives this expedition a quality of legend.

Governor Alexander Spotswood
Painting from Library Of Virginia

The principal source of information is the diary of John Fontaine, a member of the party. There have been several other accounts, some of which must be classified as "historical fiction."

The Governor's party consisted of 63 men: the Governor himself, 16 "rangers," a number of "gentlemen," their servants, and guides. They took 74 horses and several hunting dogs. The party moved slowly because of minor accidents, rough country, steep slopes, and thick underbrush. Fontaine says, "We had several sorts of liquors, viz., Virginia red wine and white wine, Irish usquebaugh, brandy, shrub, two sorts of rum, champagne, canary, cherry, punch, water, cider, etc." Fontaine reported seeing the tracks of elk and bison, vines with a sort of "wild cucumber," shrubs with fruit like currents, and good wild grapes. The party crossed the mountains and descended into the valley, where they found a northward-flowing river which they called the Euphrates. It was "very deep," and "fourscore yards wide in the narrowest part." They drank some "healths", and took possession in the name of George I. Governor Spotswood later presented each member of the expedition with a small golden horseshoe to commemorate the expedition.

It has been assumed that the Spotswood party crossed the mountain at Swift Run Gap (mile 65.5). Monuments beside the highway there commemorate the crossing, and that part of U.S. 33 is called the Spotswood Trail. But a more recent theory favors Milam Gap (mile 52.8) as the crossing point. Fontaine says they climbed to a spring near the ridge crest. A "musket shot" from there, on the far side of the ridge, they found another spring. They tried to descend westward from the second spring, turned back when they came to a precipice, and then made a "good, safe descent" from another point. From the foot of the mountain they traveled seven miles before they reached the river. None of that fits very well at Swift Run Gap. But if we assume that they went to Milam Gap, Lewis Spring, Lewis Falls, and then Tanners Ridge, it fits like a glove.


The Spotswood expedition brought quick results. Settlers of English and German ancestry began moving into the Piedmont and toward the mountains. James Taylor II, an ancestor of presidents Madison and Taylor, built an estate in 1722 near the present town of Orange. Spotswood had, some time before his expedition, established a colony of Swiss and German artisans at Germanna (between the present cities of Fredericksburg and Culpeper). Some of the Germans from this colony moved in 1725 to the foot of the Blue Ridge, at the mouth of Whiteoak Run in present day Madison County. Many of their descendants are still there.

The Governor made grants of large areas of land in 1712, including much of what is now the park. James Barbour bought a large part of this area in 1730, and began selling small tracts on the Blue Ridge to prospective settlers. He later bought back many of these tracts, and regained possession of others when the buyers abandoned them.

The Blue Ridge, with no roads across it, was still a barrier to settlement of the Shenandoah Valley from the east, but not to settlement from the north. In 1727 Germans from Pennsylvania crossed the Potomac and moved upstream in the Shenandoah Valley (but south on the map), where they started a settlement called Massanutten, west of the today's Luray. During the next ten years German Quakers and Mennonites from Pennsylvania established several other settlements in the Valley.

The first settler in this part of the Blue Ridge was probably Michael Woods, who built a home near Jarman Gap in 1734. Records show that Francis Thornton owned the land east of Thornton Gap in 1733, and he lived on the Piedmont, south of what is now Sperryville. It was not until 1740 or 1750 that settlement of the Blue Ridge hollows began.

  The Northern Neck

The Northern Neck is a term used to describe an enormous tract of land bounded by the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River, Rappahannock River, and a line connecting the sources of the two rivers. In 1649 King Charles II of England granted this area to seven English noblemen. One of the seven was Thomas, Lord Culpeper, who later bought the shares of the other six. The Northern Neck was owned, successively, by: 1) Margaret, widow of Lord Culpeper, 2) Catherine (the widowed Lady Fairfax), daughter of Margaret; and 3) Thomas (sixth Lord Fairfax), son of Catherine. Lord Fairfax (the sixth) was living in England when he inherited the Northern Neck. He visited his Virginia property in 1736, and was profoundly impressed by it. He instructed his agents to do two things: begin a survey to locate the sources of the rivers, and start selling land. He then returned to England to dispose of his Scottish and English properties. The Fairfax agents followed orders. They immediately began selling tracts of land, many of which lay within other grants, especially Barbour's. They surveyed all branches of both rivers, but made several errors, the net effect of which was to nearly double the size of the grant over what it was subsequently determined to be. Lord Fairfax came back to Virginia in 1747 and spent the rest of his life here, an eccentric but apparently contented bachelor.

  A Century of Litigation

During the last half of the eighteenth century, before and after the Revolutionary War, agents of Fairfax and Barbour continued to sell land in what is now the park: Fairfax as far south as the Fairfax Line at Bootens Gap (and occasionally much farther south); Barbour as far north as the Hazel Mountain area, often referred to as Hazel Country (and sometimes farther north). Much of what is now the Central District of the park was claimed by two different owners. The resulting disputes and court actions continued almost until the Civil War. In fact, at the time of the park's establishment there were holdings still claimed by two "owners." This concerns us mostly in that it gives some insight into the outlook of the Blue Ridge residents. They and their ancestors had lived through a long period of land title disputes.

  The Age of Settlement

During this period, which lasted until the Civil War, the first settlers and their descendents with a reasonable amount of labor could ensure themselves an adequate standard of living. The first settlers moved into a magnificent forest, where one tree in five (or possibly one in three) was a chestnut; and each chestnut tree might produce a bushel of food each year. Wild game was abundant, and fish swam in every stream. The soil, though thin in places and rocky, was rich enough to produce good crops.

One by one, roads were built across the mountain: first at Jarman Gap (mile 96.8); then, in 1785, at Thornton Gap (mile 31.5). Roads at Browns Gap (mile 83.0), Swift Run Gap (mile 65.5), and Fishers Gap (mile 49.4) were completed long before the Civil War. These roads ensured Virginia's political control of the Valley, and provided a means for transporting its produce to eastern markets.

After the Revolution, settlement accelerated. Virginians of English descent farmed the Piedmont, all the way to the foot of the mountains. More Germans, Henry Heatwole's great-great-great grandfather among them, moved from Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley. As the population increased, industry expanded, cider presses, tanneries, grist mills, carding mills, and up-and-down sawmills - all operated by water power - sprang up at the foot of the mountain hollows. The mills used the products of the mountains, and encouraged more and more people to settle in the hollows.

Valley farmers bought large tracts of land near the top of the Blue Ridge, and used them for grazing. They allowed families to live on the land, build homes, raise gardens, to graze sheep and cattle of their own - in exchange for labor; protecting the owner's cattle, and keeping the fields free of locust trees and brambles.

Thus some of the mountain residents were employees of absentee owners. Some were squatters, who simply moved in and built homes. But most owned the land they farmed, or at least had reason to believe they did.

Between 1800 and the Civil War, the residents of the mountain hollows were probably as well off as small farmers in the valley and the Piedmont.

  The Land Changes

The early settlers brought with them metal tools, weapons, crop seeds, and domestic animals. They settled the land permanently, building homes and clearing gardens, orchards and pastures. Logging for timber reached most everywhere. Hunting for food to supplement farm products was an important part of the lifestyle.

These activities, essential to the early residents, resulted in massive changes to the environment. Between the Revolution and the 1840s, the bison, elk, wolf and cougar were gone. Plant species from throughout the world, but particularly from Europe were introduced. Gardens flourished with new crop species and a broad array of flowers. Many of these plants thrived and some soon spread beyond gardens and competed with native species.

  To Make a Living
Albert & Adam Nicholson
Photo from National Park Service

Many mountain people were farmers. In the pre Revolutionary War period they began clearing the land for homes and fields by cutting trees, pulling stumps, and laboriously moving rocks. During many years of work the clearings grew larger, as did the piles of rocks stacked here and there throughout the fields. Rock walls served as fences and boundary markers, sometimes with the help of split rail fences and, much later, barbed wire. A few trees were left in the meadows to make shade for cattle. (Which is why, as you hike through young second, or even third growth forest, you'll occasionally see a tree much bigger than the rest.) Many were left as "witness trees" marking angle changes or corners of property lines and points noted on deeds. Some families had chickens and a hunting dog or two. Some had one or more cows; many had sheep or goats, sometimes horses or mules. Many had hogs, which they earmarked and then allowed to forage for themselves, to be rounded up at slaughter time.

Many people lived in log cabins, often originally with a single room and a loft; the adults slept downstairs, the children in the loft. As families grew and prospered additional rooms were added. A wood burning fireplace gave radiant heat downstairs, and warmed the loft by convection. Access to industries at the foot of the hollow was, at first, by trail. Later, roads were built using hand tools and a little help from horses or mules. On sloping ground, which is to say nearly everywhere, the lower side of the road was built up with stones, to level it and keep it from washing away. Early roads were rough, and barely wide enough for a team and wagon. Traces of the old roads are still here, and you'll see them when you hike in the hollows.

Most goods and resources were derived from the forest. Black walnut trees provided food and dye, as well as wood. From chestnut tree logs were cut for cabins and rails for fences. Wood of oaks and hickories was used to make roof shingles, furniture, farm tools, and webbings for chairs and baskets. Nuts and acorns were food for domestic animals and wild game. Black birch was one of many trees and herbs used for medicine; its inner bark was thought to cure rheumatism. The crushed end of a black birch twig became a toothbrush with a built-in wintergreen flavor.

Large game animals were hunted while they lasted. When these were gone coons, bobcats, foxes, possums, squirrels, rabbits, beavers, minks, and muskrats were hunted or trapped. There was a ready market for furs and hides.

Mountain residents gathered chestnuts, walnuts, and berries for their own use and to sell. They cut trees and dragged the logs to the up-and-down sawmills, where they exchanged them for cash or lumber. They took hides to be tanned, and paid the tanner with hides. They took wool to carding mills (which made it suitable for spinning) and paid with wool. They took corn to be ground at the grist mills, and paid with a share of the corn. All of these activities evolved over time from exclusively home activities in the pre-Revolutionary War days, to the increased mechanization in the form of water-powered mills generally in the post Civil War era.

Many homes had a few apple trees, and sometimes an orchard of an acre or more. The residents ate the apples raw; they peeled and sliced them, and dried them on the cabin roof for winter use or for sale; they made cider, vinegar, apple butter, and applejack. Making apple jack, technically brandy distilled from hard cider, became an important product and records show that in the time leading to the park's establishment, it was a legal and carefully monitored enterprise.

Vegetables, fruits, and smoked or salted meats were preserved for winter use. Tanbark was stripped from chestnut, oak, and hemlock trees and sold to tanneries. Tanbark was a major forest industry until the early 1900's. Wild honey was collected.

Some wove woolen cloth and made their own clothes; some made their own shoes, household furnishings, and sometimes farm implements. But no one family tried to do everything. There were farmers especially skilled at butchering, and they performed that service for their neighbors. Others had special skill as stone masons, shoemakers, blacksmiths, or carpenters. People used the skill of their specialists, and paid them with goods or with their own special services. Naturally, work patterns adapted to the evolving national economy and industrial development.

  The Mountain Culture

The Blue Ridge residents had a rich traditional culture. Some were isolated; a next-door neighbor might be a mile away. Others were clustered in small settlements. In each case they spent most of their time working to make a living. But those things were true also of small farmers in the valley and the Piedmont. Most schools were at the mouth of the hollows, which might be several miles from home. Like children in all of rural America, children had to walk long distances to school. Nevertheless children attended school when they were not needed for work on the farm. Like their valley and piedmont counterparts, most had dropped out completely before the fifth grade. Before the Civil War, the literacy rate in the hollows was probably about the same as that of the general population.

John Russ Nicholson
Photo from National Park Service

Many parents taught their children to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Some families owned books. Most had a Bible, and read from it, though not easily. Tradition was strong; folklore and folk wisdom, legends, ballads, and tall stories - all were passed down by word of mouth.

In early days medicine was mostly homemade, from garden herbs and plants of the forest. Research at homesites in the park shows evidence of frequent use of patent medicine. Few of the mountain people ever saw a hospital. And they rarely sent for a doctor, although oral histories relate that the doctor usually came when sent for.

The mountain people were often religious with Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches available at various locations. Attending church might mean a walk of several miles. There were religious revivals in the mountains from time to time. Crescent Rock (mile 44.4) was the site of frequent meetings and revivals. Most of the mountain residents were superstitious; they believed in ghosts and signs and omens, as did many people in the valley and the Piedmont.

In fact, in the pre-Civil War period the residents of the area that is now the park were not that different from other rural residents in the surrounding area.

  War Between the States

When war came, some of the men went off to join the Confederate Army and records show that some joined the Union Army. Others chose not to participate. A squad of soldiers might come into the mountains from time to time to search for draft evaders; but there were plenty of hiding places.

There was little military action in what is now the park. Stonewall Jackson, during his Valley campaign, marched his army across the mountain twice at Browns Gap (mile 83.0), and once at Fishers Gap (mile 49.4). Early's army retreated through Browns Gap (mile 83.0) in 1864, and there was a minor skirmish there. A few cavalry engagements took place near the foot of the mountains.

But there were major battles in the Shenandoah Valley, which was of strategic importance as the back door to Washington. It was also important as the bread basket of the Confederacy. Phil Sheridan's scorched earth policy was designed to empty the basket, and it did.

Henry Heatwole's great-grandfather, was a Mennonite and therefore a conscientious objector, spent a large part of the Civil War in the mountains, safe from federal troops as well as conscription squads. When Sheridan came, his great-grandfather looked down at night on the light of burning barns flickering like fireflies in the valley. This is oral history passed down in the Heatwole family.

  After the Civil War

One by one, sources of wealth in the mountains withered away. The woods bison had disappeared in colonial times and the elk soon after. Deer and bears were very rare. Most hunting was limited to squirrels and rabbits.

After the Civil War Virginia was an impoverished land. In some areas many barns, livestock, and farm implements were gone. Slaves, once a major asset of the big landowners, had been freed. Confederate money was worthless. Taxes were high, and had to be paid with U.S. dollars. The landowners did what they could to regain their lost fortunes. Those with mountain land sent in logging crews for lumber.

When the Shenandoah Valley railroad was completed in 1882, steam powered mills were built beside it. The primitive water-powered industries at the foot of the mountains could not compete, and began to be abandoned or converted to steam. Logging actually increased due to the demand for lumber by the railroads. Although bartering remained and continued into the thirties, the people now often had to pay cash for meal, flour, and shoes, while means for earning cash were dwindling.

When a mountain land owner died, his land was sometimes divided among his sons. Thus farms often became smaller and smaller. The mountain residents had to pay taxes, and when they couldn't pay they lost their land. Others, when times were hard, borrowed from banks; and if they could not repay the loan they lost their land. As a result of these many causes, population in what is now the park declined significantly.

Public schools came to this area in 1870; then the railroad, and finally the automobile. Some of the mountain people worked as hired hands for farmers outside the mountains. Some made axe handles, baskets, or other handicraft items that brought in a little cash. Many in the nearby area found work at the Skyland resort. The mountains still produced blueberries each summer, and they could be sold for 25 cents a gallon. The sale of tanbark from the mountains reached its peak about 1910, and brought as much as nine dollars a cord. Each September a man could gather a bushel of chestnuts in a day, and sell them for up to twelve dollars.

Then came a one-two punch, the tanneries developed a new process, and the market for tanbark disappeared. The chestnut blight reached the Blue Ridge about 1915, and within a few years the chestnut trees were dead. The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed new rules for processing apples for market and new rules were also issued that set much higher standards for milling grain.

As other sources of income dwindled or vanished, during Prohibition the moonshine industry became more important. Lookouts warned of approaching revenuers, who rarely caught anyone making moonshine, but destroyed many stills. Land disputes, tax sales, foreclosures, and broken stills were, for the most part, the work of strangers. Some of the residents had reason to be suspicious and hostile.

  What Were The Former Residents Really Like?

Mountain Residents
Photo from National Park Service

The people who lived for generations in these mountains - what were they really like in the period leading up to the park's establishment? In the early 1930s a study of the mountain residents was undertaken and it paints this picture of the "average" family. There are five people, farming five acres, with a total cash income of from $100 to $150 a year. The family head is between 36 and 40 years old; his wife between 31 and 35. The adults have from one to four years of schooling; the children little. The children are of normal height and weight. Their general health is good; their teeth are bad. The log house is reasonably clean, and flowers are planted around the door. The people are not hungry. They have chickens and a cow; and a hog to kill for winter meat. They have stored food to take them through the winter: preserved fruit and vegetables, dried apples and beans, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, and at least ten gallons of kraut. Their cash income is enough to buy a year's supply of flour, meal, salt, sugar, and coffee.

Darwin Lambert, the first employee of the park, lived with a mountain family for nearly three years, and told Heatwole that, despite hardships, the residents enjoyed life as much as anyone he has ever known.

Recent historical studies undertaken by the park staff or supported by the Park Service provide a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the former residents. First, it is clear that there is a lot of bias in the studies that date from the 1920s and 1930s when early park promoters tried to emphasize the positive features of the new park and tried to minimize the hardships that might result from its establishment. Second, once the decision was made to go ahead with the park as a cooperative state/federal venture there was the natural tendency to support the decision that was made and to get on with it. Again, there was a tendency to emphasize positive features that the park promised and to emphasize the job benefits to the workers and their families. The CCC program that resulted in much of the park's infrastructure did become a model for depression relief.

A recent (2004) Shenandoah National Park Association publication, In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain by Audrey Horning, is a well researched look at the people of Nicholson, Corbin, and Weakley Hollows. Horning has used her own extensive archeological research in these hollows and extensive archival work to test the 1930s view that the "mountain people" were lacking in social development. She presents a far more complex and varied portrait, exploding the myth of the isolated hillbilly speaking Elizabethan English. Her work provides a picture of mountain settlements not unlike that of the surrounding Piedmont and Valley areas. The book is available in the Visitor Centers.


As noted above the population of the area within the park had been declining for some time. However, when the park was being established and land acquired there were still 432 families, with about 2,250 people, living within its boundaries. Some of them had been unable to leave their homestead; they had little or no savings, skills that did not match well with the industrializing nation and nothing to help them get started in a new location. Others stayed because they wanted to, hard times or not; the mountains were home. Others were getting along quite well and had no desire to leave. As the acquisition process moved forward the country entered the Great Depression.

But all of the residents had to leave. Many did so without help. The Resettlement Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up resettlement communities at seven points near the park, where a displaced family could buy a house and land with no down payment, and a 30-year mortgage at very low interest. Many families moved to these communities. The rest were resettled by the Virginia state welfare department. Seventeen older people were allowed to live out their lives in the park, the last of them dying in 1975.

The displaced families were moved to houses that were closer to schools, jobs, and stores. Just the same, many of the few still-living displaced individuals and many of the descendents of those displaced, to this day resent what happened to their families.


Some employees of the park and the concessioner are descended from families that were displaced when the park was established.

You can't take a hike of any distance without seeing evidence of the former residents. Traces of the roads they built will be visible for decades more. Most of their rail fences have fallen and decayed. Some cabin foundations are intact, and around many home sites you can find a few broken tiles, bits of bottles, and crockery. Most of the cabins were torn down, but a few dozen were not; these are now in ruins. Many of the cabin chimneys are standing, but nature continues to take its toll. Please take note that everything around the home sites is now considered an artifact and should be left in place, untouched.

Fern Hill Cemetery
Photo taken by Linda Lavender

There are more than a hundred cemeteries in the park. Families or private organizations can maintain them if they wish. The Dean Cemetery (mile 63.2) and the Tanners Ridge Cemetery (mile 51.6) are large and well maintained. Most of the rest are inactive, with no recent burials. Graves marked with inscribed headstones belong to families that had enough money to pay the stonecutter. Many graves are marked only by a small slab of fieldstone with no inscription. Who is buried beneath these slabs is now a part of oral tradition, a chain of information that has largely been broken although some families doing genealogical research have placed their results with local historical societies.

Cemeteries, like the roads and houses, will slowly melt into the land. Please respect these hallowed places. The most durable reminders left by the former residents are the great piles of stones that they heaped up while clearing their fields. Those will last a thousand years.

  The Park: An Outline of History

1923. The only National Parks in the east were Acadia (then Lafayette) in Maine and Hot Springs, though west of the Mississippi, in Arkansas. Various interest groups recommended creation of another eastern park. In that year Stephen T. Mather, Director of the National Park Service, submitted a report recommending that a park be established in the Appalachian Mountains.

1924. Hubert A. Work, Secretary of the Interior, appointed the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. Its assignment was to study possible sites for national narks in the East, and to make recommendations. Various groups were vigorously promoting their favorite sites, including the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Massanutten and Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia. The Committee recommended that two parks be created, one in the Smokies and one in the Blue Ridge. The Committee, in its report, suggested that a "Skyline Drive" in the Blue Ridge park would be its outstanding feature and wrote, "Few scenic drives in the world could surpass it."

1925. An Act of Congress authorized and directed the Secretary of the Interior to determine possible boundaries for the proposed Shenandoah National Park.

1926. An Act of Congress authorized establishment of the two parks, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah. It specified that land for the parks be acquired at no expense to the federal government, and that Shenandoah have a minimum area of 521,000 acres.

1926. On the recommendation of Governor Harry F. Byrd, the Virginia state legislature created the Virginia State Conservation and Development Commission to supervise land acquisition for the park.

1927. The Virginia legislature appropriated $1.0 million to buy land, this sum to be matched by private donations. (Acquisition will take years. Eventually about 2200 separate tracts were bought, many of them with unclear titles and uncertain boundaries.)

1928. An Act of Congress reduced the minimum area of Shenandoah National Park to 327,000 acres. An Act of the Virginia Legislature authorized the state to condemn and acquire land for the park and donate it to the federal government.

1931. Construction of the Skyline Drive began, with money from the National Park Service Emergency Construction Relief funds, as an emergency relief measure to provide work. Land acquisition was still under way, and there was no park as yet. A 100-foot right-of-way for the Drive was acquired by gift and purchase by the Virginia State Commission for Construction and Development and given to the federal government. It was now clear that money appropriated by the Virginia Legislature, plus private contributions, would not buy the amount of land specified by Congress as a minimum area for the park. So Congress passed a new act, reducing the minimum to 160,000 acres.

1932. Skyline Drive from Thornton Gap to Crescent Rock opened for a six week "preview" and then closed until 1934.

1933. Young men of the newly established Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) moved into the future park. They fought fires, worked to reduce fire hazards, control erosion, and graded and planted the areas beside the Drive.

1934. The CCC force increased, and eventually numbered about 1,000 men, in six separate camps. They began to build trails and shelters; this, and along with work on the Drive, continued until the Corps left the park at the outbreak of World War II. On September 15, 1934 the central section of Skyline Drive opened to the public, although the guard walls and many of the overlooks were still incomplete. During the first few days after opening, long lines of cars waited bumper-to-bumper to get onto the Drive.

1935. Picnic grounds opened at Pinnacles and South River. (Those at Elkwallow, Dickey Ridge, Lewis Mountain, and Big Meadows would come later.) On December 26, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes accepted deeds from the Commonwealth of Virginia conveying 176,429 acres to the federal government and Shenandoah National Park was officially established.

1936. On July 3, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in a ceremony at Big Meadows. On October 1, the north section of the Drive opened to the public.

1937. The Park Service signed a contract with the Virginia Skyline Company of Richmond to provide food and lodging in the park. The company took over the existing dining room, cabins, and stables at Skyland, and the restaurants and gas stations at Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap. They enlarged and modernized all three, and began construction of a lodge and cabins at Dickey Ridge. When the Big Meadows Campground opened to the public, the first camper appeared within five minutes.

1938. The Dickey Ridge development opened, with a dining room, coffee shop, outdoor dancing terrace, and gas station. Waysides opened at Big Meadows and Elkwallow.

1939. Big Meadows Lodge, built of stone and chestnut, was completed and opened to the public; with a dining hall for 150 people and 26 guest rooms. At Dickey Ridge twelve cabins of native chestnut were completed. They had from two to four rooms each and accommodated a total of 60 guests. On August 29 the southern section of the Drive opened. The Skyline Drive was now complete (at a total cost of about $5,000,000 or $50,000 per mile for roadbed construction only).

1940. Lewis Mountain campground and picnic ground opened "for Negroes." During this year, except for the few allowed to remain, the last few former residents were resettled outside the park although most had left by 1938.

1958. The former dining hall at Dickey Ridge was converted to a Visitor Center, and the remaining cabins to ranger quarters. (Most cabins were moved to Elkwallow, Skyland, and Lewis Mountain in 1951-1952.)

1961. The new highway interchange in Thornton Gap was completed. During construction the old restaurant and gas station were demolished.

1964. Loft Mountain campground opened.

1966. Big Meadows Visitor Center opened.

1967. Mathews Arm campground opened.

1976. The Wilderness Act sets aside 800,000 acres of the park for preservation.

1977. Skyline Drive added to the National Register of Historic Places

1983. A very ambitious project began: resurfacing Skyline Drive and rebuilding the stone walls beside it.

1986. Hemlock wooly adelgid first found in the park and over the next twenty years destroyed most all hemlocks in the park. Smaller remaining hemlocks are currently receiving treatment in hopes of saving them.

2000. Two major fires impact parks flora and burn some remnants of prior dwellings in Central Section.

2005. Partial restoration and refurnishing completed at Rapidan Camp, the summer White House of President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou.

2006. Restoration and refurnishing of Massanutten Lodge at Skyland completed. The lodge was built by Addie Nairn Hunter in 1911, the summer before she married George F. Pollack, the founder of Skyland.

  The Land Changes Again

The park was created on land that had been privately owned and consisted of mostly clearings and cutover forest. Cutting, plowing, and grazing were stopped abruptly, and the land began to change. The former residents had built an extensive network of roads and trails. The park continued to maintain many of them as fire roads. Men of the CCC graded and cleared the best of the trails, and chose a few to make "truck trails." When World War II ended and development resumed, some of the truck trails were improved to make fire roads and administrative roads, to facilitate backcountry patrol and firefighting. Others were abandoned.

A Once Mighty Oak That Has
Succumbed To The Gypsy Moth

Photo taken by Drew Myers

Some environments are fragile. In meadows of the high Sierras, for example, an abandoned road or trail might last for centuries. But the Blue Ridge ecosystem is tough and resilient. An abandoned trail will disappear within a few years. The old roads last longer, especially where the sides were built up with rocks. But these too will disappear.

Thistles and brambles moved quickly into the abandoned meadows-- black locust, hazel and pine soon followed. In the cutover forests young oaks and hickories grew unhindered, and began slowly to replace the pioneer species in the meadows. With the return of food and cover the birds came back, then small mammals, and finally deer and bears.

Blue Ridge forests are in a constant state of change. Many areas of the park have experienced ice storms, wildfires (2000), hurricane wind damage (Fran 1996, Isabel 2003), climate change and exotic insect invasions of gypsy moths and the hemlock wooly adelgid.

As these disturbances create voids in the forest, exotic species such as ailanthus, paradise tree, garlic mustard, Asian bittersweet, and mile-a minute weed take over and further change the structure and health of the forest. These ongoing disturbances create a mosaic within the forest (creating mostly even aged stands) and constantly reset the clock of forest succession. As a result the park's forest that we see today and in fifty years, will look much different than the climax forest that the first European settlers observed.

  Ah, Wilderness!

In October 1976 the Wilderness Act was passed setting aside a number of natural areas for preservation, including 80,000 acres in Shenandoah National Park. The law will help return of the park's mini-wilderness to climax forest. As Heatwole said, "we're running a museum here, and a climax forest would make a magnificent exhibit."

The law provided that there shall be no man-made development in the wilderness areas. To comply with this law, the park has "put the wilderness to bed." Shelters and bridges in the designated areas have been removed. All fire roads and administrative roads in the wilderness have been redesignated as trails. Culverts have been removed and the natural drainage of the area restored. The former roads are permanently closed to vehicles by large boulders at each end.

The park plans to keep trails in the wilderness areas open, but just "one person wide." Horse trails will be kept "one horse wide." At the height of the growing season, trails "one person wide" can grow completely shut in a few weeks. Unless, that is, they are kept buzzing with maintenance crews, which would conflict with the basic idea to create a refuge where you can get away from, and put out of mind, your fellow man and all his works.

The Shenandoah wilderness area is one of the largest, east of the Mississippi. On the 80,000 designated acres, nature is the primary manager. Shenandoah's wilderness story, unlike that of many western wilderness areas, is a tale of both human influence and natural regeneration. "Untrammeled" describes the spirit of wilderness. As a verb, "trammel" means to "shackle or impede." Land that is untrammeled is free. If you visit the wilderness areas of the park, and it is hoped you will, keep in mind you have a special mandate to not leave any trace of your intrusion on this special and large portion of the park.