Story and image by Don McGowan
In the late summer of 1934, the National Park Service was actively involved in plans to construct a “ridgeline highway” that would bisect the newly minted Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Already at that time the section of the road from Newfound Gap to Clingmans Dome was under construction; and it was considered that the highway would continue across Silers Bald and the Smokies Crest to exit the park somewhere beyond the proposed site of Fontana Dam over by Twenty-Mile.
You see, in those days—the early and worsening years of the Great Depression—building roads was the best way the park service could think of to get folks into national parks to spend some time; and the New Deal was beginning to consider how millions of out-of-work Americans could be gainfully employed once again.
There were those who thought of these road plans differently. One of them was a young Interior Department employee named Bob Marshall, whose boss at Interior was the crotchety, but wilderness-loving Secretary of the Department, Harold Ickes. When Ickes sent Marshall south on an inspection tour of three major road projects in which the park service was involved—Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, the Shenandoah–Smokies connector known as the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the ridgeline road through the Smokies—young Marshall took the task to heart. As he toured the construction east of Clingmans Dome and then climbed the dome to see the scene for himself, it became readily apparent that to continue the road course beyond the Clingmans parking lot would be to invite the dire compromising of one of the most pristine and beautiful mountain viewsheds in the Southern Appalachians.
Ickes listened to his young employee’s reasoning, and though the solution took many months and some interesting political maneuvering to unfold, the short of it was that the Smokies ridgeline road went no further from Newfound Gap than the highest mountain in Tennessee. The view today westward from the observation tower shows only immaculate ridges and sweeping valleys thanks to the love of the natural world of Robert Marshall, who would later become one of the prime architects of The Wilderness Society.
“I love the woods and solitude. I should hate to spend the greater part of my lifetime in a stuffy office or in a crowded city.”
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.