By Bill Henry
As far back as the 1880s there had been talk of developing a national park in the southern Appalachians. Business interests and state governments were beginning to realize the economic importance of national parks as a draw for tourism, and the growing conservation movement of the early 1900s was interested in setting aside places to save the rapidly disappearing forests and wildlife in the east.
Ultimately, two eastern national parks were created — in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, and in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Parks in the west displaced no residents since the federal government owned the land. The area designated for Shenandoah, however, was inhabited by at least 3,000 people! Almost none of the owners wanted to sell their land and only a few agreed to move out voluntarily.
Because Virginia officials judged a national park to be in the public’s interest, the power of eminent domain was invoked. Those owners with clear title to their land received some compensation, but most families did not possess deeds for their property. (Because everyone in the community knew who the land belonged to, they never felt the need to formalize their ownership.) Those without deeds were generally granted no compensation.
No records identify how many residents moved out of the mountains on their own, but a special 1934 census of those still living in the new park revealed 465 families remaining that would need to be relocated.
Today, Shenandoah National Park (SNP) provides a place for recreation and enjoyment. The forest and the wildlife have returned, and it is easy for visitors to overlook the foundations and chimneys of old home sites, the former roads, cemeteries and other reminders of earlier times.
Although SNP preserves the land, there has been no public acknowledgement of what was given up by those former residents who truly made the park possible. Our society creates memorials to honor sacrifices made for the benefit of our country, but no remembrance exists telling of the sacrifices forced on the people of the Blue Ridge so that the park could be created for our benefit.
The newly formed Blue Ridge Heritage Project seeks to recognize those displaced families by creating a memorial to tell their story and to honor their sacrifices.
To learn more about the project, and discover how you can get involved, come to a three-hour information session and meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, sponsored by the Rappahannock Historical Society, at their headquarters (328 Gay St., Washington). A short annual meeting will be held directly after the presentation, followed by museum tours and refreshments. RSVP to 540-675-1163 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and bring a chair.