One on One: A woman takes over the Parkway, and thanks to Josephus Daniels

Published 7:34 am Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

The National Park Service’s recent announcement that a woman would be the new superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a reminder of the important role Josephus Daniels played in the Parkway’s location.

Only a few older folks remember that North Carolina would have lost much of the Parkway to Tennessee if Josephus Daniels had not gone to bat in 1934.

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We should recognize that although Daniels held and exploited the racist views of his times, his foresight and advocacy are still improving the lives of North Carolinians of all races.

Earlier in April, National Park Service Regional Director Stan Austin announced the selection of Tracy Swartout to be superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, effective May 23.

Austin said, “Tracy is an exceptional leader with a solid record of performance, managing multi-faceted park operations and collaborating to achieve important agency and community objectives. Her experience, commitment to operational excellence and passion for inclusive public participation make her well-suited for this role. We are excited to select Tracy to lead one of the country’s most visited parks in the National Park System.”

Swartout grew up in South Carolina and attended Montreat College before returning home to graduate at the University of South Carolina. Later, she did post-graduate work at Duke University. A 22-year veteran of the Park Service, she had served as superintendent of Congaree National Park in her home state and more recently as deputy superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

Swartout said, “Throughout my life, the Blue Ridge Parkway has played a prominent role, with some of my most treasured memories being shaped along that winding road and in the national parks and communities beyond. The area’s landscape, arts, music and culture are deeply meaningful for me.”

The new superintendent will oversee the Parkway’s 469-mile route through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Last year, the Parkway had an estimated 14 million recreational visitors, making it one of the most visited national parks in the U.S.

As a child Swartout and her family backpacked and camped in the Smoky Mountains along and near the Parkway. She said that she, her husband and their two children are “deeply connected to the area.”

With their children and two dogs, she and her husband plan to live in the Asheville area.

What Josephus Daniels has to do with the Parkway’s location is a part of the story Anne Mitchell Whisnant tells in her 2006 UNC Press book, “Super-scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History.”

In 1933, the new President Franklin Roosevelt believed a program of massive public works would help the nation recover from the Great Depression.

Whisnant explains, “The Parkway was authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act, signed in June 1933, which created the Public Works Administration (PWA) to finance large-scale public works projects as a way of pumping money into the sagging economy and creating jobs in the construction of substantial structures that would be of long-term value to the nation.”

Roosevelt approved a scenic roadway connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park located along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. All agreed that the Parkway would run from Virginia down to Linville. From there it would either (1) cross the mountains into Tennessee and end at the Tennessee park entrance near Gatlinburg, or (2) continue in North Carolina through Asheville and then to the park entrance near Cherokee.

The experts recommended the Tennessee route. But when Josephus Daniels had been Secretary of the Navy during World War I, Roosevelt was assistant secretary and the two men remained close. After Daniels weighed in, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes overruled the experts and selected the North Carolina route.

North Carolinians who enjoy traveling the Parkway from Linville through Asheville owe Josephus Daniels a strong thank you.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.