Parkway right-of-way battle hard-fought through Cherokee

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians played an integral role in the creation of the Parkway. The Parkway was envisioned as a scenic motorway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

To reach the doorstep of the Smokies, the Parkway needed right-of-way across tribal lands, but securing the route in the 1930s was not easy.

“The battle for this right-of-way started in 1935, and it did not get settled for five years,” said Ray Kinsland, the director of the Cherokee Boys Club, who shared a brief history of the Parkway’s arrival during a torch passing ceremony last week.

Many in Cherokee were resistant to the taking of tribal land to make way for the Parkway.

“A lot of people did not trust the federal government because of history,” Kinsland said. “I don’t know of any other people who have struggled for their land and freedom as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

However, some Cherokee leaders at the time recognized the important role tourism would play in the tribe’s future.

“And for tourism, you needed roads,” Kinsland said.

A tug of war ensued within the tribe over whether to give up land for the Parkway, and if so, what the tribe was due in return. The chief and vice chief at the time were on opposing sides of the debate.

What is known is that the Cherokee Reservation is not a reservation in the true sense. The government did not grant the block of land to the Cherokee people. Instead, the Cherokee people pooled their resources and purchased the land over time and placed it in a trust, known collectively today as the Qualla Boundary.

“We had to buy this land with our own money after it had been taken away from us,” Kinsland said.

So when the Department of Interior wanted Cherokee to deed land to the federal government for the creation of the Parkway, the tribe resisted. Their land was taken once, they bought a small sliver of their once vast homeland back, and many balked at giving up even an acre.

But tribal leaders advocating for the benefits tourism would bring eventually won out.

The federal government at first wanted the tribe to give away the land for nothing, but ultimately agreed to give the tribe two other parcels known as the Boundary Tree tract and Ravensford tract in exchange for the Parkway right-of-way. The tribe signed the pact for the right-of-way in 1939.

Two years later, however, Congress decided not to give the tribe the Ravensford tract after all.

More than 60 years would pass before the tribe eventually got its hands on the long-promised Ravensford tract. The tribe negotiated a land swap in 2003 with the park service to gain title to the Ravensford tract to build a new school. The tribe bought 218 acres bordering the Parkway near Waterrock Knob and swapped it for the Ravensford tract, a flat piece of land close to town.

Tribe members were frustrated that it took three tries to buy back a tract of land that was rightfully theirs to begin with, Kinsland said.

The tract now houses the campus of a new $140 million K through 12 school, which opened this fall. Kinsland said the government going back on its word 60 years ago during the Parkway right-of-way negotiations was a blessing in disguise. Under park service control, the Ravensford tract had remained free of development. If it had belonged to the tribe all these years, “it would have been campgrounds and motels,” Kinsland said. “We wouldn’t have had anywhere to put our new school. We see it as a win-win-win.”

Symbolic torch passing honors national park anniversaries

A Cherokee elder presided over a ceremonial torch passing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway last week.

Standing at an overlook along the Parkway outside Cherokee, Elder Jerry Wolfe performed a “smudging” to open the ceremony, waving a feather and burning sage over the four corners of the land.

“The grounds and our souls are all cleansed,” Wolfe pronounced.

The event marked the beginning of the Parkway’s 75th anniversary and the closure of the Smokies 75th anniversary.

“Just a word of wisdom, slow down and enjoy your year because it will go by very, very quickly,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said to Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.

Cherokee is stationed between both parks, marking the southern-most entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and eastern gateway to the Smokies. The ancestral heritage of Cherokee people is rooted in the mountains and scenery embodied by both national parks.

“Our DNA runs deep here,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member. Archaeological excavations have shown 11,000 years of continuous occupation by the Cherokee.

The Parkway stretches from 469 miles from the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, passing through 29 counties along its route and dozens of communities. The scenic drive attracts more than 17 million visitors every year.

When the Parkway was conceived in the 1930s, a great tug of war ensued over where the Parkway would go. Tennessee hoped to route the Parkway through Knoxville and Gatlinburg. Asheville — along with Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Cherokee — would have missed out on the $2.3 billion economic impact the Parkway has today.

The Parkway is a tourism engine, responsible for 27,000 jobs and $508 million in payroll in the state.

“Certainly our forefathers when they had the vision for the Parkway were right on target. It has done exactly what they intended it to do,” said Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism.

Much like the region fought to secure the corridor past its doorstep 75 years ago, it must rally today to protect the Parkway, said N.C. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

“How can we preserve the national treasure we have here for future generations?” Rapp said. Rapp said the viewsheds are integral to the Parkway experience and must be protected.

Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis echoed the theme.

“The Parkway didn’t happen without a lot of support from a lot of people,” Francis said. “To preserve the Parkway for future generations will take all of us working together.”

The torch was passed from the Eastern Band to the Smokies superintendent, then to the Parkway superintendent, and finally back to two Cherokee children.

“The future of the Parkway is in your hands,” Francis said to the youth.

Bo Taylor, a cultural heritage specialist with the tribe, reminded the crowd gathered at the overlook that the Cherokee connection with the land lives on.

“We are not the past, but the present as well. We are also the future. We are fortunate to have young people picking up our traditional ways,” Taylor said.

Blue Ridge Parkway kicks off 75th anniversary

The Blue Ridge Parkway will kick off its 75th anniversary celebrations this month with several historical, symbolic and entertaining events, even though the official anniversary isn’t until next year.

• A program called “Natural Resource Stewardship – An American Indian Legacy and Model for Our Future” will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Cherokee High School. The talk will be given by Gerard Baker, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial who was featured in Ken Burns recent national parks documentary, along with former and present superintendents of the Parkway, Dan Brown and Phil Francis.

• Ceremonial Torch Passing will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13, on the parkway outside Cherokee. A torch will be passed from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, to the Parkway. Both park superintendents and Eastern Band of the Cherokees’ tribal leaders will deliver remarks. The Warriors of AniKituhwa dancers will perform. Park at the Cherokee Transit Lot on U.S. 441 just outside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to take a shuttle to the site of the torch passing.

• Guided history tours in partnership with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian will be given by Cherokee storytellers at noon on Friday, Nov. 13, with several stops along the southern portion of the Parkway. Cost is $20 per person and includes a boxed lunch. 828.497.3481.

• Parkway History Day will be held on Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Folk Art Center on the Parkway outside Asheville.

There will be craft and music demonstrations and special exhibits. A panel discussion at 10 a.m. will examine the history and lasting impact of the decision to route the Blue Ridge Parkway through Western North Carolina. An interactive session will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Parkway issues, challenges and initiatives, including design guidelines for adjacent lands and preserving view sheds.

• A concert by Nanci Griffith will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14, in Asheville. There will also be a performance of the one-time-only collaboration of The Blue Ridge Bluegrass All-Stars showing their support for the Parkway, including renowned musicians: Doyle Lawson, Sammy Shelor, Bryan Sutton, Tim Surrett, and Jim Van Cleve. The Cherokee Warriors of AniKituhwa will also perform, and the entire evening will be hosted by Asheville’s own Grammy award-winning musician David Holt. General seats are $35 and patron seats are $75. Tickets available at Ticketmaster.

Old timers recall Roosevelt’s trip to the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park staged a reenactment this week of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the newly created park nearly 70 years ago.

Roosevelt’s trip to the region in 1940 is still remembered by many. Throngs of people lined the main streets of Waynesville, Bryson City and Cherokee for a chance to see the heroic President roll by en route to Newfound Gap, where he would speak at a dedication ceremony for the new park.

“President Roosevelt was next to God,” said Henry Foy, who watched from the side of Main Street in Waynesville. “He was in the backseat and held up his hat and waved it out both sides.”

As is often the case with big milestones, anyone alive at the time seems to remember where they were when Roosevelt’s entourage drove through town.

“That was the biggest day of my life,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who watched from the roadside in Bryson City. “He was in an open topped car. They roped the roads off. I was holding the rope as close as I could get. I thought that was one of the greatest things that could happen to a boy.”

Joyce Patton of Canton, just 7 years old at the time, was most excited at the prospect of seeing Roosevelt’s black Scottish Terrier pup named Fala.

“[Roosevelt] was waving with his cigarette in the holder. I saw right away that he didn’t have the dog,” Patton said, recalling her disappointment. Patton’s parents, who were park supporters, made the long car trip up to Newfound Gap to hear his speech. They were seated near the front, close enough to see Roosevelt getting out of his car into a wheelchair.

“At that time nobody knew he was paralyzed. They lined the ramp going up to the lectern with Secret Service and Park Rangers so most people couldn’t see him in the wheelchair,” Patton recounted.

While the park was officially created in 1934, Roosevelt’s dedication happened six years later on Sept. 2, 1940. By then, the Civilian Conservation Corps had carved trails, campgrounds and roads into the park, including the overlook at Newfound Gap. There Roosevelt stood with one foot in each state while delivering his speech in front of the newly finished Rockefeller Memorial, erected as an homage to the family that donated $5 million for the park’s creation.

Commodore Casada, 99, caught a ride up the mountain from Bryson City to witness the big event. Although like many, his interest was in seeing Roosevelt — not honoring a park he resented.

“I hadn’t accepted the park yet. It just always seemed to me like somebody was taking something that was mine,” said Casada, who grew up on land seized for the park. Although he added, “Now I’m glad we gave it.”

Roosevelt’s speech was laden with references to the brewing war in Europe, calling for the need to protect America’s great landscapes and natural history as well as the nation’s freedom.

Reward offered in Parkway bear killing

A driver on the Blue Ridge Parkway last November witnessed a group of hunters and their dogs corner a black bear against a rock face and shoot it in stark violation of the no-hunting policy of national parks.

Parkway rangers work to save hemlocks

With a massive die-off of hemlock trees all but imminent in the mountains, Ranger Chris Ulrey is putting faith in a handful of high-elevation hemlocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway to be the species’ saving grace.

Parkway views from Waynesville overlook protected

A ridgeline tract adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway overlooking Waynesville has been saved from development, thanks to the acquisition of the property by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.

Haywood TDA helps Parkway views

Drivers on the Blue Ridge Parkway will be able to catch a few more views from overlooks through the Haywood County stretch of the popular scenic drive.

Spring wonders: Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont makes nature hands-on

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Cameron Farlow, an intern at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitors Center, reaches down to pluck a meandering millipede from the moist, dirt bank along the side of the trail as we hike up the ridgeline.

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