Shenandoah National Park provided a challenge for the National Park Service. Unlike many of the parks they had created in the west in vast, open spaces of largely uninhabited land, Shenandoah National Park had thousands of people already occupying its boundaries. Hundreds of small farms dotted the landscape, their residents making a living from the land with crops, orchards and animals. The park was authorized in 1926, but it wasn’t until December 26, 1935 before it was established. Between those two dates, the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased some of the land from residents, and condemned other parcels of land through the process of eminent domain. Over 500 families were ultimately relocated out of the park, and a few other residents were allowed to remain until they died.
Unfortunately, as was all too common during that era, the Park Service relied on some flawed information to make its decision to displace residents. They hired a woman named Miriam M. Sizer to conduct a study of the resident population. Her assessment was that the area residents lived in basically squalid conditions, unable to care for themselves, and were completely devoid of education or culture. In her opinion, the government would be doing these folks a favor by removing them from their homes and relocating them where they would be better off.
The reality was somewhat different. Although the region had not been adequately served by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s education system, residents had banded together to create community schools. There was poverty, but many families enjoyed a rich, cultural existence. Ms. Sizer’s study has contributed to continuing stereotypes and sweeping generalizations of the residents of Appalachia as a completely backwoods, uneducated population. The Park Service features an exhibit in the Big Meadows Visitor’s Center addresses this “study” and its impact on the people who once lived here.
Also interesting is that unlike parks in the West, Shenandoah has a history that began with segregation. In the 1930s the park had multiple areas that were “whites only.” Only one campground and picnic area within the park was designated for African Americans. World War II changed all that – concessions closed and park usage went way down. After the war, the Park Service mandated that facilities be integrated; the mandate was fully accomplished in 1950.
Today the park is long and narrow, with its most prominent feature being the 105 mile Skyline Drive, that traverses the entire length of the park. The park encompasses 79,579 acres (124.34 sq. miles), and spans eight Virginia counties. The rocks making up the mountains of Shenandoah are some of the oldest in Virginia, over a billion years old. Over 40% of the park is designated wilderness, and 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park. It is home to white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, opossum, groundhog, red fox, gray fox, coyote and eastern cottontail rabbit. The park also provides habitat for over 200 species of birds and thirty-two species of fish.
Due to its location so close to major population centers, 1,209,883 visited the park in 2011, making it one of the more popular parks in terms of numbers. And when you visit, it is easy to see why. I’ll share our visit with you next!
Have you been to Shenandoah National Park? What were your favorite parts?