Benton MacKaye gave us the Appalachian Trail—and new ways to look at the American landscape.
by Erik Ness
(Preservation, July|August 2003)
Let us assume the existence of a giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds. What would he see from this skyline as he strode along its length from north to south?” asked Emile Benton MacKaye in his 1921 proposal for an Appalachian trail. And he answered: [A] mighty part of the nation’s activities.”
More than 80 years later, one of the enduring rites of spring in America is the mass, rolling start of booted pilgrims on the Appalachian Trail. Every year several thousand hikers from all walks of life strap on oversized backpacks, kiss their loved ones, and set out to traverse what they hope will be the entire 2,173-mile-long route between Georgia and Maine. This eclectic pedestrian army has become the footpath’s familiar face, a modern quest by humans engaging nature—with a little help from $400 parkas and $2 Power Bars.
But there is a broader vision imposed upon this landscape, and to see it, you must put on the green-tinted lenses of MacKaye—conservationist, regional planner, and father of the Appalachian Trail, which became the inspiration for greenways all over the country. MacKaye advocated a less invasive interstate highway system, cofounded the Wilderness Society, and wrote the first diagnosis of and argument against urban sprawl.
Yet Benton MacKaye is far from a household name. The writer Bill Bryson, in his 1998 bestseller about the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, cavalierly dismisses him as a doting eccentric who “was always available in his later years to say a few words at ceremonies on sunny hillsides.”
There are signs of growing appreciation, however. Paul Sutter writes in Driven Wild, his 2002 history of the struggle between wilderness and the automobile, that MacKaye’s “innovative synthesis of conservation and regional planning made him one of the most important and imaginative environmental thinkers of the twentieth century.” In her 1999 book, Organization Space, architectural theorist Keller Easterling lauds MacKaye’s ability to envision the ways that landscapes change across space and time. And the first biography of the man, Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail by Larry Anderson, was published late last year.
As awareness of MacKaye’s legacy grows, his signature achievement—the Appalachian Trail—is imperiled by the same “metropolitan invasion” that he warned of—sprawl. “Like a slow moving wave, it hit the Appalachians and washed over to the other side,” says Don Owen of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a unit of the National Park Service and federal protector
of the trail corridor. “Now the AT is just this little ribbon of wilderness, threatened pretty much along its entire length.” Which will prevail, the trail or the unfettered urban growth that MacKaye prophesied?
Born in 1879 into a quirky and charismatic family, MacKaye (rhymes with “eye”) spent the first decade of his life moving about from Washington, D.C., to Massachusetts and points between. His father, Steele, was a respected playwright whose taste for innovative spectacles made him a ruinous businessman. (He died when MacKaye was 14.) Uninspired by school, Benton pursued knowledge on his own. For instance, in Washington, the impressionable boy listened to Maj. John Wesley Powell lecture on his Colorado River exploits, and to Robert E. Peary before the explorer set out for the Arctic. MacKaye haunted the Smithsonian, sketching collections, helping out in labs, and studying a 12-foot-long model of the proposed Rock Creek Park.
MacKaye was fascinated with maps. In Cambridge, Mass., for high school, he stayed in the home of businessman Charles Davenport, who had mapped out a scheme for the Charles River that helped set in motion the events leading to Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous “emerald necklace” of Boston parks. MacKaye had long been charting the landscape around Shirley Center, an archetypal New England village 30 miles from Boston where he lived off and on from the age of eight until his death in 1975. From this base he roamed the New England countryside, documenting vegetation, landforms, rivers, and roads in numbered notebooks. “This direct, first-hand education through the senses and feelings, with its deliberate observation of nature in every guise—including the human animal—has nourished MacKaye all his life,” wrote urban critic Lewis Mumford in a biographical essay about his good friend.
When one of MacKaye’s older brothers, James, stumbled upon a notebook labeled Expedition Nine and began teasing him—calling his explorations “expedition nining”—Benton adopted the phrase as a lifelong metaphor for his particular way of surveying the land for its patterns and problems. But expedition nining was not child’s play. “He could sit on a hill on a self-created scientific program,” says biographer Anderson, “and not only do the science, but then go off on these philosophical bents, as he kept doing the rest of his life.”
He was especially drawn to peaks, overlooks, treetops, and other high places, using these vantage points to review “the country spread out like a map,” fine-tuning his understanding of the cultural and natural forces that sculpt the landscape. In Shirley Center he often climbed Hunting Hill. Visible to the north in New Hampshire was Mount Monadnock, a lifelong beacon for him. According to one account, he first conceived of the Appalachian Trail atop Stratton Mountain in Vermont.
In 1896 MacKaye followed his brothers—James, a philosopher, and Percy, a writer—to Harvard, where he studied geology. He was already something of a landscape critic: “Although the growth of cities can be accomplished perhaps in no other way than by the institution of suburbs,” he wrote in a paper for English class, “the last should be regulated, it seems, with more care than is now taken.” He became the first registrant in Harvard’s graduate forestry school, during the profession’s formative days, and joined the university’s lively political milieu. (His apartment was a rendezvous for such reform-minded young men as journalists John Reed and Walter Lippmann.)
Over the next decade MacKaye surveyed timberlands for Gifford Pinchot’s Forest Service—laying the foundation for New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest—taught forestry at Harvard, and worked for the U.S. Labor Department. His marriage to leading suffragette Jessie Hardy Stubbs produced headlines in 1921, when she drowned herself in New York City’s East River. Charles Whitaker, a friend and editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, invited the devastated MacKaye to stay at his farm in Mount Olive, NJ. There, as he healed, MacKaye nurtured his most famous idea—the Appalachian Trail.
MacKaye thought the populous East needed a wilderness refuge to match the bountiful public lands of the West, “a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play,” he wrote in his 1921 article on the trail, published in Whitaker’s journal. He proposed “a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, these to be connected by a walking trail.” He wanted shelters on the trail, some to serve meals. Supporting the shelters would be little communities “on or near the trail…where people could live in private domiciles…. Each camp should be a self-owning community and not a real-estate venture.” Eventually there would be farms to supply the camps with food. He also recommended nearby forest camps to provide jobs and sustainable timber.
Only the trail and shelters came to pass, so it’s tempting to dismiss the utopian side of MacKaye’s vision for a “‘long trail’ over the full length of the Appalachian skyline.” But he moved seamlessly from his more fanciful suggestions to such practical notions as dividing the trail into sections by state or smaller subdivision, each “in the immediate charge of a local group of people.” Local control, and the idea that the trail be built with volunteer labor, were critical to the trail’s early, and continuing, success.
To assemble those workers, MacKaye helped create the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1925. Named field organizer, he did a lot of the early survey work, but orchestrating the trail’s construction fell to Myron Avery, a Washington, D. C., maritime lawyer and avid hiker who became chairman of the conference in 1930. Avery clashed often with MacKaye and others over the trail. He dismissed MacKaye’s philosophizing but built the trail using his spatial and organizing blueprints.
MacKaye was eased out as the field organizer by 1929, when only about 650 miles existed, but remained active in the trail conference. MacKaye and Avery differed over how the trail should deal with the ridge-top parkways then being proposed, specifically the Skyline Drive in Virginia, which would cover the trail’s route through the new Shenandoah National Park and force the trail to relocate. MacKaye desired to preserve the wilderness feel and opposed such roads, while Avery wanted to cooperate with the state and federal road builders, figuring a complete trail from Maine to Georgia would need some government support. MacKaye lost and went on to other projects, including a founding role in the Wilderness Society.
On Aug. 14, 1937, a volunteer crew cleared the final link, two miles of trail near Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, completing the continuous footpath from Maine to Georgia. However, the great hurricane of 1938 took out much of the New England section, and the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a southern extension of the Skyline Drive, forced another 120-mile relocation of the trail.
The trail is still maintained by local groups through the Appalachian Trail Conference. Every year some 5,000 volunteers give more than 186,000 hours as caretakers and backwoods construction workers, and the trail’s byways are home to thousands of threatened plants and animals as well as such cultural treasures as the 1853 Tip-Top House in New Hampshire and the 1827/1934 Washington Monument in Maryland.
The trail might never have happened without both men. MacKaye needed Avery’s drive, and Avery needed MacKaye’s grand idea and theory of labor. But building the trail was one thing, keeping it intact another.
The Bears Den in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia is a rugged outcropping of granitic rock that tumbles westward into the Shenandoah Valley. The Appalachian Trail skirts its edge, allowing a panoramic view. Visible through the apron of woods sweeping to the valley below is the occasional splash of shingled roof and four lanes of Route 7.
A century ago there was a hotel here, served by a rail line from Washington, D.C.; in its place now stands a hikers’ hostel. Built in the early 1930s as a refuge for a Washington physician and his opera-singer wife, the stone building is a miniature castle, turret and all. The site was popular with day-trippers, and the good doctor even built a petting zoo to augment his income. In the 1950s a developer with grand schemes bought the land, building a model house and a swimming pool before discovering the water table was not equal to his ambition.
A signpost notes the mileage to both ends of the trail: Springer Mountain, Ga., 983.7; Mount Katahdin, Maine, 1154.7. Another measurement that matters is the 50 miles to the nation’s capital, commuting distance for a new wave of MacKaye’s metropolitan invaders. “In many places, particularly in northern Virginia but also in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, the sprawl is working its way right up to our borders,” says Appalachian Trail Park Manager Pamela Underhill, who works at the trail’s headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Some of the most intense development in the trail states is occurring in counties that abut the trail. The Forest Service projects that 30 million acres of forestland in the Southeast will fall to urban development over the next four decades. Of the 13 states in the nation losing the most farmland, six are Appalachian Trail states. In northeastern Pennsylvania, local activists are fighting plans for a 2.8-mile sports-car racetrack just a half-mile from where the trail runs along Blue Mountain. In Maine, millions of acres of forest have been changing hands, rendering the preservation of the landscape uncertain.
Underhill has directed the trail since 1995. In 1978, a few months before she joined the trail staff, Congress for the first time authorized substantial acquisition of corridor land, allowing protection to proceed beyond existing public parks—and just in time. A quarter-million acres later, she remains cautious. “That sounds like a lot of land, but when you stretch it over 2,100 miles it only ends up being about a thousand feet wide.” In many places the trail passes within several hundred feet of houses. “We’re in everybody’s way who wants to get across the Appalachians for a power line, pipeline, road, telephone line, driveway,” says Underhill. “We can’t undo what’s there, and we can’t be the Great China Wall of the eastern United States, either. We can be grittily determined that we’re going to hold on to the trail’s remote qualities.”
The determined community of trail supporters just won a 14-year battle over the location of a large power transmission line in southwestern Virginia. The line will cross the trail only once, with minimal visual impact. “I don’t think our job will ever be over,” says Bob Williams of the Appalachian Trail Conference.
To MacKaye, the trail was always “a project in regional planning.” One of his biggest advocates was planner Clarence Stein, who in the early 1920s was pulling together MacKaye, Lewis Mumford, and Charles Whitaker as the intellectual core of the Regional Planning Association of America, which promoted the coordinated physical and social development of the nation’s metropolitan areas. MacKaye was considered a guiding intellect of the regional planning movement. His strength, says Sutter, was “looking at the city from the hinterland” while his colleagues “looked at the region from the city.” The former was the vantage point of the Appalachian Trail, which the organization adopted as its first project.
“What’s interesting is what he puts in maps and what he leaves out,” says Anderson—for instance, “drawing huge maps of Appalachia and not including roads or state boundaries.” MacKaye believed his job was not so much to plan the future in detail as to reveal it. Mumford and Stein, good friends and patrons all along, made lifelong efforts to nurture MacKaye’s continuing “expedition nining.” They always knew that it was worth listening to him, since there would be some practical aspect to the notions he dreamed up.
There still is. “He’s one of my heroes,” says Robert Yaro, who directs the Regional Plan Association in New York City (not to be confused with Stein’s organization). When Yaro was a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts, he stumbled across MacKaye’s 1928 proposal to create the Bay Circuit—a belt of parkways, parks, and trails encircling the Boston region. Years had passed and MacKaye’s corridor, authorized but never funded, had become the Route 128 superhighway, yet much of the landscape stayed intact. “That was my canvas,” says Yaro. Working for the state in the mid-1980s, he began implementing a modification of MacKaye’s scheme, purchasing land for the trails and for conservation.
MacKaye also proposed a version of the interstate highway system, after predicting that the motorcar would lead to a “relocation of the population on the map of the United States.” Rather than stop this development, he wanted to shape it to prevent a “motor slum, or road town.” He proposed zoning controls and limited access—both big parts of today’s interstates—but imagined the roads’ outcome somewhat differently, with park-like road frontage and links to compact, well-planned new communities, some of which looked a lot like Shirley Center.
“Speak softly and carry a big map,” MacKaye told a 1930 trail gathering. He spoke his own metaphorical planning language. In his best-known book, published in 1928, The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning, he expressed concern for the fate of the “indigenous environments” in the path of “metropolitan streams” and advocated a series of open space “levees.” His thinking is reflected in today’s smart growth and new urbanism movements, as well as in an emerging new regionalism that is based on further understanding how landscapes, economies, and ecologies work on a regional scale.
MacKaye died in 1975 in his beloved Shirley Center, active practically to the last—writing letters, taking walks, and working on Geotechnics of North America, his unpublished magnum opus. He defined geotechnics, in a characteristically sweeping phrase, as “the applied science of making the earth more habitable.”
A fitting tribute to Benton MacKaye would be to see the Appalachian Trail as he did, not as an institution or a parcel of land but as part of a process of preserving the American landscape. MacKaye knew that urban growth would one day press up against the trail, which must serve as a bulwark against development and derive value from its proximity to so many people and so many communities. Says Underhill, simply: “The AT can connect people to the natural world.”
Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness