Eminent domain revisited

On July 3, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt manned a microphone at Skyline Drive Milepost 51 and christened Shenandoah National Park (SNP) as he marveled at its restorative powers.

“In their tents under the stars,” said Roosevelt with his signature cadence, “with an open fire to cook by, with the smell of the woods and the winds in the trees, they will forget the rush and strain of all the other long weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their hearts and for their souls.”

SNP officials are now celebrating the 75th anniversary of the park by once again extolling its virtues, as they should. The park comprises roughly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness area north and west of Charlottesville. However, beneath the pageantry lies the unsavory story of about 500 families, including some from Albemarle, who were forced to move off their land in the late ’20s and early ’30s by the state of Virginia in order to establish the park.

The removal story is often omitted from the mainstream telling of the park’s history. The Byrd Visitor Center—in the Big Meadows area of Skyline Drive, 45 miles north of Charlottesville—now more fully details the plight of the mountain residents. However, “it doesn’t tell the whole story,” according to Virginia Tech English professor Katrina Powell, who recently wrote a book based on letters that mountain families sent to the park service.

Tim Silver, a history professor at Appalachian State University who teaches a course on the national parks, agreed that the mountain families’ stories have been underreported because they detract from the romantic notions of what a national park represents.

“The idea that people were removed is a disquieting concept and not the kind of thing that people want to dwell on when they go to a national park to take in the views and marvel at nature,” Silver said. “These parks depend on visitors, so I can understand why they wouldn’t want to publicize it.”

Early in the ’20s, the National Park Service sought space for a park in the southern Appalachians that would connect East Coast urban dwellers to nature and impress Congressmen in nearby Washington, D.C., into lobbying for national parks funding. A group of local real estate moguls caught word of the park service’s interest in the area, and, anticipating huge paydays from urban tourists, they persuaded the service to create Shenandoah.

In addition to the economic potential that a national park carries, a series of surveys and studies on the mountain families fueled the push to establish SNP. These surveys portrayed the families as backward hillbillies who would be better off if they were relocated and more fully integrated into mainstream society. Social worker and educator Miriam Sizer, who was hired by the state of Virginia to study the mountain families, described them as “steeped in ignorance, wrapped in self-satisfaction and complacency, possessed of little or no ambition…little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem.”

On the contrary, mountain families were quite intelligent, just not in the traditional sense, according to Powell.

“If they didn’t have a formal education or used bad grammar, the assumption was that they are not intelligent,” Powell said. “They knew what their rights were and that was what was compelling to me. They knew what the responsibilities were of the state government and of the park service in helping them to move.”

A whirlwind of bureaucratic acts made it difficult for mountain families to decipher what their rights were. In 1926, Congress authorized the establishment of Shenandoah National Park. The bill, however, stipulated that no federal funds could be used to acquire the land, which meant that the state of Virginia had to obtain the land. Rather than attempt to negotiate with each landowner, Virginia passed the Public Park Condemnation Act in 1928, which allowed the state to purchase the land by right of eminent domain—meaning that the government was justified in taking land from individuals because it was being put to public use.

Of the 500 families who were displaced, many left willingly, although some chose to stay and challenge the government, legally or otherwise. For Powell and others, the legacy of eminent domain remains tied to the park.

“If a locale or state deems that there is some use for the land—for the public good or for public use—then that land is vulnerable to be taken from an individual,” said Powell. “That was eye-opening to me.”

Located between Charlottesville and the George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park displaced roughly 500 families through eminent domain.


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