Shenandoah National Park: Treasure With a Troubled Past


Big Run Overlook

Big Run Overlook

Very often, the first impression of a summer visitor to Shenandoah National Park is one of astonishment, for here—slicing like a green arrow through portions of eight Virginia counties—are nearly 200,000 acres of densely forested mountains, remote hollows and pristine glades wreathed in Virginia creeper and prickly Greenbrier.

Tying it all together, from Rockfish Gap in the south to Front Royal in the north, is a meandering ribbon of asphalt known as the Skyline Drive.

This vast wilderness and recreational area, which was established in 1935, represents a natural treasure second to none.

But visit the Park when leaves have fallen from the trees and you may just glimpse something surprising—remnants of hidden history representing one of the most controversial acts of the United States government.

Dark history of the Shenandoah National Park

In the early 1920s, the National Park Service launched a movement to create national parks in the South, which had none. In 1925, Congress passed legislation for the Park Service to acquire as much as half a million acres, if needed, to create the Shenandoah National Park.

However, no federal funding was attached to the legislation; Virginia would have to acquire the land through private and state money, and by outright condemnation through eminent domain.

Mountaineers living in the Shenandoah National ParkThe big problem was that the land the government wanted to own was entirely in private hands and had been for more than a century.

The remote, mountainous region was home to a hardy breed of Virginian who, for generations, had eked out a subsistence living on farms and orchards.

Hidden mountain villages that had been home to generations of mountaineers sported churches, small stores, post offices, and cemeteries.

There were about 600 families (an estimated 2,000 people) living on some 5,000 parcels of land throughout this region—600 families that, one way or another, had to go.

The deck was stacked against the Mountaineers right from the start; not only did the administration of Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd come up with $1 million for land purchases and condemnations, but wealthy landowners of nearby resorts who had long wanted the Park’s establishment took advantage of events to skew the opinions of those in power.

At the onset of the Depression, for example, resort owner George F. Pollock took potential Park supporters through the particularly hard-hit village of Corbin Hollow.

“I knew,” he said, “that without actually visiting these people in their homes one could never conceive of their poverty and wretchedness.”

Other proponents made similar claims that the people living in the proposed Park area were completely out of touch with the laws of the nation, civilization, religion or other social structures.

One such proponent claimed that “The children have no toys, nor do they know the meaning of the term toys”—a claim that was proven to be a lie years later by archaeologists who found many commercially produced toys in the ruins of the communities.

Virginia bought the land that would support the Skyline Drive and other tracts of land that people would sell. Many, however, refused to sell at any price; their land was condemned en masse under the state’s right of eminent domain and people were forcibly removed.

As people left the area, Civilian Conservation Corps crews in many instances were ordered to burn cabins and outbuildings to prevent the displaced from returning. Most families were gone by 1934. The Park was officially established on Dec. 29, 1935.

Some people, however, were allowed to remain on their homesteads until they died. Unknown to the public at large, the Park Service compiled a list of 43 “aged and especially meritorious” families who were permitted to remain rent-free on their land—after, of course, selling it to the state. The last of these residents was Annie Lee Shenk, who died in 1972 at the age of 92.

Remaining evidence

In winter, visitors to the Park may catch glimpses of what once was. The occasional stone chimney stands like a lonely sentinel among the forests; stone walls can sometimes be spotted snaking their way through the hollows; and the solitary cabin or tobacco barn is still visible, although these sightings are the rarest of all.

In the fall of 2000, three wildfires raged through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park, all but obliterating a National Park Service-sponsored archaeological project focusing on the remaining structures of the displaced mountaineers. They dated from the 18th through the 20th centuries.

A Natural GemShenandoah National Park Service Map

Since its inception, Shenandoah National Park has drawn visitors from all over the world. It is
most comfortably experienced, perhaps, from the iconic Skyline Drive, a leisurely, 105-mile road that runs the length of the Park, which is open year-round.

The Drive, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, has four entry points: Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap and Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro.

It is also a National Scenic Byway. Information on access fees and passes may be found online.

But for those who prefer their nature up-close and personal, the Park maintains more than 500 miles of trails that can be used for hiking, horseback riding or bicycling.

Some of these trails pass through areas that were once inhabited by those displaced in the 1920s and ’30s.

The Fox Hollow and Snead Farm Loop trails (located across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center) provide an easy hike to cemeteries and abandoned home sites.

Add to this mix nine significant waterfalls and countless breathtaking views, and you can easily see why Shenandoah National Park is consistently rated as one of the nation’s top natural destinations.

Getting to the National Park

From the Iris Inn, access to the Park is most quickly gained from the Rockfish Gap Entrance Station. Just take I-64 east for about four miles to exit 99. When the exit meets with U.S. 250, turn right and merge onto 250. The entrance to Shenandoah National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway is 500 feet ahead (watch for the large, brown Forest Service sign).

You may visit the Park Service’s website, of course, at, or give them a call at 540-999-5300.

When visiting the Shenandoah Valley, find the perfect mountain getaway at Iris Inn. With Blue Ridge Mountain views, gourmet breakfasts, 5-star service, and reviews, we even offer treehouse cabins!

Book here.