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Shenandoah: Gift From Virginia

Charles Hillinger's America

December 21, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. — It was one of the biggest Christmas gifts in the history of this nation.

On Dec. 26, 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, the people of Virginia presented Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes deeds to 176,429 acres of land for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park.

Nine years earlier, Congress had approved legislation to create the 75-mile-long, half-mile-to-13-mile-wide, densely forested park--alive with wildlife--along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But Congress stipulated no federal funds could be spent to acquire the land. So, the Virginia Legislature in 1928 appropriated $1.2 million to buy the property, provided that matching funds came from private donations. That took time.

A statewide organization, the Shenandoah National Park Assn., launched a "Buy an Acre" campaign that eventually saw 24,000 Virginians contributing a minimum of $6 an acre toward establishment of the national park.

Virginians to this day treasure the "Buy an Acre" donor certificates. School children also contributed thousands of dollars in pennies, nickels and dimes.

Today, the long narrow park is one of the most popular in the nation, with more than 2 million visitors a year, and the pristine back country is enjoyed by more campers per acre than any other national park.

Last month, before the winter snows fell and converted the more than 500 miles of pathways in Shenandoah National Park to cross-country ski trails, Martin Heffner, 33, and Dan Harlan, 33, of Baltimore were among the hundreds hiking in the park on a brisk fall Sunday.

Harlan, a design engineer, and Heffner, with the Social Security Administration, were on a five-day backpacking walk. "We do this three or four times a year, as often as our wives let us," Harlan explained.

They told how they had encountered hikers from several states and from France, England and Japan.

"We have already seen 38 deer and three black bear, and we met a guy from Michigan on the trail who saw a bobcat chase a squirrel," Heffner said.

They paused for a late-afternoon breather beside a post marked with an "A" resting upon a "T," the symbol of the 2,000-mile-long Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail, 95 miles of which passes through the park.

For the majority of park visitors, a drive along the two-lane, 35-m.p.h. Skyline Drive, along the crest and backbone of Shenandoah, is the highlight of their experience here. This is one of the most scenic drives in the East and among the most spectacular places in the country to see fall colors.

The road, running the length of the park from the town of Fort Royal on the north to Waynesboro on the south, is embraced by tall trees with numerous "overlook" parking areas at gaps between the 60 peaks. The highest is 4,049-foot Hawksbill.

It was President Herbert Hoover who authorized the building of famed Skyline Drive in 1929. The 105-mile road along the ridge was completed 10 years later.

Hoover left his mark in the park in many ways. Camp Rapidan, his 164-acre hideaway (the Camp David of another time) was Hoover's weekend and summer White House throughout his four years as President. Here he met with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in October, 1929, to discuss the Naval Limitation Disarmament Treaty that was later signed and adopted as a step toward world peace.

It was also during his retreat in the wood with MacDonald that Hoover suggested Great Britain sell Bermuda, British Honduras and Trinidad to the United States. This country would subtract the selling price from Britain's World War I debt. The offer was turned down.

Hoover donated Camp Rapidan, 70 miles west of Washington, to Shenandoah National Park to be a weekend and summer retreat for future presidents, members of the President's cabinet and members of Congress. But only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter have used Hoover's hideaway--and each only once. However, vice presidents, cabinet members, representatives and senators have been frequent guests at Camp Rapidan from time to time.

The three-mile trail to Hoover's Shangri-La is a popular hike for park visitors. A prime attraction for the President was the trout fishing on Rapid Anne Stream, also called Rapidan.

Hoover was an avid fisherman. One of his favorite sayings was: "The gods do not subtract from the allotted span of men's lives the hours spent in fishing."

Throughout Shenandoah (Indian for Daughter of the Stars) are abandoned homes, homesites, barns, cellars, solitary chimneys and cemeteries now overgrown with weeds, shrubs and trees.

For 150 years, people lived in what is now the national park--mountain people on small plots of land barely eking out a living. They cut trees and farmed the land. By 1900, more than 5,000 lived within the present 196,000-acre boundary. By 1930, the number had dwindled to 2,200.

When the park was created, 432 families living here had to move. The median family at the time had five members farming five acres with a cash income of $100 to $150 a year. The children were unschooled. About 170 of the families were placed in resettlement communities near the park. They moved into inexpensive government-built homes, which they received for no down payment and a 30-year mortgage.

This is a recycled park. Wilderness has returned.

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