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“Enjoyment Without Impairment”: Conrad L. Wirth’s MISSION 66 and the Blue Ridge Parkway

By Daniele Lauro

The Origins of MISSION66

The decade following World War II was a critical moment in the history of the National Park Service. The end of wartime restrictions and the automobile boom resulted in an unprecedented number of tourists visiting national parks. By 1940 about seventeen million Americans had visited NPS sites, and by 1955 that number had tripled. The greater number of vehicles and people circulating on American thoroughfares called for the development of a radical program for the maintenance, revitalization, and expansion of the NPS road and facilities network. Nonetheless, with annual budgets frozen at prewar levels, the NPS had limited resources to devote to this effort. Photographs of jammed parking areas, uneven roads, and overcrowded facilities, as well as scathing articles describing the state of neglect of the National Parks published in the newspapers and magazines of the time, reveal the profound crisis the federal agency faced in the late 1940s. President Truman’s conservative policies and his rejection of Roosevelt’s “New Dealism” worsened the already precarious conditions of the NPS.[1]

Mission 66 Sign

"This is a Mission 66 Project"

NC Conservation Dept.

In 1951 Conrad L. Wirth, a graduate of Massachusetts Agricultural College, took over as director of the NPS, succeeding Newton B. Drury, who had held the position since 1940. Wirth radically deviated from his predecessor’s conservative policies and endeavored to increase his agency’s budget and rehabilitate the NPS’s reputation in the eyes of the American public. Wirth envisioned a long-term program with a budget sufficient to allow the NPS to expand roads and facilities, while securing protection for America’s natural jewels. This ambitious program would last ten years-.just overlapping the fiftieth anniversary of the NPS in 1966-.and would be christened MISSION 66.[2]

Wirth assembled a “working” and a “steering committee” for the development of MISSION 66, and ordered that each site managed by the NPS compile and submit within eight months a report describing its conditions and problems; a proposal for necessary renovations; and an estimated budget. The results of this survey were presented on January 27, 1956, to President Eisenhower and his cabinet, who enthusiastically endorsed the project, approving a budget of $700,000,000 to be distributed over ten years.[3] By 1966 the federal government had invested $1 billion “on land acquisition, new staff and training, general operations, and all types of construction activity in national parks.”[4]

Inspired by NPS’s pre-war policies, Wirth maintained that the purpose of MISSION 66 was “to make an intensive study of the problems of protection, public use, interpretation, development, staffing, legislation, financing, and other phases of park operation, and to produce a comprehensive and integrated program of use and protection . . . in harmony with the obligations of the National Park Service under the Act of 1916.” [5]

New Types of Visitor Facilities

The challenges Wirth was called on to address, however, were very different from those his predecessors had faced. To provide adequate services and an enjoyable experience to the growing number of visitors traveling by car, while at the same time protecting Parks landscapes, Wirth suggested the removal of night facilities from Parks areas and the repackaging of the national parks as a daytime experience. Travel by car, Wirth argued, made movements faster and day trips a feasible option. To avoid overcrowding, MISSION 66 would improve roads and implement day-use facilities such as parking lots, restaurants, and interpretive centers, while encouraging those who were planning to stay longer to look for accommodations in the neighboring communities.

Craggy Gardens Visitor Center

Craggy Gardens Visitor Center

National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway

MISSION 66’s operating philosophy was embodied in a new type of tourist facility, the visitor center. While similar in many respects to earlier public service buildings, the concept behind visitor centers was to welcome tourists traveling by car and to assist them “as they shifted from the automotive realm to a strictly pedestrian environment, where they could conveniently find all services clustered together.”[6] Another striking feature of visitor centers was their rejection of the “rustic style” that had characterized previous NPS public service buildings. Starting in the 1950s, the NPS adopted for its buildings the modernist design then popular among agencies and corporations around the country. These structures opted for functionality over authenticity and privileged prefabricated components such as glass, steel, and concrete as building materials.[7] While praised by professional architectural journals, NPS’s modernist turn and emphasis on people’s enjoyment as national parks’ primary mission was harshly criticized by local newspapers and associations. The criticism, indeed, catalyzed the emergence of the post-war environmental movement in the United States.

Controversies related to the parks’ overdevelopment, along with President Kennedy’s drastic turn toward conservation-oriented policies, redirected the goals of MISSION 66 toward the acquisition and expansion of parks. Wirth, aware that his relationship with the Department of the Interior had deteriorated, resigned as Director of the NPS and was replaced by George Hartzog in 1964 –- two years prior to the completion of his decade-long program.

MISSION 66 Plans for the Parkway

MISSION 66’s plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway were made official in 1956 and presented to North Carolina Governor Luther H. Hodges in April 1957.[8] The Parkway was by then “the most heavily used of all the areas of the National Park System,” having been traversed in 1956 by over five million people. For this reason, NPS officials and the Department of the Interior presented it as a top priority for their revitalization program.[9]

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Unlike other sites targeted by the NPS, however, the Parkway did not suffer from overuse. Its main objective during this time was “to develop an understanding of what the Parkway is as a basis for good public relations with the thousands of neighbors, dozens of towns, the tourist industry, state agencies and local organizations” that clustered around it.[10] MISSION 66 planned to transform the Blue Ridge Parkway into a prototype of a new variety of historical park, a site that, according to historian Ethan Carr, “combined new landscape design (the parkway) with the historic house reconstructions, archaeological excavations, and other ‘restorations’ taking place at various sites along the corridor.”[11]

The proposed MISSION 66 budget for the Blue Ridge Parkway amounted to $31,600,000. Of the total funds, $23,100,000 were allocated to for North Carolina projects ($20,820,000 for the improvement of the thoroughfares and the remainder for minor roads, trails, facilities, interpretive signs, staffing, etc.) and $8,500,000 for Virginia ($5,650,000 for the thoroughfare and the remainder for other work).[12]

Major Parkway Accomplishments

NPS proposed four types of improvements. The first and most urgent was to complete the Parkway road itself, with the exception of the Asheville and Roanoke links.[13] This was the area in which MISSION 66 was most successful. In 1957 section 2Z – a 7.465 mile stretch between Big Witch Gap and Oconaluftee – was completed.[14] In the following year work on section 2F – a 15.499 mile stretch between Deep Gap and US321 in Watauga County – was finished, thus completing all sections of the parkway started before WWII. In 1960 section 1N – a 14.660 mile stretch between US 220 and Adney Gap - section 2G – 7.590 mile stretch between US321 and Holloway Mountain Road in Watauga County, NC - and section 2X - a 12.7 mile stretch between Balsam Gap and Soco Gap in Jackson County, NC - were completed. Section 2W – 14 miles between Reinhart Gap and Balsam Gap – and section 2S – 8.143 miles between French Broad River and Ferrin Knob – were finished in 1962 and 1963, respectively. In 1965 section 2T – 6.678 miles between Ferrin Knob and Mt. Pisgah- section 1M – 17.473 miles between US460 and US220- and the 2.5 mile Mill Mount Loop Road (VA) were finished, thus completing the whole Virginia section of the Parkway, which was officially dedicated on June 17th, 1965.[15] With the completion of section 2R in 1967, the only remaining portion of the Parkway to be completed in North Carolina was the 5.5-mile stretch around Grandfather Mountain.

The second category of work sponsored by MISSION 66 focused on buildings and tourist facilities. The 1956 memorandum from the Department of the Interior lists among the program’s goals the creation of “recreation and utility areas at Cumberland Knob, Doughton Park, Tompkins Knob, Moses Cone, Julian Price, Linville Falls, Crabtree Meadows, Craggy Gardens, Asheville Headquarters, Balsam Gap, Soco Gap, Mount Pisgah, and Tennessee Bald . . . the construction of administration buildings at Doughton Park and Asheville; visitor centers at Moses Cone, Soco Gap, and Mount Pisgah, and restoration of visitor center at Tompkins Knob”, as well as the installation of “picnic tables to be placed at parking overlooks, and construction of necessary drinking fountains.”[16]

Campground at Linville Falls

Campground at Linville Falls

National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway

Not every goal was achieved. The most significant accomplishments included maintenance and office complexes at Oteen, west of Asheville, and the Peaks of Otter (VA) visitor center, all completed in 1957. The Peaks of Otter park was also provided with a gas and oil building, the Elk Run “ecology trail,” and the Parkway’s first amphitheater in 1960. The Craggy Gardens visitor contact station, which had been built in 1952, was converted in 1957 into a visitor center. At Moses Cone Memorial Park, a steel structure replaced the wooden observation tower on Flat Top Mountain in 1954. The following year a “folklore nature trail” was constructed.[17] A 35-unit campground at Julian Price Memorial Park was completed in 1959 and opened in 1960. The next year a plan to increase the number of units to 107 was approved; in 1963 the area was also provided with an amphitheater. [18] At Linville Falls, a self-guided nature trail (1959) and a campground (1963) were added, but plans for a service station and lunchroom in 1959 were not carried out.[19] At Crabtree Meadows, a campground and a parking lot were completed in 1954 or 1955; in 1958, the area was also endowed with a temporary amphitheater, which was later replaced by a permanent 300-seat structure.[20] Visitor centers planned at Doughton Park, Mount Pisgah and Pine Spur, the “Americana Village” at Price Memorial Park, the Roanoke Area, and the idea to turn Mabry Mill Coffee Shop into a visitor center, were never realized.[21] The last two groups of improvements sponsored by MISSION 66 included the augmentation of the Parkway staff and the construction of housing for the rangers and other park personnel. Both goals were successfully achieved. By 1962, 156 permanent positions had been approved and budgeted; by 1959, twenty-five new lodgings for Parkway workers had been planned and completed.[22]


View Mission 66 Developments: Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map

Controversies and Unrealized Plans

The most striking example of a MISSION 66 planned “implementation” that never turned into reality is perhaps the case of the Georgia parkway extension. The idea of continuing the Parkway beyond the original North Carolina and Virginia limits had been discussed since the inception of the Parkway project. In 1961, Congressman Roy A. Taylor of North Carolina revived the idea and introduced a bill asking for $35,000 to carry out preliminary surveys for an extension of the Parkway from North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia.[23] In 1963, officials of the National Park Service and the National Forest Service presented a thirteen-page long report to Congress, defining the Georgia extension a “feasible and desirable” project.[24] The report proposed a 190-mile extension from Beech Gap, NC, connecting with I-75 north of Marietta, GA, with an estimated cost of $72,778,000. [25] In 1966 congressmen and federal government officials gathered in Highlands, NC, to continue discussions of the project.[26] Finally, in 1967, the project was approved by the White House.[27]

The Georgia parkway extension’s endorsers, however, had made bricks without straw. Once public hearings were conducted, the project was coldly received by local communities, who saw the Parkway as a scar to Georgia’s scenic landscape. Locals were also backed by the environmental movement, which had grown stronger since the beginning of the MISSION 66 project. By 1973, the project had been abandoned.[28] The reasons for the cancellation of the Georgia extension deserve fuller investigation, but a brief analysis indicates that, despite its general success, MISSION 66 plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway were not always carried out.

Controversy also arose around the issue of concessions for tourist facilities, such as hotels, restaurants, and coffee and gift shops along the Parkway. Local communities and businessmen, who deemed the Parkway “a boon for mountain tourist industry,” lamented the NPS’s decision to privilege large or quasi-public entities over small entrepreneurs.[29] The NPS maintained that “facilities would not be built where accommodations ‘exist or can be developed by private enterprise outside and that when approved for the Parkway, they would be bid upon, built, paid for, and operated by ‘private enterprise.’”[30] However, the federal government’s decision to grant a majority of the concessions operations to the NPC (National Park Concession Inc., a quasi-public corporation founded in 1941 and authorized by the Secretary of the Interior, contradicted NPS officials’ assertions.

A clash between North Carolina entrepreneurs and the NPS occurred in 1956, when the Parkway received $4 million in MISSION 66 funds to build seven gas stations, five coffee shops, seven gift stores, and two lodges.[31] Led by Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh M. Morton (who in the same years was conducting a personal crusade against the NPS over construction of the Parkway’s final section around Grandfather Mountain), Blowing Rock and Boone Chamber of Commerce businessmen hired an attorney to oppose NPS plans to turn the Parkway into “an empire of Government sponsored tourist facilities.”[32] Faced with such harsh opposition, the NPS postponed construction and called for public hearings on the matter.

While the diversity of reactions to MISSION 66 and the variety of projects carried out under its name make it difficult to gauge its effectiveness, it is indisputable that Conrad L. Wirth’s decade-long program shaped the National Park System as it exists today. As for its impact on the Blue Ridge Parkway, scholars tend to agree that the effects of MISSION 66 were beneficial. [33] Despite the clash between local communities and the federal government over concessions, criticism for the modernist turn and its overdevelopment tendencies, and the failure to complete several visitor centers and the Georgia Parkway Extension, about seventy-five percent of the total construction monies invested in the Blue Ridge Parkway came via the MISSION 66 program.[34] MISSION 66’s proactive planning and the generosity of funds allocated to the Parkway accelerated construction projects and improved traveling conditions, realizing Wirth’s ideal of “enjoyment without impairment” as it had been envisioned by the Park Service’s founding legislation in 1916.

1.Information on Mission 66 in this section is drawn from Ethan Carr, Mission 66. Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 3-10.


2.Ibid. 10, 66.


3.Lary M. Dilsaver, America’s National Park System: the Critical Documents (Lanham, Md: Rowan and Littlefield Publisher, 1994), 193-96.


4.Carr, 10.


5.Conrad L. Wirth, Parks, Politics, and the People (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), 241-42.


6.Carr, 142.


7.Ibid., 137.


8.Department of the Interior Information Service. Mission 66 Proposes Multimillion Dollar Program for Improvement (23 June 1956). North Carolina Collection Clipping File through 1975: v. 19 (711-713), North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.; National Park Service, “Mission 66 for Blue Ridge Parkway,” n.d., Luther H. Hodges Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, Box 217


9.Department of the Interior Information Service. Mission 66 Proposes Multimillion Dollar Program for Improvement, 711.


10.Mission 66 for Blue Ridge Parkway, 2


11.Carr, 176-77.


12.Department of the Interior Information Service. Mission 66 Proposes Multimillion Dollar Program for Improvement, 711. [archive?]


13.Department of the Interior, “Mission 66 Brief, Blue Ridge Parkway, Questions by Governor Hodges”, 04/23/1957, Luther H. Hodge Papers Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, Box 217.


14.The list of sections completed under MISSION 66 is based on the Time Line of Blue Ridge Parkway for NC sections and on the Chronology of the Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway NC and VA sections. Sections beginning with 1 are located in Virginia; sections beginning with 2 are located in North Carolina.


15.Richard Quin and Christopher Marston, Historic American Engineering Record: Blue Ridge Parkway, HAER No. NC-42, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) Division, National Park Service, 1997, p. 90, available at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/nc/nc0400/nc0478/data/nc0478data.pdf


16.Department of the Interior Information Service. Mission 66 Proposes Multimillion Dollar Program for Improvement, 712.


17.HAER No. NC-42, 199, 271, 250.


18.Ibid., 254


19.Ibid., 262.


20.Ibid., 265.


21.Ibid., 134.


22.Ibid., 88-89.


23.“Parkway Extension Plan Eyed at Association Meet,” The Asheville Citizen, December 12, 1961.


24.“Longer Parkway Plan Gets Backers,” The Raleigh Times, July 7, 1963.


25.HAER No. NC-42, 103.


26.“Discussions Open Today on 190-Mile Extension to Blue Ridge Parkway,” Asheville Citizen Times, December 11, 1966.


27.“Blue Ridge Parkway Extension Approved,” The News and Observer, June 22, 1967.


28.Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway. A Blue Ridge Parkway History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 329.


29.The Asheville Citizen, “The Parkway Belongs to the People”, January 10th, 1957.


30.Whisnant, 296.


31.Ibid.


32.Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce and Boone Chamber of Commerce, “We Are Not Going to Sit Still,” cited in Whisnant, 296.


33.Whisnant, 268; HAER No. NC-42, 91


34.Whisnant, ibid.