The Mixed Blessings of Progress

For the first time in four years, we spent some time in Shenandoah National Park. We typically tent camp, but there was a period in which my husband feared having two toddlers in the wilderness (along with our other kids). We gave it a shot last week, choosing a spot in the Big Meadows Lodge over a tent this time out.

Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls, photo by Michael Astfalk

It’s no secret to anyone that frequents my blog how much I enjoy the park. I love its lush rolling mountains, its wildlife, and nearly everything about it. It’s even a setting in my novel Stay With Me. I’m grateful that its beauty is accessible to me and thousands of others for our enjoyment. I’m often surprised at the number of international visitors to the park that we meet; it’s a worldwide vacation destination.

To its credit, the National Park Service, which is currently celebrating a century since its creation, doesn’t whitewash how the park came to be. Many mountain residents, deemed “uncivilized,” “disreputable,” and worse,  were evicted from their beloved homes, some even as part of a eugenics program in which they were forcibly sterilized.

Educator and social worker Miriam Sizer characterized the mountain families thusly: “Steeped in ignorance, wrapped in self-satisfaction and complacency, possessed of little or no ambition, little sense of citizenship, little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem that demands and challenges the attention of thinking men and women . . .”

Shenandoah National Park’s history leaves with me mixed feelings – grateful for the park’s existence and sorry for the circumstances of its creation. If you ever have an opportunity to visit, I encourage you to spend some time in the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows, learning of its history.

The park, which employed the Civilian Conservation Corps for its creation, is a natural treasure. Its history is a sober reminder of the ever-present threat of dehumanization, eugenics, and invasive government. Sometimes progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

How do you think knowledge of the park’s history may affect visitors’ experience and enjoyment of it?


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6 thoughts on “The Mixed Blessings of Progress

  1. Such a violent history in what looks like such a beautiful place. Interesting post.

  2. I’ve never been to Shenandoah NP and have long wanted to go, but I was completely unaware that the sterilization project was in any way connected to removing residents of the area to create the park. Thanks for bringing this unfortunate piece of history to light.

  3. I had no idea. I wonder if there are other parks that were created in similar fashion.
    What an ugly chapter in our history.

    • I’m not sure if any of the other parks share a history. My son told me last night he wants to do his history day project on the parks, so maybe we’ll find out. The theme is standing up for something, and I think the example is standing up for the environment by protecting nature via the parks but he’s going to turn it on its head a bit.

  4. I’m reading this blog post at a time when I once again feel the urge to learn more about government’s forcible displacement of peoples from their homes. Thank you for this new piece of information. In spite of some blemished histories, I enjoy and appreciate national and state parks, too.

    • I really respect that the park service puts it front and center, dedicating a big exhibit to the mountain people and the circumstances of their eviction.

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