Few things vanish from public memory more quickly than government atrocities. When I was growing up on a mountainside across from the Shenandoah National Park in the 1960s, no one spoke of the injustices committed against the mountaineers brutally expelled from their homes in the 1930s to create that park. Instead, all that mattered in Front Royal, Virginia, my nearby hometown and the northern entrance of the park, was that the tourists the park attracted were good for local business.
Now, almost 80 years after the park was opened, more attention is finally being paid to the redneck ethnic cleansing committed by both the state and federal government. “Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal,” by Sue Eisenfeld, a Johns Hopkins University writing instructor, beautifully captures the mountain people and the official vendetta that made them refugees from their own land.
The Shenandoah National Park was erected on a pyramid of lies. The original advocates claimed that the parkland was practically uninhabited — ignoring the 15,000 people residing within the originally proposed park boundaries. They claimed the land was undeveloped, near-virgin turf — despite its long history of timber harvesting, mining and beef cattle production. They also claimed the land was worth only a trifle of its actual value and thus would be cheap to acquire.
But the biggest deceits involved vilifying the mountaineers who inhabited what was then known as Virginia’s “Great Mountains.” Families had lived and worked on those ridges and hollows since the 1700s and flourishing communities dotted the landscape. But when they refused to vacate their land to satisfy a grand political vision, they were quickly tarred as know-nothing sociopaths.
Miriam Sizer, a social worker who reported to the state of Virginia, bemoaned that children in one hollow were “uncouth” and “tobacco-chewing.” National Park Service director Arno Cammerer derided some of the mountain residents as “scum.” Shenandoah National Park superintendent J.R. Lassiter denounced people living in the targeted area for suffering from a lack of “independence and resourcefulness.” But most of the mountaineers were doing just fine until they were plundered.
Families were paid as little as a dollar an acre for land worth ten times that much. Virginia’s ruling political machine was confident the new park would be a magnet for tourists, so it engineered a blanket condemnation. The land grab was spearheaded by William Carson, a wealthy businessman who orated that “there is no higher conception of duty than to feel we are of service to the State.” The government could have easily bought from willing sellers most of the land along the ridges and mountain crests where the Skyline Drive, the crown jewel of the park, was built. But politicians wanted vastly more land on both sides of the mountain range.
Shortly after taking office in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt visited a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the future Shenandoah National Park. While a CCC bugler played “Happy Days Are Here Again,” CCC torchbearers ignited a large effigy labeled “fear” and “Old Man Depression.” FDR cheered: “That’s right, burn him up.”
A few years later, CCC members were sent to burn down the homes of mountaineers who refused to vacate their land — a chilling example of how FDR’s “freedom from fear” required giving federal agents unlimited power. The Hoover administration had promised that the vast majority of residents would not be required to vacate, but the Roosevelt administration reneged. When I often hiked the park’s trails and back areas as a Boy Scout, I did not realize that some of the standalone chimneys I saw were lonely reminders of the CCC vendetta.
In one case, an unsubmissive homeowner and filling station owner was ambushed by four plainclothes sheriffs and deputy sheriffs and dragged off. Ms. Eisenfeld relates how the victim, 62-year-old Melanchton Cliser, “stood proudly in handcuffs and delivered a ‘quavering rendition of the entire Star Spangled banner,’ then delivered a speech about defending his rights, guaranteed by the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution” before being wrestled into a sheriff’s car.
The Archdeaconry of the Blue Ridge complained of the inhumane “wholesale depopulation of the park area.” Many of the displaced people were relocated into what Ms. Eisenfeld calls “an internment camp of sorts.” “Resettlement” communities were set up with boxy white houses, many of which did not include running water or electricity. And the one certainty was that the new homes lacked the million-dollar views that their tenants previously relished.
The commandeering of 176,000 acres for the park provoked court battles that helped establish politicians’ right to seize private property for any purpose they proclaimed. In the subsequent decades, the same legal doctrines sanctified expelling more than a million urban residents from their homes. The dictatorial creation of the Shenandoah National Park is a warning that government cannot ravage property rights without ruining lives far and wide.
• James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994). For more of my experiences in the Shenandoah National Park and that neck of the woods, see Public Policy Hooligan.
* Unfortunately, I could not find any drawings or photos of C.C.C. boys carrying torches. Below is another CCC poster and one from its sister program, the Work Progress Administration (commonly referred to as “We Poke Along”). I’m not sure which font that poster is using but…