Benton MacKaye proposes the Appalachian Trail

Posted by | October 3, 2012

“Extensive national playgrounds have been reserved in various parts of the country for use by the people for camping and various kindred purposes. Most of these are in the West where Uncle Sam’s public lands were located. They are in the Yosemite, the Yellowstone, and many other National Parks – covering about six million acres in all. Splendid work has been accomplished in fitting these Parks for use. The National Forests, covering about 130 million acres – chiefly in the West – are also equipped for public recreation purposes.

“A great public service has been started in these Parks and Forests in the field of outdoor life. They have been called “playgrounds of the people.” This they are for the Western people – and for those in the East who can afford time and funds for an extended trip in a Pullman car. But camping grounds to be of the most use to the people should be as near as possible to the center of population. And this is in the East.

Appalachian Trail map“It fortunately happens that we have throughout the most densely populated portions of the United States a fairly continuous belt of under developed lands. These are contained in the several ranges which form the Appalachian chain of mountains. Several National Forests have been purchased in this belt. These mountains, in several ways rivaling the western scenery, are within a day’s ride from centers containing more than half the population of the United States. The region spans the climate of New England and the cotton belt; it contains the crops and the people of the North and the South.

“The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities. The rugged lands of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.”

—Benton MacKaye, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.”

Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) was the first person to propose the idea of the Appalachian Trail, which he did in October of 1921. He grew up in Shirley Center, Massachusetts, reading the work of American naturalists and poets and taking long walks in the mountains of Massachusetts and Vermont. MacKaye sometimes claimed that the idea for the trail was born one day when he was sitting in a tree atop Stratton Mountain in Vermont.

Throughout his professional career MacKaye worked for a number of Federal bureaus and agencies, which included the U.S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Department of Labor.

MacKaye was responsible for convening and organizing the first Appalachian Trail conference in Washington, D.C., in 1925. That gathering of hikers, foresters, and public officials embraced the goal of building the Trail. They established an organization, called the Appalachian Trail Conference, appointed MacKaye as its “field organizer,” and named Major William Welch, manager of New York’s Harriman Park, as its first chairman. The Appalachian Trail Conference became the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2005.

Sources: Benton MacKaye, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” Journal of the American Institute of Architects 9 (Oct. 1921): 325-330.

related post: “Emma Gatewood, 67, walks Appalachian Trail solo”

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