Stone Guardrail on the Blue Ridge Parkway
“A small amount of dry masonry guard wall has been built on three sections. Some of this was placed on fills where the shoulders were too narrow and, although built up at the time the guard wall was constructed, has since required a considerable amount of repair. This type of guard wall also increases cost of maintenance of cutting the shoulders and slopes. An open type guard rail has been proposed by the Park Service but the PRA has not given its approval so that little progress is noted in this final phase of the motor road construction.”
—Ed Abbuehl, “History of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” 1948
Twenty-three years after writing a brief historical summary of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s early years, Ed Abbuehl told an interviewer that the parkway represented “a magnificent example of cooperation” among the park and forest services, the Bureau of Public Roads, two state highway departments and “any number of different county organizations.”
Perhaps. But the project was not without its rough patches. There were, for instance, longstanding differences of opinion between parkway landscape architects and federal highway officials over the type of guardrails and guard walls that ought be installed to keep vehicles that veered off the parkway pavement from crashing down the mountainside.
Round one of this battle, which started in the late 1930s, went to the Bureau of Public Roads. Round two, which was only recently resolved, went to the Blue Ridge Parkway. And, in one of life’s delicious ironies, in the years between the installation of theguard walls and their restoration, which begins this summer, the feuding parties switched sides. The clear winners of both rounds were the walls themselves – and people like me who love them.
The walls in question – 31,000 linear feet of them – were built from the North Carolina state line to just south of Doughton Park. Neither Abbuehl, parkway designer Stan Abbott’s right-hand man, nor Abbott himself wanted the walls constructed, for reasons that Abbott reiterated in a number of memoranda to National Park Service chief architect Tom Vint in late 1938. Using rock guard walls would reduce road shoulder width, introduce an inappropriate design element in some of the places proposed for them, and cost more than the guard rails that he and Abbuehl preferred, he argued.
Reducing the shoulder width to accommodate the walls “is a matter that has concerned us as much as any problem that has arisen,” Abbott wrote. “We arevery much opposed to any reduction in the width of the shoulders.” The guard walls’ higher pricetag, due in part to “the lack of suitable quarries anywhere close to certain Parkway sections,” also displeased him. Why not use instead “a new type of guard rail which has met with favor from everyone in this office, and several in the Bureau [of Public Roads] office who worked with us on the study”?
Because the Bureau of Public Roads wanted rock guard walls. That’s why.
The issue continued to fester until the Bureau of Public Roads put its foot down and demanded that the walls be built, and used its own force account (contingency funds) to see that they were. The bids, when opened, “seemed unreasonably high,” Abbott complained, but the project went ahead anyway.
In his 1941 annual report, Abbott wrote that the work “has been the subject of much criticism for the character of stone available, cost of construction within specifications, lack of stability, and inappropriateness of stone wall across open meadow lands.”
A year later, he reported that construction of the rock walls “has proceeded slowly and has not yet been brought to completion.” The walls that had been constructed were “only generally satisfactory.” Reiterating his previous complaints, he urged that “a review of this important question of design should precede any further letting of guard wall work.”
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century. The walls, once again, are the center of a tug-of-war between parkway landscape architects and the Federal Highway Administration (the Bureau of Public Roads’ contemporary counterpart). This time, the complaints are coming from the FHWA; the walls’ staunch defender is parkway chief planner and landscape architect Gary Johnson.
Why would the FHWA like to replace the rock walls with wooden guardrails of the sort used elsewhere on the parkway? The walls are a safety concern – too low, it maintains, to provide an effective barrier to a vehicle leaving the parkway pavement. And what is Johnson’s argument for keeping them? That these “spectacular walls” are a unique feature of three of the parkway’s oldest sections, and are now part of the parkway’s “historic fabric” – one of the design elements that make the parkway the parkway.
I wrote a story about this five years ago, when the parkway and the FHWA, after years of negotiation, had reached an agreement of sorts: two sample 50-foot sections of guard wall would be rebuilt using concrete cores. The park service “had come up with a design for rebuilding the guard walls in such a way that their cultural resource value would be protected,” Johnson says, although he still had reservations. Stonemasons he’d consulted had estimated that up to a quarter of the original material might be lost through breakage, which meant additional rock would have to be found, matched and purchased, which would have added to the project’s cost.
Nonetheless, the concrete cores for the sample walls were hauled to a site just south of Mahogany Rock overlook. Construction was set to begin when the project was stopped and the contract cancelled. Sometime thereafter, the money earmarked for the guard wall project was used to finish the visitor center near parkway headquarters in Asheville.
Year after year, the concrete cores remained where they were, beside the parkway. Then, last summer, I noticed little red flags appearing every few feet along many sections of guard wall. What was happening? I called Johnson. Here’s the story he told me.
After the stimulus package was passed last year in response to the economic downturn, there was a call for “shovel-ready” projects.
What about the guard walls? When parkway and FHWA administrators got together to talk about them, “we worked out a compromise that took care of safety concerns and allowed the guard walls to be rebuilt essentially the way they had been built originally,” he said. To reach that agreement, the two parties “met on-site and evaluated each wall in terms of safety criteria, to decide what each wall needed in the way of reconstruction and reinforcement, so a vehicle couldn’t go over or through it.
“We evaluated every single wall along that 30 miles of parkway,” Johnson said. “We looked at several factors. Was the wall on the inside or outside of a curve? Was the approach to the wall on a down- or an upgrade? What were the site conditions on the other side of the wall? (In other words, if you went over the wall, what would happen to you?) How far off the edge of the pavement was the wall?”
Eight different designs were developed for the walls’ reconstruction, depending on site requirements. “A lot of the walls didn’t have foundations under them, so they had sunk or tipped backwards,” he said. In cases like these, concrete footers will be poured and the walls reassembled on top. Where necessary, the rock will be pinned together; elsewhere, they’ll be reassembled without steel reinforcements.
The parkway and FHWA also agreed on another safety measure. Because the road was designed to blend into the scenery, there is no white striping along the edge of the pavement. Rather than adding edge striping where the walls are within a short distance of the pavement, small reflectors will be attached to the rebuilt walls every 50 feet, alerting drivers in the fog or at night to their presence. A complete evaluation of the safety record of each of the 48 walls was conducted before a decision was made about how to reconstruct it, Johnson said. Most of the walls had never been the site of an accident. Where accidents had occurred, however, the rock had prevented the vehicle involved from going completely through the wall. Still, the safety evaluation turned up two walls, both in Doughton Park (one at Ice Rocks and the other at Alligator Back) where there had been multiple accidents, one involving a fatality. The walls in those two areas will be rebuilt in a more substantial manner – using concrete cores – when funds become available. Reconstruction of the other walls will begin in June and continue until the project is completed.
There’s a nice resonance to the fact that stimulus money – designed to put Americans back to work in economic hard times – is being used on the Blue Ridge Parkway. And preserving the integrity of its dry mason rock walls – a small but noteworthy piece of the parkway’s historic fabric – feels like an appropriate way to celebrate the road’s 75th anniversary.