An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning

In its original concept, the Appalachian Trail was more than a hiking path. It was a wildly ambitious plan to reorganize the economic geography of the eastern United States.

Left behind in the digital era is a rich store of essays on design which have limited cultural presence because they are not online. In our ongoing series Future Archive, we republish significant 20th-century texts, each selected and introduced by a prominent scholar.

Benton MacKaye, 1931.
Benton MacKaye, 1931. [Appalachian Trail Conservancy]

Each year, about a thousand people complete a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, walking the 2,192 miles that run from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Millions more follow the trail for some shorter stretch, whether along the alpine ridge of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, or the downtown sidewalks of Damascus, Virginia, making the trail corridor one of the most well used and widely recognized recreational sites in the world.

But the original concept for tracing out a hiking path along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, dreamed up almost a century ago by the planner, forester, and idiosyncratic social reformer Benton MacKaye, was so radical that MacKaye himself feared it would be dismissed as “bolshevistic.” What MacKaye envisioned when he first proposed the trail in a 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects was something far beyond a woodsy recreational amenity. This “project in regional planning,” as MacKaye called it, was meant to be a thoroughgoing cultural critique of industrial modernity — a template for comprehensive economic redevelopment at a scale never before attempted in the United States. The project drew on ideas ranging from forest conservation to socialist central planning, and its effects were intended to be felt just as strongly in the booming urban centers of the eastern seaboard as in the devastated hill towns of the Appalachian uplands.

In MacKaye’s original vision, the Appalachian Trail would help put back together the parts of American life that were coming undone in the early 20th century.

Above all, in MacKaye’s original vision, the Appalachian Trail would aim to put back together the various parts of American life that were rapidly coming undone in the early 20th century. It would fuse leisure and industry, environment and labor, community development and wilderness preservation into an interrelated project. It would rebalance the vampiric relationship between city and hinterland, and align the dimensions of regional planning with the geography of ecological zones rather than political jurisdictions. It was, as MacKaye described it, “a new approach to the problem of living,” an attempt to reckon with technical and productive forces which had opened up dizzying new possibilities but also shattered communities and left behind barren cutover forests, polluted cities, and the grisly battlefields of world war.

The brief article in which MacKaye laid out his scheme for an audience of architects and planners is by turns utopian and technical, brilliant and cockamamie, syncretic and specific. Many of the proposal’s conceptual gestures are now hard to decipher without some knowledge of the author’s other works, from the 1928 The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning (which Lewis Mumford described as a “lonely classic”), to a 1950 series on “geography and geotechnics” in the magazine Survey, to the trove of unpublished sketches, notes, and correspondence that are now archived at Dartmouth College. MacKaye swept aside major questions with breezy confidence, calling “organizing and financing” the trail project “a matter of detail.” And he marshaled an idiosyncratic range of references, from the scouting movement that had recently begun in England to William James’s argument that peacetime civil service ought to become the “moral equivalent of war” 1 — all of which made the Appalachian Trail proposal a genuinely visionary work, inspiring and frustrating in equal measure.

Even at its most esoteric, however, MacKaye’s “An Appalachian Trail” is striking for its insistence on collecting a range of social and environmental questions and putting them together under the mandate of regional planning. An enormously ambitious proposal that connects campground architecture and population migrations and food policy and the spiritual value of spare time: this sort of comprehensive thinking was rare then, and it feels almost impossible today. This rich and unruly intermingling of design, place, politics, and philosophy is well worth revisiting.

As a student at Harvard at the turn of the 20th century, MacKaye was impressed with the dictum of geography professor William Morris Davis: to study “the earth as a habitable globe.” He was one of the first graduates of Harvard’s forestry program, and later took a job with the newly created U.S. Forest Service, joining a cohort of scientific-minded environmental bureaucrats who would play a central role in the conservation movement. But MacKaye was also a political idealist whose ambitions ran beyond the technocratic reforms of progressivism. Influenced by his brother James, a philosopher whose subjects included happiness and the rise of American socialism, Benton was an early member of the “Hell Raisers,” an informal group of journalists, activists, and government workers in Washington that participated actively in various left-wing causes of the era, from the U.S. labor movement to the rise of economic planning in Europe. The Hell Raisers took a maximalist approach to the principle articulated by Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service, that “natural resources belong to the people.” For MacKaye and his fellow Hell Raisers, the crux of a future-oriented American social democracy was broad social control of the nation’s land and water. 2

MacKaye was therefore developing, in the second decade of the 20th century, an early version of the insight that now underlies the field of political ecology: that land ownership, labor, and capital are profoundly connected to the challenges of conserving natural resources and preventing ecological collapse. In a 1918 article in the Journal of Forestry, he identified what he called “the problem of the lumberjack”:

Our forest schools in their processes of turning out foresters have courses in silviculture, mensuration, dendrology, protection, influences, management, utilization, lumbering, etc; but the lumberjack himself and the very human problems that go with him do not occur in the curriculum. It may require a later age to reduce these matters to the text-book, but out in what we call “real life” they must be faced without waiting for book knowledge. 3

MacKaye concluded that “generally speaking, forestry must go with public ownership or control”; in his view this was the only solution to the environmental threats posed by fragmented parcel-by-parcel ownership and the short-term motivations of speculative capital.

MacKaye was an ally of those who subscribed to the economic philosophy of Henry George, including the reformer Frederic C. Howe, whose influential The City: The Hope of Democracy, published in 1905, advocated for stronger state control of public services and city development. In 1919 Howe developed these ideas further in The Land and the Soldier, in which he argued that the wave of soldiers returning home from the world war constituted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address housing and land use from a comprehensive, nationally coordinated standpoint. Howe proposed creating “farm colonies” for the former soldiers in a vast state-sponsored settlement program consisting of cooperatively-owned modern villages that would align community needs with the non-exploitative use of natural resources. 4

MacKaye proposed connecting cooperative farms to urban markets through the postal service, an idea that prefigured the current popularity of Community Service Agriculture.

That same year, MacKaye published Employment and Natural Resources, a report for the U.S. Department of Labor that echoed Howe’s argument. It recommended that the nation’s forest resources should be nationalized and used to create a network of community settlements for the demobilized soldiers. Both Howe and MacKaye were influenced by the British-Canadian planner Thomas Adams, who in 1917 proposed a system of new country towns based on the British garden cities movement. 5 Like Adams, MacKaye realized that the supposedly “rural” problems of unviable farm communities and quick-buck extractive forestry were inextricably linked to the concentration of capital in cities and the urban need for access to healthy food. In his report, MacKaye proposed connecting cooperative farm communities to urban markets through the postal service, an idea that prefigured the current popularity of Community Service Agriculture and the home delivery of organic farm produce to city dwellers. More importantly, he argued that the vital matter of “land utilization” had been perverted by both private and public interests: by profiteering speculators, on the one hand, and by government agencies that sponsored schemes, like the western land grid, that followed the logic of market utility rather than ecological function.

This was a moment of high excitement about the potential of uniting expert-led planning with leftist, progressive theories of land ownership, access to nature, and urban housing — all while rejecting the counterproductive opposition of city and countryside. 6 Vast expanses of rural America, especially in the Appalachians, were in economic freefall. In New Hampshire, so many towns had emptied out that the governor invented an annual holiday — Old Home Week — to encourage people who’d moved to the cities to visit their rural hometowns once a year. Throughout the east, the forest industry was struggling after half a century of rampant over-cutting. Everyone from bankers to artists seemed to feel that the nation’s future lay in the big cities.

For MacKaye, these matters were also personal. During his childhood, his family had shuttled between New York City and the small town of Shirley Center, northwest of Boston; the New England town of his boyhood would become MacKaye’s personal haven (he would die there, in 1975, at the age of 96), even as it suffered through the collapse of the region’s agricultural economy. MacKaye would always idealize the “starfish symmetry” of the preindustrial New England town (as did many of his radical planning colleagues), and he believed that human-scaled communities were far better solutions to the “problem of living” than were the increasingly crowded and polluted cities.

MacKaye believed that modern technology would revolutionize labor and liberate enormous amounts of spare time.

MacKaye also held a belief common among progressive economists of the time: that modern technology was on the verge of revolutionizing labor, rendering brute force increasingly superfluous and potentially liberating enormous amounts of spare time. Ambitious socialists were envisioning the prospect of dramatically shorter work weeks even as cultural critics were wondering how exactly all this new free time should be spent — assuming it was not merely to be thrown back into the insatiable capitalist maw.

Proposed plan of the Appalachian Trail, presented by Benton MacKaye at the first Appalachian Trail Conference, in Washington, D.C., in 1925.
Proposed plan of the Appalachian Trail, presented by Benton MacKaye at the first Appalachian Trail Conference, in Washington, D.C., in 1925. [Appalachian Trail Conservancy]

All of these themes run suggestively and confusingly together in “An Appalachian Trail.” Referencing the concept of the cooperatively managed “recreation camp” that was “neither urban nor rural,” MacKaye emphasized at the start that he sought nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of social life, economic organization, and land use. The scouting movement suggested one path forward, a predisposition which reflected the growing sympathy between the left populist and outdoors folklife movements. (In England this would produce the idealism of the Kibbo Kift, which sought pacifism through healthy recreation.) Notably, MacKaye reverses the usual sequence of labor and leisure; rather than seeing leisure time as whatever might be left after labor, he instead asks: “Can we develop opportunities for leisure as an aid in solving the problem of labor?”

The latent power of a large population of unemployed, underemployed, or electively laborless men (despite his support of early feminism, MacKaye’s worldview was highly gendered) offered an intriguing parallel with the predicament of soldiers returning from war: it raised questions about how to settle masses of people over large areas through careful and coordinated planning rather than through the random and individualistic actions of frontier capitalism. “Where,” MacKaye asked, “might this imposing force lay out its camping ground?” The obvious answer, he knew, was in “wild lands.” But MacKaye’s camping grounds were not purely for recreation; they were not the “playgrounds of the people” of the remote national parks in the American West, available to those who could “afford time and funds for an extended trip in a Pullman car.” MacKaye’s wilderness would need to be “as near as possible to the center of population.” It would need to be the Appalachian Mountains.

To think at the scale of a continental mountain chain, and to factor in its countless flows of people, goods, ecological material — this marked a major shift for planning.

One of MacKaye’s key conceptual leaps was to envision the region as a vast territory stretching the entire length of the east coast and adapting to the contours of people and land rather than to the political demarcations of states and counties. By this time, many urban reformers had begun to think in terms that exceeded traditional municipal limits, as cities overspilled their boundaries and raised the need for cross-jurisdictional management of everything from sewer services to park systems. But for MacKaye and his circle, even this expanded remit was still too captive to the dominating center city: in their 1929 entry for “regional planning” in the Encyclopædia Britannica, MacKaye and Mumford differentiated between urban-focused “metropolitan planning” and genuine regional planning that “involves the development of cities and countrysides, of industries and natural resources, as part of a regional whole.”

To think at the scale of a continental mountain chain, and to factor in its countless flows of people, goods, ecological material, and so on — this marked a major shift in scale for the planning discipline. In the essay MacKaye deploys the metaphor of the “giant” to convey the vastness of the new geographic scope.

Let us assume the existence of a giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds. What would he see from this skyline as he strode along its length from north to south?

MacKaye’s giant would see a diverse and extensive “regional whole,” to use the phrase from Britannica — from the northwoods of New England to the “smoky bee-hive cities” of the seaboard, from the iron and coal factories of the mid Atlantic to the hardwood forests of the Carolinas. The challenge of the Appalachian Trail project was to coordinate this regional immensity, and this was precisely the great responsibility that MacKaye assigned to the hiking trail. The trail would provide the spine of the project; it would be the first of four “chief features.” Along the corridor defined by the trail would arise the second feature: the “shelter camps,” modeled after the lean-tos and huts constructed by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Benton MacKaye on the Appalachian Trail, in an undated photo.
Benton MacKaye, surveying a future section of the Appalachian Trail, in an undated photo. [Appalachian Trail Conservancy]

The trail and the shelter camps are, of course, the features of the Appalachian Trail we recognize today. But in MacKaye’s proposal they were followed by two other features which he described in greater detail. The “community groups” were intended to be cooperative housing projects; “a self-owning community and not a real estate venture,” as MacKaye put it. These small settlements, he argued, should grow in cellular fashion, much like the early New England townships, with “greater numbers accommodated by more communities, not larger ones.” And they were not to be merely recreational; instead, they should encourage “various kinds of non-industrial activity,” such as summer schools and scientific field courses. The fourth feature were the “food and farm camps,” an idea adapted from his 1918 department of labor report; MacKaye acknowledged that these might be a “later development” of the project. He cited the example of Camp Tamiment, the socialist summer camp that had just been started in the Poconos, and suggested that such communities “would provide one definite avenue of experiment in getting ‘back to the land.’”

What we call today the “Appalachian Trail” was thus conceived as one dimension of a wildly ambitious plan to redirect and reorganize the economic geography of the eastern United States. The trail might attract outdoor enthusiasts for an enjoyable hike in the woods, but the larger goal was to relocate large populations into cooperative, nucleated communities located along the length of the mountain range. Perhaps this explains MacKaye’s concern that the project would be labeled “bolshevistic” — the only other contemporaneous continental-scale attempt to direct an economy was then underway in the infant Soviet Union.

Plaques on Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, the southern and northern termini of the Appalachian Trail.
Plaques on Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, the southern and northern termini of the Appalachian Trail. [Appalachian Trail Conservancy]

Because the 1,500-mile-long mountain chain crossed the borders of more than a dozen states, MacKaye believed that his “project in regional planning” would encourage a new relationship between the federal government, with its vast planning power, and smaller scale authorities, with their responsibilities for local urban and recreational development. The towns of New England couldn’t compete with Boston, the Blue Ridge counties of Virginia couldn’t compete with Washington and Richmond, the farms of the Smokies couldn’t compete with Atlanta. But if the whole Appalachian range were conceptualized as a single region, then perhaps a unifying regional vision might unfold. Ultimately MacKaye’s trail project was as much about creating an imaginary axis that would define a new place-identity across the Appalachian uplands as it was about marking out a beautiful route for hiking.

MacKaye was justifiably proud of the Appalachian Trail — of all the idealistic schemes he cooked up in his long and eccentric career, the trail was by far the most successful. Today, if you learn about Benton MacKaye, it will almost certainly be as the creator of the Appalachian Trail. Yet in crucial ways, the 1921 proposal underscores the limits of this success, for none of the project’s broader social and economic goals were realized along the corridor that has, over almost a century, become one of the best loved and most widely hiked trails in the world.

The project that came closest to fulfilling MacKaye’s vision for comprehensive regional development was not his Appalachian Trail but instead the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Arguably the project that came closest to fulfilling MacKaye’s original vision for comprehensive rural regional development was not his Appalachian Trail but instead the Tennessee Valley Authority, which MacKaye joined for a brief stint as a regional planner in 1933. Although it soon became primarily a power utility, the TVA sought, in its early idealistic period, to merge resource management, community development, and recreation in an entity defined not by politics but by hydrology. This was the kind of comprehensive interrelating of ecological, economic, and even spiritual concerns that MacKaye sought in the Appalachian Trail, and over decades he proposed many similarly ambitious schemes, few of which were fully realized: a nationwide mosaic of river authorities, a plan for a Bay Circuit ringing metropolitan Boston, an electrification and dairy cooperative authority in the Upper Midwest, and even a proposal for the Danube Basin as a planning unit which would follow the geography of ecological flows rather than the politically fractious borders of Eastern Europe.

In Cities of Tomorrow, the historian Peter Hall argues against what’s become the common understanding of the British planner Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities movement. The garden cities as conceived by Howard at the end of the 19th century were not simply leafy low-density residential landscapes: “his garden cities were merely the vehicles,” wrote Hall, “for a progressive reconstruction of capitalist society into an infinity of co-operative commonwealths.” 7 Much the same can be said about MacKaye and the Appalachian Trail: the immediate goal of constructing a long-distance hiking trail was the precondition to a broader indictment of capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization. And much as the garden city concept devolved into sprawling suburbs that did not challenge but rather exemplified the capitalist mainstream, so too the Appalachian Trail is now better understood as an escape from society than as an attempt to reform it. Hikers may lace up their expensive waterproof boots and set out to shake off their discontents with the workaday hustle, but nobody is looking to the trail as a template for reorganizing American economic geography or as a model for undoing the industrial exploitation of workers.

Constructing a long-distance hiking trail was to be the precondition to a broader indictment of capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization.

Yet many of the profound social and economic maladies that so troubled MacKaye are still with us now. Rural communities are ever more precarious even as superstar cities struggle with the inequities created by their very success; intergovernmental organizations warn of global ecological disaster while individual nations compete for dwindling planetary resources; countless people remain tethered to unsatisfying jobs and vulnerable to exploitative labor practices. Some of these problems may appear more sharply obvious since the 2016 election, but they have persisted over a century during which the management of life and land has been for the most part privately directed. MacKaye would warn us that we cannot separate the essential questions: how we spend our time, how we distribute and share the results of our labor, how we care for the land.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Jedediah Britton-Purdy lauds the emergence of a Green New Deal on the national political agenda, and argues that it represents the recovery of an important historical awareness. “Curiously,” he writes, “the idea that environmental policy could ever be separated from the larger economic order, or from fights over fairness, is recent, a product of an unusually technocratic period in American politics.” 8 Just as MacKaye once understood that the problems of forest management and urban labor policy could be brought together in a bold project of regional recreational development, so are we now starting to realize that atmospheric decarbonization, urban housing, and economic justice are all aspects of the same challenge. Our solution may not be a hiking trail, but we will need to think and act on a vast scale, geographically and conceptually, if we are to have any chance at all. 9

The first and fourth pages of "An Appalachian Trail," in its original publication in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, October 1921
The first and fourth pages of “An Appalachian Trail,” in its original publication in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, October 1921.

An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning (1921)

by Benton MacKaye

Something has been going on these past few strenuous years which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both — the high-powered tension of the economic scramble. All communities face an “economic” problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing.

We civilized ones also, whether urban or rural, are potentially helpless as canaries in a cage. The ability to cope with nature directly — unshielded by the weakening wall of civilization — is one of the admitted needs of modern times. It is the goal of the “scouting” movement. Not that we want to return to the plights of our Paleolithic ancestors. We want the strength of progress without its puniness. We want its conveniences without its fopperies. The ability to sleep and cook in the open is a good step forward. But “scouting” should not stop there. This is but a faint step from our canary bird existence. It should strike far deeper than this. We should seek the ability not only to cook food but to raise food with less aid — and less hindrance — from the complexities of commerce. And this is becoming daily of increasing practical importance. Scouting, then, has its vital connection with the problem of living.

A New Approach to the Problem of Living

The problem of living is at bottom an economic one. And this alone is bad enough, even in a period of so-called “normalcy.” But living has been considerably complicated of late in various ways — by war, by questions of personal liberty, and by “menaces” of one kind or another. There have been created bitter antagonisms. We are undergoing also the bad combination of high prices and unemployment. This situation is world wide — the result of a world-wide war.

The problem of living is at bottom an economic one.

It is no purpose of this little article to indulge in coping with any of these big questions. The nearest we come to such effrontery is to suggest more comfortable seats and more fresh air for those who have to consider them. A great professor once said that “optimism is oxygen.” Are we getting all the “oxygen” we might for the big tasks before us?

“Let us wait,” we are told, “till we solve this cussed labor problem. Then we’ll have the leisure to do great things.”

But suppose that while we wait the chance for doing them is passed?

It goes without saying that we should work upon the labor problem. Not just the matter of “capital and labor” but the real labor problem — how to reduce the day’s drudgery. The toil and chore of life should, as labor-saving devices increase, form a diminishing proportion of the average day and year. Leisure and the higher pursuits will thereby come to form an increasing portion of our lives.

But will leisure mean something “higher”? Here is a question indeed. The coming of leisure in itself will create its own problem. As the problem of labor “solves,” that of leisure arises. There seems to be no escape from problems. We have neglected to improve the leisure which should be ours as a result of replacing stone and bronze with iron and steam. Very likely we have been cheated out of the bulk of this leisure. The efficiency of modern industry has been placed at 25 percent of its reasonable possibilities. This may be too low or too high. But the leisure that we do succeed in getting — is this developed to an efficiency much higher?

The customary approach to the problem of living relates to work rather than play. Can we increase the efficiency of our working time? Can we solve the problem of labor? If so we can widen the opportunities for leisure. The new approach reverses this mental process. Can we increase the efficiency of our spare time? Can we develop opportunities for leisure as an aid in solving the problem of labor?

An Undeveloped Power — Our Spare Time

How much spare time have we, and how much power does it represent?

The great body of working people — the industrial workers, the farmers, and the housewives — have no allotted spare time or “vacations.” The business clerk usually gets two weeks’ leave, with pay, each year. The U.S. Government clerk gets 30 days. The business man is likely to give himself two weeks or a month. Farmers can get off for a week or more at a time by doubling up on one another’s chores. Housewives might do likewise.

As to the industrial worker — in mine or factory — his average “vacation” is all too long. For it is “leave of absence without pay.” According to recent official figures, the average industrial worker in the United States, during normal times, is employed about four-fifths of the time — say 42 weeks in the year. The other ten weeks he is employed in seeking employment.

The proportionate time for true leisure of the average adult American appears, then, to be meagre indeed. But a goodly portion have (or take) about two weeks in the year. The industrial worker during the estimated ten weeks between jobs must of course go on eating and living. His savings may enable him to do this without undue worry. He could, if he felt he could spare the time from job hunting, and if suitable facilities were provided, take two weeks of his ten on a real vacation. In one way or another, therefore, the average adult in this country could devote each year a period of about two weeks in doing the things of his own choice.

Here is enormous undeveloped power — the spare time of our population. Suppose just one percent of it were focused upon one particular job, such as increasing the facilities for the outdoor community life. This would be more than a million people, representing over two million weeks a year. It would be equivalent to 40,000 persons steadily on the job.

A Strategic Camping Base — The Appalachian Skyline

Where might this imposing force lay out its strategic camping ground?

Camping grounds, of course, require wild lands. These in America are fortunately still available. They are in every main region of the country. They are the undeveloped or under-developed areas. Except in the Central States, the wild lands now remaining are for the most part among the mountain ranges — the Sierras, the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains of the West, and the Appalachian Mountains of the East.

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.

Camping grounds to be of the most use to the people should be as near as possible to the center of population.

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.

Let us assume the existence of a giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds. What would he see from this skyline as he strode along its length from north to south?

Starting out from Mt. Washington, the highest point in the northeast, his horizon takes in one of the original happy hunting grounds of America — the “Northwoods,” a country of pointed firs extending from the lakes and rivers of northern Maine to those of the Adirondacks. Stepping across the Green Mountains and the Berkshires to the Catskills, he gets his first view of the crowded east — a chain of smoky bee-hive cities extending from Boston to Washington and containing a third of the population of the Appalachian drained area. Bridging the Delaware Water Gap and the Susquehanna on the picturesque Allegheny folds across Pennsylvania, he notes more smoky columns — the big plants between Scranton and Pittsburgh that get out the basic stuff of modern industry — iron and coal. In relieving contrast, he steps across the Potomac near Harpers Ferry and pushes through into the wooded wilderness of the southern Appalachians, where he finds preserved much of the primal aspects of the days of Daniel Boone. Here he finds, over on the Monongahela side, the black coal of bituminous and the white coal of water power. He proceeds along the great divide of the upper Ohio and sees flowing to waste, sometimes in terrifying floods, waters capable of generating untold hydro-electric energy and of bringing navigation to many a lower stream. He looks over the Natural Bridge and out across the battlefields around Appomattox. He finds himself finally in the midst of the great Carolina hardwood belt. Resting now on the top of Mt. Mitchell, highest point east of the Rockies, he counts up on his big long fingers the opportunities which yet await development along the skyline he has passed.

First he notes the opportunities for recreation. Throughout the Southern Appalachians, throughout the Northwoods, and even through the Alleghenies that wind their way among the smoky industrial towns of Pennsylvania, he recollects vast areas of secluded forests, pastoral lands, and water courses, which, with proper facilities and protection, could be made to serve as the breath of a real life for the toilers in the bee-hive cities along the Atlantic seaboard and elsewhere.

The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a resource that could save thousands of lives.

Second, he notes the possibilities for health and recuperation. The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a natural resource (and a national resource) that radiates to the heavens its enormous health-giving powers with only a fraction of a percent utilized for human rehabilitation. Here is a resource that could save thousands of lives. The sufferers of tuberculosis, anemia, and insanity go through the whole strata of human society. Most of them are helpless, even those economically well off. They occur in the cities and right in the skyline belt. For the farmers, and especially the wives of farmers, are by no means escaping the grinding-down process of our modern life.

Most sanitariums now established are perfectly useless to those afflicted with mental disease — the most terrible, usually, of any disease. Many of these sufferers could be cured. But not merely by “treatment.” They need acres not medicine. Thousands of acres of this mountain land should be devoted to them with whole communities planned and equipped for their cure.

Next after the opportunities for recreation and recuperation our giant counts off, as a third big resource, the opportunities in the Appalachian belt for employment on the land. This brings up a need that is becoming urgent — the redistribution of our population, which grows more and more top heavy.

The rural population of the United States, and of the Eastern States adjacent to the Appalachians, has now dipped below the urban. For the whole country, it has fallen from 60 per cent of the total in 1900 to 49 per cent in 1920: for the Eastern States it has fallen, during this period, from 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Meantime the per-capita area of improved farmland has dropped, in the Eastern States, from 3.35 acres to 2.43 acres. This is a shrinkage of nearly 28 percent in 20 years: in the States from Maine to Pennsylvania the shrinkage has been 40 per cent.

Forest as well as agricultural land might prove an opportunity for steady employment in the open. But this depends upon a new deal.

There are in the Appalachian belt probably 25 million acres of grazing and agricultural land awaiting development. Here is room for a whole new rural population. Here is an opportunity — if only the way can be found — for that counter-migration from city to country that has so long been prayed for. But our giant, in pondering on this resource, is discerning enough to know that its utilization is going to depend upon some new deal in our agricultural system. This he knows if he has ever stooped down and gazed in the sunken eyes either of the Carolina “cracker” or of the Green Mountain “hayseed.”

Forest land as well as agricultural might prove an opportunity for steady employment in the open. But this again depends upon a new deal. Forestry must replace timber devastation and its consequent haphazard employment. And this the giant knows if he has looked into the rugged face of the homeless “don’t care a damn” lumberjack of the Northwoods.

Such are the outlooks — such the opportunities — seen by a discerning spirit from the Appalachian skyline.

Possibilities in the New Approach

Let’s put up now to the wise and trained observer the particular question before us. What are the possibilities in the new approach to the problem of living? Would the development of the outdoor community life — as an offset and relief from the various shackles of commercial civilization — be practicable and worthwhile? From the experience of observations and thoughts along the skyline, here is a possible answer:

There are several possible gains from such an approach.

First there would be the “oxygen” that makes for a sensible optimism. Two weeks spent in the real open — right now, this year and next — would be a little real living for thousands of people which they would be sure of getting before they died. They would get a little fun as they went along regardless of problems being “solved.” This would not damage the problems and it would help the folks.

Industry would be seen in its true perspective — as a means in life and not as an end in itself.

Next there would be perspective. Life for two weeks on the mountain top would show up many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below. The latter could be viewed as a whole — away from its heat, and sweat, and irritations. There would be a chance to catch a breath, to study the dynamic forces of nature and the possibilities of shifting to them the burdens now carried on the backs of men. The reposeful study of these forces should provide a broad-gauged enlightened approach to the problems of industry. Industry would come to be seen in its true perspective — as a means in life and not as an end in itself. The actual partaking of the recreative and non-industrial life — systematically by the people and not spasmodically by a few — should emphasize the distinction between it and the industrial life. It should stimulate the quest for enlarging the one and reducing the other. It should put new zest in the labor movement. Life and study of this kind should emphasize the need of going to the roots of industrial questions and of avoiding superficial thinking and rash action. The problems of the farmer, the coal miner, and the lumberjack could be studied intimately and with minimum partiality. Such an approach should bring the poise that goes with understanding.

Why not raise food, as well as consume it, on the cooperative plan? Food and farm camps should come about as a natural sequence.

Finally these would be new clues to constructive solutions. The organization of the cooperative camping life would tend to draw people out of the cities. Coming as visitors, they would be loath to return. They would become desirous of settling down in the country — to work in the open as well as play. The various camps would require food. Why not raise food, as well as consume it, on the cooperative plan? Food and farm camps should come about as a natural sequence. Timber also is required. Permanent small-scale operations should be encouraged in the various Appalachian National Forests. The government now claims this as a part of its forest policy. The camping life would stimulate forestry as well as a better agriculture. Employment in both would tend to become enlarged.

How far these tendencies would go the wisest observer of course cannot tell. They would have to be worked out step by step. But the tendencies at least would be established. They would be cutting channels leading to constructive achievement in the problem of living: they would be cutting across those now leading to destructive blindness.

A Project for Development

It looks, then, as if it might be worthwhile to devote some energy at last to working out a better utilization of our spare time. The spare time for one per cent of our population would be equivalent, as above reckoned, to the continuous activity of some 40,000 persons. If these people were on the skyline, and kept their eyes open, they would see the things that the giant could see. Indeed, this force of 40,000 would be a giant in itself. It could walk the skyline and develop its various opportunities. And this is the job that we propose: a project to develop the opportunities — for recreation, recuperation, and employment — in the region of the Appalachian skyline.

The Trail is a project in housing and community architecture.

The project is one for a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, these to be connected by a walking trail. Its purpose is to establish a base for a more extensive and systematic development of outdoors community life. It is a project in housing and community architecture.

No scheme is proposed in this particular article for organizing or financing this project. Organizing is a matter of detail to be carefully worked out. Financing depends on local public interest in the various localities affected.

Features of the Project

There are four chief features of the Appalachian project:

1. The Trail

The beginnings of an Appalachian trail already exist. They have been established for several years — in various localities along the line. Especially good work in trail-building has been accomplished by the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. The latter association has already built the “Long Trail” for 210 miles thorough the Green Mountains — four-fifths of the distance from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian. Here is a project that will logically be extended. What the Green Mountains are to Vermont, the Appalachians are to eastern United States. What is suggested, therefore, is a “long trail” over the full length of the Appalachian skyline, from the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south — from Mt. Washington to Mt. Mitchell.

What is suggested is a ‘long trail’ over the length of the Appalachian skyline, from the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south.

The trail should be divided into sections, each consisting preferably of the portion lying in a given State, or subdivision thereof. Each section should be in the immediate charge of a local group of people. Difficulties might arise over the use of private property — especially that amid agricultural lands on the crossovers between ranges. It might be sometimes necessary to obtain a State franchise for the use of rights of way. These matters could readily be adjusted, provided there is sufficient local public interest in the project as a whole. The various sections should be under some sort of general federated control, but no suggestions regarding this form are made in this article.

Not all of the trail within a section could, of course, be built all at once. It would be a matter of several years. As far as possible the work undertaken for any one season should complete some definite usable link — as up or across one peak. Once completed, it should be immediately opened for local use and not wait on the completion of other portions. Each portion built should, of course, be rigorously maintained and not allowed to revert to disuse. A trail is as serviceable as its poorest link.

The trail could be made, at each stage of its construction, of immediate strategic value in preventing and fighting forest fires. Lookout stations could be located at intervals along the way. A forest fire service could be organized in each section which should tie in with the services with the services of the Federal and State Governments. The trail would immediately become a battle line against fire.

A suggestion for the location of the trail and its main branches is shown on the accompanying map.

2. Shelter Camps —

These are the usual accompaniments of the trails which have been built in the White and Green Mountains. They are the trail’s equipment for use. They should be located at convenient distances so as to allow a comfortable day’s walk between each. They should be equipped always for sleeping and certain of them for serving meals — after the function of the Swiss chalets. Strict regulation is required to assure that equipment is used and not abused. As far as possible the blazing and constructing of the trail and building of camps should be done by volunteer workers. For volunteer “work” is really “play.” The spirit of cooperation, as usual in such enterprises, should be stimulated throughout. The enterprise should, of course, be conducted without profit. The trail must be well guarded — against the yegg-man and against the profiteer.

3. Community Groups —

These would grow naturally out of the shelter camps and inns. Each would consist of a little community on or near the trail (perhaps on a neighboring lake) where people could live in private domiciles. Such a community might occupy a substantial area — perhaps a hundred acres or more. This should be bought and owned as a part of the project. No separate lots should be sold therefrom. Each camp should be a self-owning community and not a real estate venture. The use of the separate domiciles, like all other features of the project, should be available without profit.

These community camps should be carefully planned in advance. They should not be allowed to become too populous and thereby defeat the very purpose for which they are created. Greater numbers should be accommodated by more communities, not larger ones. There is room, without crowding, in the Appalachian region for a very large camping population. The location of these community camps would form a main part of the regional planning and architecture.

The community camp should become something more than a mere ‘playground.’

These communities would be used for various kinds of non-industrial activity. They might eventually be organized for special purposes — for recreation, for recuperation, and for study. Summer schools or seasonal field courses could be established and scientific travel courses organized and accommodated in the different communities along the trail. The community camp should become something more than a mere “playground”: it should stimulate every line of outdoor non-industrial endeavor.

4. Food and Farm Camps —

These might not be organized at first. They would come as a later development. The farm camp is the natural supplement of the community camp. Here in the same spirit of cooperation and well-ordered action, the food and crops consumed in the outdoor living would as far as practically be sown and harvested.

Food and farm camps could be established as special communities in adjoining valleys. Or they might be combined with the community camps with the inclusion of surrounding farm lands. Their development could provide tangible opportunity for working out by actual experiment a fundamental matter in the problem of living. It would provide one definite avenue of experiment in getting “back to the land.” It would provide an opportunity for those anxious to settle down in the country: it would open up a possible source for new, and needed, employment. Communities of this type are illustrated by the Hudson Guild Farm in New Jersey.

Fuelwood, logs, and lumber are other basic needs of the camps and communities along the trail. These also might be grown and forested as part of the camp activity, rather than bought in the lumber market. The nucleus of such an enterprise has already been started at Camp Tamiment, Pennsylvania, on a lake not far from the route of the proposed Appalachian trail. The camp has been established by a labor group in New York City. They have erected a sawmill on their tract of 2,000 acres and have built the bungalows of their community from their own timber.

Forestry would be another opportunity for steady, healthy employment in the open.

Farm camps might ultimately be supplemented by permanent forest camps through the acquisition (or lease) of wood and timber tracts. These of course should be handled under a system of forestry so as to have a continuously growing crop of material. The object sought might be accomplished through long-term timber sale contracts with the Federal Government on some of the Appalachian National Forests. Here would be another opportunity for permanent, steady, healthy employment in the open.

Elements of Dramatic Appeal

The results achievable in the camp and scouting life are common knowledge to all who have passed beyond the tenderest age therein. The camp community is a sanctuary and a refuge from the scramble of everyday worldly commercial life. It is in essence a retreat from profit. Cooperation replaces antagonism, trust replaces suspicion, emulation replaces competition. An Appalachian trail, with its camps, communities, and spheres of influence along the skyline, should, with reasonably good management, accomplish these achievements. And they possess within them the elements of a deep dramatic appeal.

The camp community is a refuge from the scramble of everyday worldly commercial life. It is in essence a retreat from profit.

Indeed, the lure of the scouting life can be made the most formidable enemy of the lure of militarism (a thing with which this country is menaced along with all others). It comes the nearest perhaps, of things thus far projected, to supplying what Professor James once called a “moral equivalent of war.” It appeals to the primal instincts of a fighting heroism, of volunteer service and of work in a common cause.

Those instincts are pent-up forces in every human and they demand their outlet. This is the avowed object of the boy scout and girl scout movement, but it should not be limited to juveniles.

The building and protection of an Appalachian trail, with its various communities, interests, and possibilities, would form at least one outlet. Here is a job for 40,000 souls. This trail could be made to be, in a very literal sense, a battle line against fire and flood — and even against disease. Such battles — against the common enemies of man — still lack, it is true, “the punch” of man vs. man. There is but one reason — publicity. Militarism has been made colorful in a world of drab. But the care of the countryside, which the scouting life instills, is vital in any real protection of “home and country.” Already basic, it can be made spectacular. Here is something to be dramatized.

Editors' Note

“An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Development” was published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in October 1921.

  1. William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” 1906 speech at Stanford University.
  2. Giffort Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1910), 104.
  3. Benton MacKaye, “Some Social Aspects of Forest Management,” Journal of Forestry, Vol. 16, No. 2, February 1918, 210–214.
  4. Frederic C. Howe, The City: The Hope of Democracy (New York: Scribners, 1905). The Land and the Soldier (New York: Scribners, 1919).
  5. Thomas Adams, Rural Planning and Development: A Study of Rural Conditions and Problems of Canada (Ottawa: Commission of Conservation, 1917)
  6. This excitement was international in scope; the period also produced the Austrian Association for Settlements and Small Gardens during the “Red Vienna” period of social housing innovation as well as the Danish rural cooperatives movement. Andreas Rumpfhuber, “Vienna’s ‘wild’ settlers kickstart a social housing revolution,” The Guardian, April 8, 2016.
  7. Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 88.
  8. Jedediah Britton-Purdy, “The Green New Deal Is What Realistic Environmental Policy Looks Like,” New York Times, February 14, 2019.
  9. For further reading on Benton MacKaye, see Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). Sarah Mittlefehldt, Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013). Ben A. Minteer, “Wilderness and the Wise Province: Benton MacKaye’s Pragmatic Vision,” Philosophy and Geography 4 (2), 2001, 185–202, Mark Luccarelli, “Benton MacKaye’s Appalachian Trail: Imagining and Engineering a Land,” in David Nye, editor, Technologies of Landscape: From Reaping to Recycling (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 207–217. Paul S. Sutter, “‘A Retreat From Profit’: Colonization, the Appalachian Trail, and the Social Roots of Benton MacKaye’s Wilderness Advocacy,” Environmental History 4 (4), 1999, 553–77, Keller Easterling, “Network Ecology,” Felix, 1995, 1–4.


Garrett Dash Nelson, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” Places Journal, April 2019. Accessed 28 Sep 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.