Podcast Episodes

Oh Shenandoah

This episode of America’s National Parks was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., is an escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and quiet wooded hollows – 200,000 acres of protected lands are a haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky. But the history of this land is also the history of the people who gave up their homes for a great national park in the East.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Shenandoah National Park, and the livelihood of the people who called the mountains their home.

Listen below:

Introduction to Shenandoah National Park:

The drive to establish a large national park in the east dates at least to meetings held in Washington in the first years of the 1900s between Virginia and Tennessee Congressmen. Although a bill to establish a park was drafted, nothing came of this early effort.

The concept languished until 1923 when National Park Service Director Stephen Mather approached Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of the Interior and former Colorado psychiatrist, Hubert Work, with a request to establish a national park in the southern Appalachians. Work asked Congress to authorize an unpaid Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. The committee developed and published a broadly distributed questionnaire inviting public input into suggested sites for the new park area.

The timing of the establishment of the committee could not have been more advantageous for Shenandoah Valley boosters. In early January 1924, businessmen in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had put out the call for a convention to be held on January 15 to rally their resources together in a program that would tell the world of the scenic, historical, industrial, and other values of the Shenandoah Valley. Whether the timing of this event was serendipitous or based on a knowledge of Work’s congressional proposal is unknown, but almost 1,000 delegates attended the convention, representing thirteen Valley counties. The delegates established a regional Chamber of Commerce, Incorporated, and elected a thirty man Board of Directors, composed of the most influential businessmen, bankers, and politicians. The first Board meeting passed a resolution calling for the creation of a new national park in the Shenandoah Valley on lands owned by the Forest Service and private parties but to the west of the future Shenandoah National Park.

By June 1924, George Freeman Pollock, owner, and manager of the well-established Skyland Resort located in the heart of the future park, along with Harold Allen, Criminal Investigator for the Department of Justice, and George H. Judd, owner of Judd & Detweiler Publishing Company, filled out the questionnaire, advocating the creation of a national park along the Blue Ridge spine with a central focus on Skyland.

Between September and December of 1924, the members of the committee visited the proposed park sites individually and in groups. The business boosters from the Valley and Skyland had been busy in preparation.

“We have already ridden several hundred miles over the area, we have seven towers built upon high points, several trails blazed the whole length of the Blue Ridge… and we have the whole country-side aware to the fact that the Commissioners [sic] are coming.”

Shenandoah Valley, Inc. Spent over $10,000 in their campaign to sell the Blue Ridge site, and in December, the Committee presented their report to the Secretary of the Interior. The report recognized that the Great Smoky Mountains were the most picturesque of the visited areas, but felt that the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia had the greater advantage of accessibility to the 40,000,000 visitors within a day’s drive of the area. They noted:

“The greatest single feature, however, is a possible skyline drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking down westerly on the Shenandoah Valley… and commanding a view [to the East] of the Piedmont Plain…. Few scenic drives in the world could surpass it.”

Congress passed legislation on February 21, 1925, allocating $20,000 for the survey and evaluation of proposed parks in the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave (Kentucky legislatures would not support the bill without this inclusion), and Shenandoah National Park. The authorization envisioned Shenandoah as a park of 521,000 acres, a figure soon reduced to 400,000, and with a stipulation that Virginia purchase the land and present it to the federal government.

Congress to that time had established parks only on government land or on land donated for park establishment – it was not about to break prior precedent.

On July 7, 1925, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Shenandoah Valley, Inc., formed the Shenandoah National Park Association, Inc. in Charlottesville for the sole purpose of collecting funds and donated land for the proposed park. The Association set as its goal the raising of $2,500,000, a figure estimated to be the cost of purchasing 400,000 acres at $6.00/acre. By April 1926, $1,249,154 had been pledged, and the committee felt confident enough to recommend that Congress authorize Shenandoah National Park. The bill passed on May 14 and was signed by Calvin Coolidge on May 22, 1926. Shenandoah would become a reality when Virginia donated a minimum of 327,000 acres to the federal government.

Governor Harry F. Byrd established the Virginia Conservation and Development Commission in April 1926 to take over the management of funds collected for the park. The new Commission was headed by William Carson, Byrd’s former campaign manager, and had a mandate to survey, appraise, and purchase the estimated 4,000 properties within the authorized boundary. As time passed, landowner resistance mounted, and actual property values became more evident or inflated due to government purchase. Carson convinced the Commonwealth legislature to enact a blanket condemnation law. The legislation was passed in Virginia in December 1927, survived Commonwealth Supreme Court challenges in October 1929, but was not finally resolved until the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in December 1935. On December 26, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes officially accepted the legally cleared deeds.

Because of the unresolved legal status of the park land, National Park Service planning and development of Shenandoah from 1931-1935 was confined to three primary locations: the narrow 100′ right-of-way for the Skyline Drive, purchased from willing landowners happy to see modern road access to their adjacent properties, the more than 6,000 acres at Skyland and White Oak Canyon owned by booster George Pollock, and the lands purchased by the Commonwealth at Big Meadows.

From 1931-1933 Herbert Hoover (intimately familiar with the park area because of his fishing camp within the park boundary) supported the expenditure of significant sums of public works funds to build the initial 32 miles of Skyline Drive connecting his camp, Big Meadows, Skyland, and Thornton Gap.

After F.D.R.’s inauguration in 1933 and the establishment of six Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Shenandoah by the year’s end, construction and development exploded – primarily as highly visible public relations efforts to bolster Roosevelt’s campaign to fight the negative psychological impacts of the Great Depression.

There was no official master plan behind the development of Shenandoah at the time. The Commonwealth of Virginia and business interests sought to have a national park because of the economic stimulus it would provide; George Pollock naively thought that he would retain his Skyland, and many of the commercial lodging and mineral-rights owners of park land thought that they would share in a harvest of greatly inflated land values. And no one seemed to have given serious thought to the 400-500 mountain families that had no desire to move from their homes.

Hard Scrabble Mountain life was the closest tie to the pre-civil war days America had at the time. Their life in the years before the National Park had grown exponentially harder, as their primary source of income was forbidden by constitutional amendment.

Importance of Liquor to the People of the Region:

Reed Engle, former National Park Service Cultural Resource Specialist, explains the importance of liquor to the people of the region in his essay “Thoughts on Whiskey.”

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing the prohibition of “intoxicating liquors,” would not have been ratified in an earlier age. Although there had been vocal forces in the 1830s advocating prohibition, the population of the United States was then too rural and too agricultural to support a movement that threatened a significant element of farm and homestead economy.

By 1920, the majority of the electorate was no longer dependent on radically shifting agricultural market economics, the transportation system had improved, and the national taste for the so-called “demon rum” had changed, although not abated.

Alcoholic beverages were the coffee and cola upon which the frontier was tamed.

Tree fruits were grown primarily to drink, frequently to feed hogs, and only incidentally to eat. “Our…forebears were prodigious drinkers of a great variety of liquors, fermented and distilled,” read Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s 1951 book “Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life.” “They viewed waters, for drinking purposes, with deep suspicion if not aversion….The requirements of a family were from ten to fifty [31.5 gallon] barrels [of cider] annually.”

In almost every farm home, a barrel of hard cider was constantly on tap. Foaming pitchers were brought to the table at every meal. When milk was scarce small children drank diluted cider.

And apples and other fruit were not the only source of the liquid staple.

For nearly a century, a considerable proportion of the corn and rye produced in Pennsylvania was marketed as whiskey. This liquor was the almost universal beverage of men, women, and children. There was little or no moral or religious sentiment against it then.

Lest it be thought that Pennsylvanians had an unusual habit, a 1785 letter from John Joyce to Robert Dickson should set the issue to rest:

“As to the Drink chiefly used in this colony [Virginia], it is generally Cyder, every planter having an orchard; they make from 1000 to 5 or 6000 [gallons] according to their rank and Fortune… the very meanest and hilly Lands are proper for the Peachtree, every planter almost having an Orchard of these trees, the Brandy made from that Fruit, I think, is excellent, and they make it in sufficient quantities.”

The Carter family of Nomini Hall typically consumed 560 gallons of rum and 150 gallons of brandy in a year.

Habit and custom, however, were also driven by simple economic forces. Agricultural commodity prices were tremendously variable in the 18th and 19th centuries: good crop years were often rewarded with declining prices in a time before Federal price supports. Thus alternative and derivative products were made, such as distilling rye flour.

Thomas Jefferson, ever one to experiment in his agricultural and horticultural activities, brewed beer, and in 1792 saw the value in liquid grains. As he wrote to George Divers:

“As I propose to purchase a still here for the use of my plantations, & understand there is a good deal in the size, proportion & number of the vessels, I take the liberty of requesting you to inform me what particulars I had better provide. I make this appeal…proposing nothing more than the distillation of my own grain & fruit.”

Divers responded to Jefferson that he “would advise you to purchase One Still and a Copper Kettle of Sixty Gallons with which you may make from 70 to 80 Gallons of whiskey per Week & feed 60 or 70 Hogs on the spent mash.”

Fresh vegetables and fruit were rarely grown for the markets of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Market reports carried in the newspapers of the day often noted prices for dried fruits (particularly apples and peaches), but consistently reported the price of hard cider and peach brandy. Liquid grain was an economic staple, according to Fletcher’s who wrote:
“There was a time…when whiskey was the one commodity that had a standard value and all the mediums of barter and exchange, such as corn, salt, tobacco, etc., were valued in accordance with the amount of whiskey they could fetch. When coin was almost unknown…a whiskey still was as necessary as a grist mill…Nearly every fifth or sixth farm had a copper still.”

The third driving force for the production of whiskey, brandy, and hard cider was the limitations imposed by transportation. Roads in rural areas then, and in some areas, today, were not supportive of significant agricultural commerce. Whiskey was the only farm product that it would pay to transport over the Alleghenies to Philadelphia and Baltimore. A pack-horse could carry twenty-four bushels of rye as whiskey but only four as grain.

A typical horse or mule-drawn farm wagon typically held thirty bushels of apples, weighing 1440 pounds and occupying 141 cubic feet of space. Pressed as cider, the weight was reduced to 502 pounds, the volume to 7.6 cubic feet. As distilled applejack, the original wagon load yielded 11.4 gallons weighing about 100 pounds, a reduction to 1.1 percent of the original space, and 7 percent of the original weight. Transportation of the distilled product was both practical and economically advantageous.

Although much of America had improved roads by 1920, when the 18th Amendment passed, most deeply rural and mountainous areas remained, overflowing with the driving economic and social forces of the 18th and 19th centuries. A world where the copper boiler still turned bulky crops into liquid gold.

The actual number of residents in Shenandoah will never be precisely known because many moved before December 1935. The issue of the forced resettlement of 465 families between 1935 and 1937 represents a classic case of bureaucratic ineptitude. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, long had expressed the Washington policy that park residents would not be disturbed unless they were in the direct path of development. Then on February 1, 1934, the new Director of the Park Service, Arno Cammerer, stated that all inhabitants of the park lands whether landowners, tenants, or squatters, would have to leave. At first, officials in Washington attempted to dump the entire problem on Virginia officials, but a flood of letters to the White House prompted action. The Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration purchased 6,291 acres in seven locations bordering the proposed park to establish resettlement homestead communities.

By the spring of 1938, 42 elderly residents had been given life estates, 175 families had been relocated to resettlement communities, several families had been physically evicted, and their houses burned, and the majority of the mountain residents just left the mountain on their own.

Visiting Shenandoah National Park:

Shenandoah National Park today approaches 200,000 acres. Forty percent of the area is congressionally designated wilderness.

The park museum collections include several beautiful copper stills of varied forms, along with the corresponding copper “worms.” Earthenware jugs and stills were used in the past as “humorous” display objects to ridicule the “moonshining mountain folk,” but in reality, they represent the final chapters in a centuries-old American agricultural tradition.

Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise with over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

You can drive or bike Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is the only public road through the park. It takes about three hours to travel the entire length on a clear day.

The speed limit is 35 mph, so you can roll down your windows, feel the breeze, and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive. There are nearly 70 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east.

RVs, camping trailers, and horse trailers are welcome, but be prepared to shift into low gear. One tunnel just south of the Thornton Gap entrance has a height restriction of 12’8″.

Deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels. Watch carefully for these animals who may dart across your path without warning.

Check out the operating hours and seasons, so you know what it is open in the Park before you arrive. Facilities tend to be limited during late fall and winter.

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Podcast Episodes

A Strenuous Holiday

In 1914, four influential men — Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs — loaded their automobiles with camping gear and embarked on the first of several historic road trips. They called themselves the “Vagabonds,” and they toured places like the Everglades, the California coast, and the forests of Vermont for two weeks nearly every summer for 10 years.

The white-bearded Burroughs chronicled one such trip — the Vagabond journey to the Great Smoky Mountains — in a chapter of his book “Under the Maples.” 


Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Download this episode (right click and save)

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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Burroughs’ Photos of the 1918 Trip – Slate.com

Under The Elms – Full Text of John Burrough’s Book. Free Kindle Download

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – National Park Service Website

Thomas Edison National Historical Park – National Park Service Website


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The ubiquitous road trip, now as much of a part of the American identity as apple pie and banjos, came into the public consciousness largely due to a man synonymous will the automobile, along with a few of his famous friends.

When Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the market in 1908, the famous nature essayist John Burroughs condemned it as a “demon on wheels” that would “seek out even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul it with noise and smoke.” Ford, also fan of the outdoors, believed his affordable car would allow families greater access to the beauties of our landscape. He sent Burroughs, whom he had long admired, his own new Model T, sparking a great friendship.

Ford introduced Burroughs to two other famous American industrialists: inventor Thomas Edison and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. In 1914, coinciding with the beginning of World War 1, the four influential men loaded their automobiles with camping gear and embarked on the first of several historic road trips.

They called themselves the “Vagabonds,” and they toured places like the Everglades, the California coast, and the forests of Vermont for two weeks nearly every summer for 10 years. Paved roads were sparse, often peppered with hand-drawn road signs.

Edison navigated, with a compass and maps. Service stations were rare, so Ford kept the cars running. Burroughs led nature hikes.

Though the men slept in tents, they were hardly roughing it. The Vagabonds traveled with dozens of Fords cars, a battalion of assistants, a film crew, and a refrigerator and stove truck. They had a huge dinner table that spun like a lazy susan. Their tents were monogrammed with their names, and the camp was illuminated by Edison’s lamps and portable generator.

The white-bearded Burroughs chronicled one such trip in a chapter of a his book Under the Maples. The chapter, entitled “A Strenuous Holiday” is our story today. We’ve edited it slightly but what you’re about to hear is Burroughs entire account of the 1918 Vagabond journey to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Before we begin, the story we’re about to tell ignores some truths about both Ford and Edison, particularly that Ford was vehemently anti-semetic, and Edison held public demonstrations torturing and electrocuting animals to try and prove Tesla’s AC power dangerous. For these reasons, as well as his eloquent writing, we focus here on John Burroughs. This story also uses the term “Gypsy” on a couple occasions, which is now considered by many Romani people as a racial slur.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


One August a few years ago I set out with some friends for a two weeks’ automobile trip into the land of Dixie—joy-riders with a luxurious outfit calculated to be proof against any form of discomfort.

We were headed for the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. I confess that mountains and men that do not smoke suit me better. Still I can stand both, and I started out with the hope that the great Appalachian range held something new and interesting for me. Yet I knew it was a risky thing for an octogenarian to go a-gypsying, and with younger men. Old blood does not warm up easily over the things that moved one so deeply when one was younger. More than that, what did I need of an outing? All the latter half of my life has been an outing, and an “inning” seemed more in order. Then, after fourscore years, the desire for change, for new scenes and new people, is at low ebb. The old and familiar draw more strongly. Yet I was fairly enlisted and bound to see the Old Smokies.

Pennsylvania is an impressive State, so vast, so diversified, so forest-clad—the huge unbroken Alleghany ranges with their deep valleys cutting across it from north to south; the world of fine farms and rural homesteads in the eastern half, and the great mining and manufacturing interests in the western, the source of noble rivers; and the storehouse of many of Nature’s most useful gifts to man.

The great Lincoln Highway, of course, follows the line of least resistance, but it has some formidable obstacles to surmount, and it goes at them very deliberately; and, in a powerful car, gives one a sense of easy victory. But I smile as I remember persons with lighter cars standing beside them at the foot of those long, winding ascents, nursing and encouraging them, preparing them for the heavy task before them. An almost perfect road, worthy of its great namesake, but an Alleghany range which you cannot get around or through gives the automobilist pause.

As we were hurled along over the great highway the things I remember with the most satisfaction were the groups or processions of army trucks we met coming east. The doom of kaiserism was written large on that Lincoln Highway in that army of resolute, slow-moving trucks. Dumb, khaki-colored fighters on wheels, staunch, powerful-looking, a host of them, rolling eastward toward the seat of war, some loaded with soldiers, some with camp equipments, and all hinting of the enormous resources the fatuous Kaiser had let loose upon himself in this far-off land. On other highways the weapons and materials of war were converging toward the great seaports in the same way. The silent, grim, processions—how impressive they were!

Pittsburgh is a city that sits with its feet in or very near the lake of brimstone and fire and its head in the sweet country air of the hill-tops. I think I got nearer the infernal regions there than I ever did in any other city in this country. One is fairly suffocated at times driving along the public highway on a bright, breezy August day. It might well be the devil’s laboratory. Out of such blackening and blasting fumes comes our civilization. That weapons of war and of destructiveness should come out of such pits and abysses of hell-fire seemed fit and natural, but much more comes out of them—much that suggests the pond-lily rising out of the black slime and muck of the lake bottoms.

We live in an age of iron and have all we can do to keep the iron from entering our souls. Our vast industries have their root in the geologic history of the globe as in no other past age. We delve for our power, and it is all barbarous and unhandsome. When the coal and oil are all gone and we come to the surface and above the surface for the white coal, for the smokeless oil, for the winds and the sunshine, how much more attractive life will be! Our very minds ought to be cleaner. We may never hitch our wagons to the stars, but we can hitch them to the mountain streams, and make the summer breezes lift our burdens. Then the silver age will displace the iron age.

The western end of Pennsylvania is one vast coal-mine. The farmer has only to dig into the side of the hill back of his house and take out his winter’s fuel. I was surprised to see how smooth and gentle and grassy the hills looked. It is a cemetery of the old carboniferous gods, and it seems to have been prepared by gentle hands and watched over with kindly care. Good crops of hay and grain were growing above their black remains, and rural life seemed to go on in the usual way. The shuffling and the deformation of the earth’s surface which attended the laying down of the coal-beds is not anywhere evident. The hand of that wonderful husbandman, Father Time, has smoothed it all out.

Our first camp was at Greensborough, thirty or more miles southeast of Pittsburgh, an ideal place, but the night was chilly. Folding camp-cots are poor conservers of one’s bodily warmth, and until you get the hang of them and equip yourself with plenty of blankets, Sleep enters your tent very reluctantly. She tarried with me but briefly, and at three or four in the morning I got up, replenished the fire, and in a camp-chair beside it indulged in the “long, long thoughts” which belong to age much more than to youth. Youth was soundly and audibly sleeping in the tents with no thoughts at all.

The talk that first night around the camp-fire gave us an inside view of many things about which we were much concerned. The ship question was the acute question of the hour and we had with us for a few days Commissioner Hurley, of the Shipping Board, who could give us first-hand information, which he did to our great comfort.

Our next stop was near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where for that night we slept indoors.

On the following day one of the big cars had an accident—the fan broke, and the iron punctured the radiator. It looked as if we should be delayed until a new radiator could be forwarded from Pittsburgh. We made our way slowly to Connellsville, where there was a good garage, but the best workmen there shook their heads; they said a new radiator was the only remedy. All four arms of the fan were broken off and there was no way to mend them. This verdict put Mr. Ford on his mettle. “Give me a chance,” he said, and, pulling off his coat and rolling up his sleeves, he fell to work. In two hours we were ready to go ahead. By the aid of drills and copper wire the master mechanic had stitched the severed arms to their stubs, soldered up the hole in the radiator, and the disabled car was again in running order.

On August the 21st we made our camp on the banks of a large, clear creek in West Virginia called Horseshoe Run. A smooth field across the road from the creek seemed attractive, and I got the reluctant consent of the widow who owned it to pitch our camp there. But Edison was not attracted by the widow’s open field; the rough, grassy margin of the creek suited him better, and its proximity to the murmuring, eddying, rocky current appealed to us all, albeit it necessitated our mess-tent being pitched astride a shallow gully, and our individual tents elbowing one another in the narrow spaces between the boulders. But wild Nature, when you can manage her, is what the camper-out wants. Pure elements—air, water, earth—these settle the question; Camp Horseshoe Run had them all.

An interesting object near our camp was an old, unused grist-mill, with a huge, decaying overshot oaken water-wheel. We all perched on the wheel and had our pictures taken.

At our lunch that day, by the side of a spring, a twelve-year-old girl appeared in the road above us with a pail of apples for sale. We took all of her apples. I can see her yet with her shining eyes as she crumpled the new one-dollar bill which one of the party placed in her hand. She did not look at it; the feel of it told the story to her. We quizzed her about many things and got straight, clear-cut answers—a very firm, level-headed little maid. Her home was on the hill above us. We told her the names of some of the members of the party, and after she had returned home we saw an aged man come out to the gate and look down upon us. An added interest was felt whenever we came in contact with any of the local population. Birds and flowers and trees and springs and mills were something, but human flowers and rills of human life were better. I do not forget the other maiden, twelve or thirteen years old, to whom we gave a lift of a few miles on her way. She had been on a train five times, and once had been forty miles from home. Her mother was dead and her father lived in Pennsylvania, and she was living with her grandfather. When asked how far it was to Elkins she said, “Ever and ever so many miles.”

August the 22nd we reached Cheat River in West Virginia, a large, clear mountain trout-brook. It crossed our path many times that day. Every mountain we crossed showed us Cheat River on the other side of it. It was flowing by a very devious course northwest toward the Ohio. We were working south and east.

We made our camp that night on the grounds of the Cheat Mountain Club, on the banks of the river—an ideal spot. The people at the big clubhouse gave us a hospitable welcome and added much to our comfort. I found the forests and streams of this part of West Virginia much like those of the Catskills, only on a larger scale, and the climate even colder. That night the mercury dropped to thirty.

We made camp at Bolar Springs on August the 23d—a famous spring, and a beautiful spot. We pitched our tents among the sugar maples, and some of the party availed themselves of the public bathhouse that spanned the overflow of the great spring. The next night our camp was at Wolf Creek, not far from the Narrows—a beautiful spot, marred only by its proximity to the dusty highway. It was on the narrow, grassy margin of a broad, limpid creek in which the fish were jumping. Some grazing horses disturbed my sleep early in the morning, but on the whole I have only pleasant memories of our camp at Wolf Creek.

We were near a week in Virginia and West Virginia, crossing many times the border between the two States, now in one, then in the other, all the time among the mountains, with a succession of glorious views from mountain-tops and along broad, fertile valleys. Now we were at Warm Springs, then at Hot Springs, then at White Sulphur, or at Sweet Water Springs. Soft water and hard water, cold water and warm water, mineral water and trout-streams, companion one another in these mountains. This part of the continent got much folded and ruptured and mixed up in the building, and the elements are unevenly distributed.

One of our camps we named Camp Lee, the name of the owner of the farm. One of the boys there, Robert E. Lee, made himself very useful in bringing wood and doing other errands.

A privation, which I think Mr. Edison and I felt more than did the others, was the scanty or delayed war news; the local papers, picked up here and there, gave only brief summaries, and when in the larger towns we could get some of the great dailies, the news was a day or two old. When one has hung on the breath of the newspapers for four exciting years, one is lost when cut off from them.

Such a trip as we were taking was, of course, a kind of a lark, especially to the younger members of the party. Upon Alleghany Mountain, near Barton, West Virginia, a farmer was cradling oats on a side-hill below the road. Our procession stopped, and the irrepressible Ford and Firestone were soon taking turns at cradling oats, but with doubtful success. A photograph shows the farmer and Mr. Ford looking on with broad smiles, watching Mr. Firestone with the fingers of the cradle tangled in the oats and weeds, a smile on his face also, but decidedly an equivocal smile—the trick was not so easy as it looked. Evidently Mr. Ford had not forgotten his cradling days on the home farm in Michigan.

Camp-life is a primitive affair, no matter how many conveniences you have, and things of the mind keep pretty well in the background. Occasionally around the camp-fire we drew Edison out on chemical problems, and heard formula after formula come from his lips as if he were reading them from a book. As a practical chemist he perhaps has few, if any, equals in this country. It was easy to draw out Mr. Ford on mechanical problems. There is always pleasure and profit in hearing a master discuss his own art.

A plunge into the South for a Northern man is in many ways a plunge into the Past. As soon as you get into Virginia there is a change. Things and people in the South are more local and provincial than in the North. For the most part, in certain sections, at least, the county builds the roads, and not the State. Hence you pass from a fine stone road in one county on to a rough dirt road in the next. Toll-gates appear. In one case we paid toll at the rate of two cents a mile for the cars, and five cents for the trucks. Grist-mills are seen along the way, driven by overshot wheels, and they are usually at work. A man or a boy on horseback, with a bag of grain or of meal behind him, going to or returning from the mill, is a frequent sight; or a woman on horseback, on a sidesaddle, with a baby in her arms, attracts your attention.

Among the old-fashioned features of the South much to be commended are the large families. In a farmhouse near which we made camp one night there were thirteen children, the eldest of whom was at the front in France. The schools were in session in late August, and the schoolrooms were well filled with pupils.

No doubt there are many peculiar local customs of which the hurrying tourist gets no inkling. At a station in the mountains of North Carolina a youngish, well-clad countryman, smoking his pipe, stood within a few feet of my friend and me and gazed at us with the simple, blank curiosity of a child. He belongs to a type one often sees in the mountain districts of the South—good human stuff, valiant as soldiers, and industrious as farmers, but so unacquainted with the great outside world, their unsophistication is shocking to see.

It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort, for discomfort in several forms—dust, rough roads, heat, cold, irregular hours, accidents—is pretty sure to come. But discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.

Our two chief characters presented many contrasts: Mr. Ford is more adaptive, more indifferent to places, than is Mr. Edison. His interest in the stream is in its potential water-power. He races up and down its banks to see its fall, and where power could be developed. He never ceases to lament so much power going to waste, and points out that if the streams were all harnessed, as they could easily be, farm labor everywhere, indoors and out, could be greatly lessened. He is always thinking in terms of the greatest good to the greatest number. He aims to place his inventions within reach of the great mass of the people. As with his touring-car, so with his tractor engine, he has had the same end in view. Nor does he forget the housewife. He has plans afoot for bringing power into every household that will greatly lighten the burden of the women-folk.

Partly owing to his more advanced age, but mainly, no doubt, to his meditative and introspective cast of mind, Mr. Edison is far less active than is Mr. Ford. When we would pause for the midday lunch, or to make camp at the end of the day, Mr. Edison would sit in his car and read, or curl up, boy fashion, under a tree and take a nap, while Mr. Ford would inspect the stream or busy himself in getting wood for the fire. Mr. Ford is a runner and a high kicker, and frequently challenged some of the party to race with him. He is also a persistent walker, and from every camp, both morning and evening, he sallied forth for a brisk half-hour walk. His cheerfulness and adaptability on all occasions, and his optimism in regard to all the great questions, are remarkable. His good-will and tolerance are boundless. Notwithstanding his practical turn of mind, and his mastery of the mechanical arts and of business methods, he is through and through an idealist. Those who meet him are invariably drawn to him. He is a national figure, and the crowds that flock around the car in which he is riding, as we pause in the towns through which we pass, are not paying their homage merely to a successful car-builder or business man, but to a beneficent human force, a great practical idealist whose good-will and spirit of universal helpfulness they have all felt. He has not only brought pleasure and profit into their lives, but has illustrated and written large upon the pages of current history a new ideal of the business man—that of a man whose devotion to the public good has been a ruling passion, and whose wealth has inevitably flowed from the depth of his humanitarianism. He has taken the people into partnership with him, and has eagerly shared with them the benefits that are the fruit of his great enterprise—a liberator, an emancipator, through channels that are so often used to enslave or destroy.

In one respect, essentially the same thing may be said of Mr. Edison: his first and leading thought has been, “What can I do to make life easier and more enjoyable to my fellow-men? He is a great chemist, a trenchant and original thinker on all the great questions of life, though he has delved but little into the world of art and literature—a practical scientist, plus a meditative philosopher of profound insight. And his humor is delicious. We delighted in his wise and witty sayings. A good camper-out, he turns vagabond very easily, can go with hair disheveled and clothes unbrushed as long as the best of us, and can rough it week in and week out and wear that benevolent smile. He eats so little that I think he was not tempted by the chicken-roosts or turkey-flocks along the way, nor by the cornfields and apple-orchards, as some of us were, but he is second to none in his love for the open and for wild nature.

Mr. Firestone belongs to an entirely different type—the clean, clear-headed, conscientious business type; always on his job, always ready for whatever comes; in no sense an outdoor man; always at the service of those around him; a man generous, kindly, appreciative, devoted to his family and his friends; sound in his ideas—a manufacturer who has faithfully and honestly served his countrymen.

It is after he gets home that a meditative man really makes such a trip. All the unpleasant features are strained out or transformed. In retrospect it is all enjoyable, even the discomforts. I am aware that I was often irritable and ungracious, but my companions were tolerant, and gave little heed to the flitting moods of an octogenarian. Now, at this distance, and sitting beside my open fire at Slabsides, I look upon the whole trip with unmixed pleasure.


In 1921, the Vagabonds welcomed one of Firestone’s longtime friends on the trip: President Warren Harding. They also hauled along a player piano and wooden dancing platform. Newspapers ran headlines such as “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation” and “Genius to Sleep Under Stars.” People streamed into theaters to watch the silent movies that Ford’s film crew shot on the road. And Americans began to discover on their own the joys of a family road trip to places like our national parks.

Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National park is our most visited, receiving nearly double the number of visitors as the second-most attended Grand Canyon, in large part due to it being one of the only major National Parks in the East, accessible in a day drive to 1/3 of the US population. But the Smokies are “Great,” there’s plenty of room for those 12 million poeple a year, most of whom just drive through.

You can also visit Thomas Edison’s home and laboratory at the Thomas Ediston National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Take a step back in time to when machines were run by belts and pulleys and music was played on phonographs. His laboratory remains just as it did on the day he died.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Podcast Episodes

The 14th Colony

Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – National Park Service Website

The Cumberland Gap Tunnel – Official Website

The Wilderness Road – The History Channel

The Colony of Transylvania – The North Carolina Booklet, Vol. 3 No. 9 (Jan. 1904)


The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

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Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? Actually, there were a few other colonies like Nova Scotia and East and West Florida that didn’t join the revolution and remained loyal to the crown, but I’m talking about something different. This is a colony that was created by a private company that lobbied the Continental Congress to join the union that would become the United States. If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania. Yeah, I didn’t hear about that in school either.

In fact, had events turned a bit differently, we could be eating Transylvania Fried Chicken instead of KFC, and horses might be running the Transylvania Derby.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

A word before we begin: In this episode, we’re going to discuss treaties with indigenous people, people who already inhabited these lands, and conflicts with the so-called settlers. Clearly, people inhabited these territories long before colonizers arrived. The land wasn’t “purchased” from anybody. It was taken.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


In the early 1700s, the Allegheny Mountains were the greatest obstacle for settlers aspiring to reach the west. In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, an explorer, found a cut between two mountains. A crossing that would, for centuries to come, allow passage for travelers from around the world.

Through this gap was a vast tract of lands utilized and claimed by several tribes, comprising most of modern-day Kentucky and much of Tenessee. In 1774, Richard Henderson, a judge from North Carolina, organized a land speculation company with a number of other prominent people. The company was called the Transylvania Company, and its intent was to establish a new British colony by purchasing the lands from the Cherokee, who were the primary inhabitants of much of the area and claimed hunting rights in other sections of it.

Henderson hired Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the mountain gap, set up towns, and negotiate with indigenous people in the area. Boone had been in southeast Kentucky long before the founding of any settlements, and he traveled to the Cherokee towns to inform them of the upcoming negotiations.

In March 1775, Henderson and Boone met with more than 1,200 Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals to sign a treaty procuring all the land south of the Ohio River and between the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Mountains, and the Kentucky River — 20 million acres.

One Cherokee chief, named Dragging Canoe, refused to sign at Sycamore Shoals even though his father did. But the majority won out. Dragging Canoe left the treaty grounds taking those who were loyal to him south, eventually landing in the remote area of the Chickamauga Creek (near modern-day Chattanooga). There they established eleven towns which resisted settlers for decades. The location gave the group the name “Chickamauga.”

Henderson believed that a British legal opinion had made his private purchase of the land legal, but the Transylvania Company’s investment was in violation of both Virginia and North Carolina law, as both colonies laid claim to parts of the land. A royal proclamation also prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land and the establishment of any colony not sanctioned by the Crown. But Henderson proceeded anyway.

Daniel Boone was originally from Pennsylvania and migrated south. He was what was known as a Longhunter, someone who hunted and trapped among the western frontiers of Virginia for long periods of time. Boone would sometimes be gone for months, even years, before returning home from his expeditions. The Kentucky area was alluring to Boone because of its large salt brine lakes. Salt was essential for preserving meat on these long hunts.

Along with 35 axemen, Boone cut a 200-mile trail from Kingsport, Tennessee through the forests and mountains across the gap. It was hardly more than a path, rough and muddy.

The Shawnee laid claim to some of the land purchased from the Cherokee, but were not involved in the Sycamore Shoals Treaty. They viewed Boone and his men as invaders. While camped 15 miles from their final destination of the Kentucky River, just before daybreak, a group of Shawnee, slinging tomahawks, attacked the sleeping men. Some of the party were killed and a few were wounded, but most escaped into the woods.

When Boone reached the Kentucky River, he established the settlement of Boonesborough (near present-day Lexington, Kentucky), which was intended to be the capital of Transylvania.

The trail was difficult and dangerous. Wagons could not travel it, and still, many settlers began making the journey into the west. Entire communities would often move together over the Wilderness Road to new settlements. Many came on their own accord, refusing to recognize Transylvania’s authority. Along with regular attacks from the Shawnee and Chickamauga tribes, robbers frequented the edges of the route, seeking to pilage weaker pioneers. Defensive log structures called “stations” were built alongside the road with portholes in the walls for firing at attackers. Venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes blended into the undergrowth endangering the people and their livestock.

When Henderson was ready to enter the territory, he led another expedition of 30 horsemen following Boone’s path, widening the road so travelers could bring through wagons. Around 150 pioneers joined them along the way, including some who had been traveling ahead of them, but were retreating from Shawnee attacks further down the road. Some of the streams were flooded, and the pioneers had to swim with their horses.

When Henderson arrived at Boonesborough, just under a hundred people resided there. The settlers were living in a precarious situation. They lacked supplies and shelter, and faced significant hostilities from the Shawnee, and now the Cherokee, too, who had joined with the Shawnee and other tribes in the Cherokee-American war, which would last another 20 years. Still, Henderson urged settlers in the area to establish the colony and hold a constitutional convention.

His plan was for the various settlements throughout Transylvania to send delegates to Boonesborough. In May 1775, under a huge elm tree, a three-day convention assembled. They passed nine measures, drafting a document that built a framework of government, known as the Transylvania Compact, including executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

With that business complete, Henderson returned to North Carolina to petition the Continental Congress to make Transylvania a legally recognized colony. Virginia and North Carolina, who both claimed jurisdiction over the region, did not consent, and the Continental Congress declined to get involved.

Still, the colony existed, if not legally, until just one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the Virginia General Assembly prohibited the Transylvania Land Company from making any demands on settlers in the region.

Over 200,000 pioneers came over the Wilderness Road during this time. Many Scottish, Irish, and German. As the eastern lands were all taken, new immigrants had to push west, enduring severe hardships. Many families would walk hundreds of miles immediately after landing in America, crossing the icy creeks and rivers without shoes or stockings. One year, the weather was so cold that the Kentucky River froze to a depth of two feet. Many of the cattle and hogs froze to death. The settlers had to eat frozen livestock to survive. Often Dragging Canoe’s Chickamauga would ambush the Gap area for weeks at a time.

On July 5, 1776, Boone’s daughter and two other teenaged girls were captured outside Boonesborough by a Shawnee war party, who carried the girls north towards the Ohio lands. Boone led a group of men in pursuit, catching up with them two days later. They ambushed the Shawnee while they were stopped for a meal, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors.

Henry Hamilton, British Lieutenant Governor of Canada, began to recruit American Indian war parties to raid the Kentucky settlements. On April 24, Shawnee Indians, led by Chief Blackfish, attacked Boonesborough, and Daniel Boone was shot in the ankle while outside the fort.

While Boone recovered, Shawnees destroyed the surrounding cattle and crops. With the food supply running low, the settlers needed salt to preserve what meat they had, so in January of 1778, Boone led a party to the salt springs on the Licking River. While out hunting during the expedition, Boone was captured by Blackfish and his warriors. Boon’s party was greatly outnumbered, so he convinced them to surrender to the Shawnee.

Blackfish wanted to continue to Boonesborough and capture it, since it was now defenseless, but Boone convinced him to leave the Women and Children alone for the winter, promising that Boonesborough would surrender willingly in the spring. It was a bluff. So convincing, that many of his men thought he had turned his loyalty toward the British.

On June 16, 1778, Blackfish planned his return with a large force to Boonesborough. Boone learned of the plan and escaped, covering the 160 miles home over just five days on horseback and then by foot after his horse gave out.

During Boone’s absence, his wife and children had returned to North Carolina. Upon his return, some of the men questioned Boone’s loyalty, since after surrendering the salt-making party, he had lived quite happily among the Shawnees for months. He was even taken into one of their families and given the name Big Turtle.

To prove his loyalty, Boone led a raid against the Shawnees across the Ohio River, and then helped defend Boonesborough against a 10-day raid when Blackfish arrived in September.

After the siege, Boon was court-martialed by his fellow townspeople, some of whom still had family members held captive by the Shawnee. After Boone’s testimony, he was found not guilty, but it left him humiliated. He returned to North Carolina to get his family.

Three years after Boone blazed the Wilderness Road, In December 1778, Virginia’s Assembly declared the Transylvania claim void and took possession of the land. Henderson and his partners were given 12 square miles on the Ohio River below the mouth of the Green River as consolation – an area now known as Henderson.

Daniel Boon never returned to Boonesborough. He founded the settlement of Boone’s Station and went into business finding land for new settlers. Settlers now needed to file land claims with Virginia, and Boon would travel to Williamsburg to purchase their land warrants.

He became a leading citizen of Kentucky. When Kentucky was divided into three Virginia counties in 1780, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Fayette County militia, fighting in several revolutionary war battles.

In 1781, he was elected as a representative to the Virginia General Assembly. He traveled to Richmond to take his seat in the legislature, but British captured him and several other legislators near Charlottesville. The British released Boone on parole several days later. After a term in office, he returned to fight in the war, including the Battle of Blue Licks, in which his son Israel was killed. In November 1782, Boone took part in an expedition into Ohio, the last major campaign of the war.


The word Transylvania has little to with Dracula or Eastern Europe. it merely translates to “beyond a pleasant, wooded area.”

That break in the mountains became known as the Cumberland Gap, and it is of global importance. Settlers from around the world chose to pass through it to settle the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, along with a whole lot of slaves who didn’t have a choice. Nearly 300,000 pioneers journeyed through the nation’s first doorway to the west.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was dedicated in 1959. Even then, the area’s importance as a route through the mountains hadn’t changed. 50 years prior, the Bureau of Public Roads built a 2 and a half mile ribbon of crushed, compacted, and rolled limestone highway through Cumberland Mountain to link the towns of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and the wilderness road later disappeared under U.S. Highway 25E. As the highway became heavily trafficked, accidents became more and more frequent on the winding mountain road, earning it the nickname “Massacre Mountain.”

In an unlikely alliance, conservationists, historians, the park, and highway engineers joined forces to push for a major construction project that would reroute the highway through a tunnel beneath the historic Cumberland Gap.

In 1973, legislation was passed allowing the National Park Service to construct tunnels through Cumberland Mountain in order to remove traffic from the historic corridor and restore the image of the Gap and Wilderness Road.

The project cost $265 million and required rerouting two U.S. highways, the construction of twin 4,600-foot tunnels, five miles of new 4-lane approaches to the tunnels, two highway interchanges, and 10 bridges, including a 200-foot railroad bridge and two pedestrian bridges on hiking trails.

In 1985, Construction began on a pilot tunnel that was 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, drilled from both sides of the mountain. It took two years to drill, and revealed springs that produced 450 gallons of water every minute varying rock and clay, massive caverns, and a 30′ deep underground lake.

It took another 10 years to build the actual tunnels, which were are lined with a waterproof PVC membrane. A massive water management and drainage system was designed and installed, and water quality was constantly monitored during the construction process.

The tunnels opened to traffic in October 1996, and the section of U.S. Highway 25E was closed, and the asphalt removed. Now, there’s just a six-foot-wide trail—not too different from the one carved by Daniel Boone.18,000 vehicles passed through the park on an average day before the tunnels were built, now double the amount passes through the tunnels.

Today, you can discover the rich history of the area while experiencing the stunning nature, from spectacular overlooks to cascading waterfalls, along an extensive trail system that traverses Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s 24,000 acres.

A guided tour takes visitors a mile down the Wilderness Road to the majestic Gap Cave. Another takes you to the historic Hensley Settlement, where the stories of early pioneers and settlers come alive in the numerous historic buildings and structures.

Wildlife is abundant in the park, including deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear, and over 150 species of birds. Rock formations abound and mountain streams flow over them to create beautiful waterfalls.

The 160-site Wilderness Road Campground is located 3 miles from the park visitor center off of Highway 58 in Virginia. Electrical hookups are available at 41 of the sites, and the campground provides hot showers and potable water. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry camping is available in some of the more remote, wilderness areas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


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