© 2022
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Book explores memories of Appalachians forced to leave their land to build National Parks, dams and roads

Hankin family: The home of Harriet Hankins in the area of the proposed town at Norris Dam, 1933.
Lewis Hine Photographs for the Tennessee Valley Authority, Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Record Group 142, National Archives, Atlanta.
/
Hankin family: The home of Harriet Hankins in the area of the proposed town at Norris Dam, 1933.

In the 1900's, the federal government forced thousands of people in Appalachia to leave their land, to make way for national parks and hydroelectric projects. Often, people fought to stay, and lost. Most of the people who were uprooted had no choice. One of the main complaints was that they weren’t paid enough money. Others, like sharecroppers, who didn’t own property, weren’t paid a single dollar.

In their place, the government built some of the country’s most visited destinations. Like the Great Smokey Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Aaron Purcell is editor of a book called “Lost in Transition," about people in Appalachia who were forced to leave their homes.

“It has always struck me, what or who was there before?” Purcell said. “And I think that’s where the idea for this project started out.”

Decoration day at Elkmont Cemetery, ca. 1920, Negatives of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Decoration day at Elkmont Cemetery, ca. 1920, Negatives of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Purcell said these upheavals forced people in Appalachia to reckon with their identities in a new light. “There were a lot of things lost in the process for the immediate families who had to leave, the physical losses. But there’s this massive amount of change that did affect the way that Appalachia looks at itself.”

Those who relocated were no longer able to exist as subsistence farmers. Instead, they had to find new ways to earn livings, in factories, lumber mills, and in jobs created by the tourism industry.

One of the book chapters touches on the history of Loyston, a vanished town in the Norris Dam basin that is now under water. Purcell spent many hours looking at several hundred case files created by TVA in the 1930's, including oral histories of the people who were relocated. Purcell said some of the people said the change offered them better opportunities. Yet, their descendants later recalled their experience in a different way, with nostalgia, for a former time when the family’s identity was tied to the land.

“The memory of it changes over time and it gets passed down to generations that never experienced any of this,” Purcell said. “They very much see it as, ‘this project was the federal government coming in and taking our land from us and changing our lives.’ So the memory of how these projects are remembered to me was probably the most fascinating thing.”

CCC enrollees: Group of CCC enrollees sawing wood in forest clean-up, 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps in Mammoth Cave National Park.
Mammoth Cave National Park CCC Archival Photograph Collection, Mammoth Cave National Park.
/
CCC enrollees: Group of CCC enrollees sawing wood in forest clean-up, 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps in Mammoth Cave National Park.

Sometimes people resisted to these projects. One chapter in “Lost in Transition” describes a project that failed, a proposal to build hydroelectric dams on the New River, which ultimately did not succeed because of community protests in the 1960's.

Aaron Purcell is professor and director of the special collections at Virginia Tech. He is editor of the book “Lost in Transition,” which is available in hardback and as a PDF from the University of Tennessee Press.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: July 22, 2022 at 11:09 AM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.