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Drive back in time on Blue Ridge Parkway

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1/24/2012 - Drive back in time on Blue Ridge Parkway
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

 ASHEVILLE -- America's most beloved national park site, the Blue Ridge Parkway, was built for scenic driving.

 But thanks to nearly three years of devoted digitizing by UNC Chapel Hill Library staff and graduate students, it is now open for driving back in time.

The just-launched "Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina," created through a collaborative project based at UNC's library puts everyone in the driver's seat of the parkway's 77-year history.

Click here to view the digital parkway project.

"There are more than 3,000 discrete items, including photographs, maps, news articles, oral histories and essays documenting development and construction of the parkway's North Carolina segment," said Anne Whisnant, adjunct associate professor of history at UNC and the project's scholarly adviser.

"It is the biggest compilation of everything having to do with the history of the parkway."

"Driving Through Time" was funded by a $150,000 grant in 2009 from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services under provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, as administered by the State Library of North Carolina. It was a collaboration among the UNC Library, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh.

The site allows users to explore parkway history chronologically, geographically or by dozens of topics, from access roads to wildlife. The "GeoBrowser" feature is one Whisnant believes will be very popular.

"To the degree possible, we have assigned a point location to every item," she said.

"People who love the parkway tend to love a certain place on the parkway. This feature allows you to put in a milepost or place and locate everything having to do with that place, such as Grandfather Mountain."

Another interactive maps feature layers of 77 historical maps atop current road maps and satellite images. Found under the "Explore" tab, it uses GIS software to compare present day sites along the parkway with pre-parkway towns, farms, roads and topography.

"It is a revolutionary way to see what used to be," said Whisnant, a parkway historian who for the past 20 years has been researching the parkway's past, the challenges in building the 469-mile roadway through North Carolina and Virginia, and the controversies it caused.

She is the author of "Super-Scenic Motorway" (UNC Press, 2006) and the children's book "When the Parkway Came" (Primary Source Publishers, 2010).

"I think this is really valuable to the public," parkway superintendent Phil Francis said of "Driving Through Time."

"People always want to see our archives and do research, but they are only open to educational organizations, and you have to make an appointment and go through our archivist. Now, with this collection, it allows people to get it directly online. And it's really interesting stuff."

The collection includes parkway land acquisition maps that were in about 27 boxes at the state archives in Raleigh and parkway land use maps filed at headquarters in Asheville that show how the parkway was built.

Using the two types of maps together show a sort of "before" and "after" parkway story, Whisnant said.

"We have a very large archive collection. We have 500 linear feet of archival materials," parkway museum curator Jackie Holt said. "It is only open to researchers by appointment. This project is a good way of having students and the general public get the history of the parkway.

"I hope it gives a better understanding to the general public. Because we're such a large park, such a linear park, this project will give people a better understanding of what it took to get this road built."

Whisnant said the project is ongoing, although the grant money has run out.

Graduate students will continue to upload 5,000 historic photos (about half of those are no online).

"Down the road, we'd love to do the same treatment with the Virginia side of the parkway," she said.

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