Appalachian Trail History
June 28, 1914, was a sunny, warm morning in Sarajevo, deep in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a tuberculosed dissident, stepped up to the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohnenberg, were riding and shot them both dead from five feet away, it is doubtful he or any of his five accomplices realized those shots would start the largest armed conflict the world had ever known. It would prove to be a conflict that would become a war which would rain destruction on much of Europe and would grow into bloodletting and devastation beyond belief.
When the war ended in 1919, the sheer numbers of casualties were astounding; almost 9.5 million men had died, while another 15 million were seriously wounded. Out of the war, entire classes at the prestigious universities of Britain, France, and Germany did not return, and there were many budding poets, writers, and other artists who would never realize their full potential. When Gertrude Stein called those men of age who had emerged from the carnage the Lost Generation, she was correct. Most Europeans felt they had lost an entire generation in the mud and squalor of the Western Front.
At first, no one knew what to call the war. The politicians, forgetting human nature as they often do, called it “The War to End All Wars.” Everybody who knew better simply called it, “The Great War.” The experience of trench warfare scarred the survivors just as deeply as enemy shelling. Millions of men returned from Europe and became known as the walking wounded; lost souls who struggled to adjust to normal civilian life. Some never did.
In those first years after the war, the pervasive feeling in society was one of healing; one of associations, organizations, federations, civic pride, and governments trying to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and move ahead. Leaders, housewives, laborers, all were eager to improve mankind’s lot.
Benton MacKaye was thirty-five years old when the war broke out, well established in his career. In the aftermath of the Great War, he could see and feel what was needed in his culture, and he did what he could. In his 1921 article, he wrote, “Living has been considerably complicated as of late in various ways—by war, by questions of personal liberty, and by menaces of one kind or another.” He went on, “The situation is world-wide, the result of a world-wide war.”
MacKaye was deeply concerned with the tasks of aiding in and solving the labor problems in post-war America. For planners, the typical approach to solving the problem of living was to increase the efficiency of the worker’s time. If the “working time” were more effective, then opportunities for leisure would increase. Would developing more leisure time aid in solving labor problems in the U.S. and abroad? To an insightful dreamer, it could. Benton MacKaye thought it might, and that the establishment of an Appalachian Trail, and the potential jobs and communities that would surely come with it, couldn’t hurt. He was right.
Building the Thing
It looks, then, that as if it might be worthwhile to devote some energy at least to working out a better utilization of our spare time.
Benton MacKaye was a member of the Regional Planning Association of America, and he had asked the Federated Societies on Planning and Parks to call the 1925 meeting. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who enjoy going to meetings, and those who don’t. Fortunately, enough interested people attended the meeting in the Raleigh Hotel and liked what they heard. Roughly two dozen people sat in a small meeting room off the hotel lobby and discussed Benton’s dream.
The meeting was a success. Nothing moved quickly in Washington then, as now, but the seed was planted, and a small movement began to link already existing recreational trails between states. There were established walking trails in the Potomac states and New England. Perhaps the best trail system was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, especially on and near Mount Washington.
The years after the Great War was a time of associations, civic and cultural organizations. Enthusiasm for clubs and societies was rampant. If you weren’t a joiner, you either stayed on the farm, or holed-up in your brownstone. But it was a perfect culture for the birth of the AT. In the days after the meeting, MacKaye’s dream was discussed in D.C. offices and hallways, and it quickly became a dream shared by scores of enthusiasts. They talked about the feasibility of the trail system. They noted that the trail could follow and offer access to strategic lands and could have value in preventing or fighting forest fires, as lookout stations could be situated along the trail. They spoke of the importance of recreation for the masses; a new notion, as recreation before the war was something rare, often only secured by the wealthy. There was the talk of building shelter camps at convenient distances—a day’s walk between each. Some of the shelters should provide accommodations, modeled after the Swiss hut and chalet systems, similar to the popular Zealand Falls Hut in New Hampshire today. GERRY’s PEP TALK?
Subsequent meetings would go into more details of MacKaye’s dream, including the hope for community groups. Eventually, perhaps small villages and food and farm camps would follow. Looking back, it’s interesting to note that some of those people who committed themselves to the construction of the Appalachian Trail knew from the outset that they would not live to see the project finished. But these are the type of people who make a change—who get things done, unselfishly. Out of that first meeting came the most important things; excitement, conviction, and of course, an organization: the Appalachian Trail Conference, which would later evolve into the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The ATC was born.
As much as everyone agrees that Benton MacKaye dreamt the trail, it should be agreed that Myron Avery built it. MacKaye’s ideas about linking existing trail systems together to birth a communal, utopic social entity would evolve significantly between 1920 and 1930. While MacKaye was often perceived as a “dignified, affable philosopher with the ever-present pipe clamped between his teeth,” Myron Avery was a hard-nosed, get-it-done attorney. Avery grew up in Lubec, Maine, in Washington County, in a family who made their money in sardine packing. There are two counties in Maine where the citizens are too busy surviving to do much philosophizing: Aroostook County in the far north, and Washington County, which is “Downeast” (that part of Maine sticking its elbow into the ribcage of New Brunswick). They are often the “forgotten counties,” left out of conversations in Augusta’s political circles that include words like, development, growth, and jobs. People from there, if they’re going to make it in the world, have to be resilient, and they have to be tough. Avery, though often smiling and friendly, was tough. People from Washington County, Maine, would rather do something, than talk about doing it.
While Myron Avery and Benton MacKaye did clash, each would undoubtedly respectfully praise the other for getting the AT completed. Unfortunately, in December of 1935, and February 1936, the two fired off several accusatory, strongly-worded letters. They were based primarily in philosophical differences—next to religion, the hardest differences to overcome. In one letter that Avery wrote, he essentially accused MacKaye of having never “worked on the Trail,” and making “armchair suggestions.” In the last letter from MacKaye, he reproached Avery for his, “self-righteous, overbearing attitude and a bullying manner of expression.” Washington at its best? The two important men never spoke to one another again. I felt that if AT historian Brian B. King could not find in the ATC Archives any evidence of Avery and MacKaye communicating after those letters, then there was none. Still, regarding the responsibility of truthful writing, I drove to Lubec, Maine to track down distant relatives of Avery—and to Bowdoin College and the Maine State Library, and consulted a friend who is a librarian at the Library of Congress on the single matter of locating any lost letters, telegrams, or postal cards. I found nothing.
When Judge Perkins reached out to trail groups along the Appalachian corridor in the early days, the key figure in the Washington-based Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) was Avery. Though he was only twenty-seven years old, he was an effective and capable explorer and a fine attorney. Judge Perkins knew that, and as the Appalachian Trail project found its legs (by 1929 seven states’ trails had been officially connected), he asked Avery to help as Assistant Chairman. Interstate interest in the Appalachian Trail Conference blossomed. As work on the trail moved forward, and as the date for the 1930 Conference approached, Perkins became very ill. He never recovered and died in 1932. Avery was made Acting Chairman of the PATC in 1930, then Chairman in 1931, and occupied that post for the next twenty-two years.
In those early years of the Appalachian Trail, Maine was the “missing link” in the system. If it wasn’t for Myron Avery, the AT might’ve ended officially in New Hampshire, on the summit of Mt. Washington. By 1924, it was proposed for the trail to extend to the summit of Mount Katahdin, but much of Maine—especially the mountainous region along the western part of the state—was true wilderness. Along the New Hampshire border were farms and hamlets, but the further north one traveled, the more remote it was. Not many people ever voyaged there; loggers, at times, ventured in, and occasionally surveyors and game wardens. Four years after MacKaye’s article in the Journal of American Institute of Architects, Arthur Comey (chairman of the New England Trail Conference), and a few others explored a southern Maine section, from Grafton Notch to Old Blue Mountain—part of the AT to this day. Three years later, Comey and a friend hiked back to Old Blue Mountain and scouted north to Indian Pond on the Kennebec River. Between the years of 1926-1927, Maine game wardens cut a trail from Katahdin south to Squaw Mountain with the idea to extend a trail all the way to the White Mountains National Forest, in New Hampshire. It never materialized, but their efforts were the foundation of the Maine section of the AT.
The Maine section was so remote, so difficult to negotiate—even to get to, that in 1929 Arthur Comey wrote in a letter to Judge Perkins expressing, “It is my opinion that no lasting progress can be made in Maine except through local Maine action. When they (“Mainers”) come to believe that a through-trail will help them, they will open it.” Fortunately for all AT thru-hikers, Myron Avery, it has been mentioned, was a “Mainer.” (In fact, in 1919, while in law school, he had worked in western Maine for the Maine Forest Service running telephone lines. He was familiar with the terrain, and he knew what a daunting task was ahead of the Conservancy.) Avery, with his particular interest in and knowledge of the Katahdin region, disagreed completely with Comey and said the thing to do was to get the trail marked through Maine, and then create the means for maintaining it, which is what he did. Avery’s efforts in Maine—as well as the fact that he eventually took over a leadership role, ended any talk of Mount Washington as the terminus.
Maine at the time had no trail-building association, nor trail clubs to be recruited to build the trail. Avery, heavily involved with aspects of trail construction in all fourteen states, attacked the problems of creating a trail in Maine’s wilderness with great commitment. His first task was to convince the leaders of the Appalachian Trail Conference to extend the trail to Maine. Then he had to build it.
More Maine scouting trips were made through 1931, while Avery hit up everyone he could think of to finance the work for which volunteers were unavailable. He contacted the Maine Publicity Bureau, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, the Maine Forest Service, and the Maine Development Commission for help and contributions. Over time, he got the job done, and the southern half of the trail in Maine was scouted and marked. By the fall of 1931, most of the gaps in the trail had been eliminated. In 1932, Geologist (and devout fly fisherman) J. Frank Schairer, a friend of Myron Avery, and fellow member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club wrote in the PATC’s Bulletin the need for a leader capable of bringing together many different organizations and personalities;
“Continued progress is reported from all sections of the Appalachian Trail. A recent survey shows a total of 1,700 miles completed, an advance of 500 miles since the 1931 Trail Conference at Gatlinburg. The remaining gaps in the entire trail number only six. They are:
1. Smith Gap to Little Gap (6 miles) in eastern Pennsylvania. This is being cut out by the Blue Mountain Club.
2. Nolichucky River to Devils Fork Gap (20 miles), within the boundaries of the Unaka National Forest. This is being marked by the Carolina Mountain Club under its most energetic Chairman of Trails, George Masa.
3. The route across the Roanoke Valley (described in Guide to Paths in the Blue Ridge), is to be relocated this fall. Sections of the Southern Virginia Appalachian Trail Association in southern Virginia have also been relocated and require more adequate marking. Members of the P. A. T. C. will aid here.
4. Eastern Smoky and the connection between the Smoky Mountains and Weser Bald of the Nantahala Range. The route here presents very considerable problems. It is being explored and marked by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club at Knoxville.
6. From Red Mountain to Prospect Mountain (10 miles) in Connecticut.”
The trail sections with some of the toughest terrain were yet to be finished. Worse yet, there were very poor maps of the wilderness. Number five in Schairer’s list was disconcerting: “Maine.” It’s as if he didn’t know what to write about the northernmost section. In fact, by 1932, as previously mentioned, much of Maine’s trail had been scouted and mapped. The geologist would later write, “Very substantial progress has been made in Maine. Here the Trail project has advanced from a state of possible abandonment to one of probable completion. Eight months ago, the seeming hopelessness of the Maine situation led to suggestions of its abandonment and substitution of some White Mountain peak for Katahdin as the northern terminus of the Trail.”
Maine, as elsewhere, wasn’t without its interesting characters in the 1930s. Among the curious people who “summered” in Maine were two Broadway actors, John F. “Johnny” Webber, and Walter Greene. Webber, who held a Broadway record for many years with over 1000 consecutive performances on the stage, was an affable man who loved to hunt and fish the streams around Sebec Lake. His close friend, Walter Greene was something else. Greene was a Renaissance man. Acting in New York during the winter was mostly to fund his two sporting camps near the western shore of Sebec Lake. He was a Maine Guide and was profoundly interested in living life to the fullest, including circumventing the Prohibition (with his homemade hooch), and in entertaining his guests by performing skits—often as a duo with Johnny Webber. In the late 1920s, Greene met Myron Avery by chance while the young attorney was exploring an area north of Mount Katahdin. They became fast friends. Through Avery, Greene learned of the new Appalachian Trail. It was just up his alley. Greene knew early on that the trail would become a big deal, and kept in communication with Avery. In fact, Greene became slightly obsessed with the idea and took it upon himself to do what he could for the cause. It turned out; he did a lot.
Myron Avery, Walter Greene, Arthur Comey, Game Warden Helon Taylor, Frank Schairer, and Shailer Philbrick were truly pioneers of the early Appalachian Trail in Maine. Of course, there were many others—the trail would not have been built by only a handful of men and women. During the summer of 1932, the Broadway actor proved his mettle; Walter Greene single-handedly made several trips into the forests between the village of Blanchard (near Monson) and Mount Katahdin to scout and blaze a trail across the daunting Barren-Chairback mountain range.
In 1933, Avery led a remarkable expedition to mark the route from Katahdin south to the West Branch of the Pleasant River. Greene had already blazed the trail across Barren Mountain. It wasn’t perfect, and it would change a bit over the next few years, but because of his efforts late in the summer of 1934, the Appalachian Trail was completed. Now it would have to be maintained and improved. The following year, Avery organized the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to do just that. The first president of the club would be none other than Walter Greene.
These early pioneers would be the forefathers of a long list of men and women who would endeavor to grow the AT, supervise and maintain the trail system, and to nurture it. Scouting and blazing the trail was only the beginning. Permissions were needed to cross private lands (amazingly, in those years, not one Maine private landowner said no), but permission, however, did not include protection. Volunteers annually were faced with clearing the trail of logging slash following timber harvests. There would be negotiations with landowners, forestry companies, state and federal agencies, lumber operations, and the volunteers themselves. In 1935, as a result of Myron Avery’s direction, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) adopted the Appalachian Trail project in Maine. They cleared and improved the trail, and by 1940 had built fourteen Adirondack lean-tos between Grafton Notch and the Kennebec River. None of the shelters remain today. Myron Avery was correct; build it, and the volunteers will come. Innkeepers, sporting camp owners, game wardens, and slate quarrymen—along with the CCC—all cut and maintained trail sections. The AT was quickly becoming a going concern.
The Trail shifted and moved slightly over the years (mostly for safety precautions during logging operations), but after the National Trail Systems Act in 1968, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club developed programs that negotiated with landowners to obtain greater protection—the goal being to establish a 200-foot “Remote Recreation Protection Zone,” or, a protective corridor for the trail. The Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conference worked together to select knowledgeable individuals to serve as local coordinators for the program. State Club Presidents often led the negotiations. In Maine, that was David Field. Now a retired University of Maine professor of Forest Resources, Dr. Field has also served as an officer on the board of managers of the Appalachian Trail Conference. The acquisition of land for the corridor in the late 1970s and early 1980s relied on a dynamic interplay of power and authority between a wide range of public and private interests. In Maine, many of those private interests were the lands of the lumber companies, especially in the north. Field, with his reputation and knowledge of forestry, was successful in negotiating for the corridor. Considering he was negotiating with the timber harvesting industry (worth millions of dollars annually), that was no small feat. It likely was helpful that some of the timber harvesters and industry leaders he was negotiating with were his former students at the university.
Originally from a small Maine town near the AT, Field also designed parts of the Trail, and for over fifty years he was a Trail Maintainer, carefully nurturing the section of trail from Orbeton Stream to Saddleback Mountain. It is a section of trail well remembered to thru-hikers for its tough terrain and remoteness. David Field pulled together hikers, landowners, timber harvesters, educators, club members, and a range of other people to help create the corridor of protection along the Trail. To hikers like myself, Field is every bit the embodiment of those early explorers who carved the Appalachian Trail out of Maine’s wilderness. He is reminiscent of Avery himself.
Even today, the “wildness” of the AT section that travels through Maine serves to enhance the entire Appalachian Trail experience, but its inherent challenges accompany hikers as they attempt to thru-hike it.
Avery knew it, eighty-one years ago:
As the Trail in Maine leads through an utter wilderness, often distant many days’ journey from the nearest town or road, admittedly to become lost from the Trail in Maine would be a serious matter. But let no one, who would otherwise undertake this journey, be deterred by any such consideration for those responsible for the Trail have devoted much emphasis to its marking.
—Myron Avery, 1937
After close study of the early years of the AT, it is difficult to walk any part of the trail without a profound appreciation of those men and women who sat in those hot Washington boardrooms and made the trail a reality. The thin, terrestrial strip known as “The People’s Path” exists in spite of environmental, socio-economic, and political changes. The Appalachian Trail, since the beginning, is a true community.