Greath thoughts: the Long Trail

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(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Bob Northrup tells the story of how Vermont created – almost destroyed – the Long Trail.

(Northrup) Following the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Canada, the Long Trail was the brain child of James P. Taylor, associate principal of Vermont Academy, who conceived the idea, as the story goes, on a misty day atop Stratton Mountain.

The Long Trail took its first step from dream to reality on March 11, 1910, at a meeting of 23 people in Burlington, when the Green Mountain Club was formed. Work began on Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield, reaching Jay Peak in 1927, with the final link to Canada achieved in 1930. Trail completion was ce1ebrated by the lighting of flares from mountain top to mountain top.

This foot path in the wilderness, the oldest long distance hiking trail in the USA, was inspiration for the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, which coincides with the Long Trail from Williamstown, Massachusetts to Sherburne Pass, Route 4, just north of Pico Peak.

This sounds like a perfect story, but not so fast. This great idea also lead to one that would not have been so great. In fact, it could have been downright disastrous, environmentally.

Vermont was in the depths of the Great Depression of the l 930’s. There was much poverty and unemployment. Vermont was money poor, so a plan emerged to take advantage of the Long Trail, draw federal money to Vermont and put Vermonters to work on a paved auto parkway stretching from Massachusetts to Canada, right along the spine of the Green Mountain peaks; a Vermont copy of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway.

Ironically, one of the prime movers of this idea was none other than the same James P. Taylor, father of the Long Trail. It may be difficult for us, in 2003, to understand how a man who envisioned a "Foot Path in the Wilderness," could, a few years later, promote a skyline motor highway with all the necessary feeder roads that would have been required.

However, as Taylor put it: "The mountains have not proved to be blessings. They have inevitably been a hindrance to the state of Vermont. Unclimbed, they have made a commonwealth of valley dwellers, complacent and provincial." Taylor believed that if Vermonters would not hike the mountains, at least they could get there by car.

Taylor’s goals may have seemed worthy enough at the time, for some 60 years ago not everyone understood what environmental devastation a skyline drive would bring. Still, it was a big issue even then and the state was polarized.

The issue went to the Vermont State Legislature where it was debated and defeated by 15 votes. The governor wanted to be sure so he brought the issue to the March Town Meetings in 1936. More than 74,000 people voted and the parkway was defeated by a margin of just over 1,400 votes.

The conflict between the bucolic nature of our state and unchecked development was as keenly felt in the 1930’s as it is today. Fortunately for all of us, in succeeding generations and for many more to come, James P Taylor’s vision of a "Foot Path in the Wilderness" has survived and the scenic parkways remain in the valleys and lowlands.

I’m Bob Northrop from Underhill.

Bob Northrop is a retired school teacher and has hiked the Long Trail seven times.

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