The Eminent-Domain Origin of Shenandoah National Park

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The establishment of Shenandoah
National Park in 1926 is one of the greatest abuses of eminent domain
in our country’s history. With the Commonwealth of Virginia
condemning the entire area and removing more than 450 families,
many by force, the park would eventually encompass 196,000 acres.
After people were evicted, Virginia transferred the property to
the federal government and Shenandoah National Park was born. The
history books have forgotten the episode, but it is one that needs
to be remembered.

Just as with politics today,
the main force behind the establishment of Shenandoah National Park
(SNP) was a special-interest group, for it was not a federal bureaucracy
that pined for the park but local Virginians themselves.

In 1924, the secretary of the
Interior had established a committee to investigate a potential
site for a national park in the southern Appalachians. Knowing that
it would be a boon to tourism, many residents in the Shenandoah
Valley of central Virginia began lobbying for the park to be located
there. That same year, nearly 1,000 local residents gathered in
Harrisonburg and established Shenandoah Valley, Inc., whose slogan
was “A National Park Near the Nation’s Capital.”

The tactics used to influence
the decision on the park’s location would do any K Street veteran
proud. Shenandoah Valley, Inc., inaugurated the Apple Blossom Festival
in Winchester to showcase the area’s beauty. It is still held
annually to this day. Harry Byrd, one of the most influential members
of Shenandoah Valley, Inc., hosted members of the search committee
at his Skyland resort high up in the Blue Ridge. At Skyland, the
committee reveled in the resort’s beautiful wilderness and
sweeping vistas of the Shenandoah Valley. Skyland can still be visited
within SNP today as a campground and picnic area.

After the committee’s
visit, more than 500 valley residents traveled to Washington, D.C.,
and held a meeting to show how much local support there was for
the park. They were not disappointed. In May of 1926, President
Calvin Coolidge signed a bill authorizing the establishment of Shenandoah
National Park.

Now that Virginians had succeeded
in getting the park established within their state, the job of actually
obtaining the land was the biggest obstacle to getting tourist dollars
flowing. An arduous task lay ahead of them.

Collective condemnation

The bill that Coolidge signed
stipulated that no federal funds could be used to acquire the land
the park would comprise. The job of obtaining the land therefore
fell to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The idea of buying the land
from the owners was immediately ruled out, as it was thought too
difficult an undertaking. William E. Carson, director of the state
commission responsible for managing the land acquisition, stated,

It was manifestly
hopeless to undertake to acquire the necessary area by direct purchase
[because] any of the thousands of owners or claimants could hold
up the entire project unless paid exorbitant and unfair prices,
with jury trials, appeals, and all the endless delays which can
be injected into ordinary condemnation proceedings by selfish, stubborn,
and avaricious litigants.

It is clear that government
officials at the time considered these property owners as nothing
more than obstacles. Their concern was not for their rights, but
simply for the difficulty that they would present in bringing the
national-park project to fruition. Indeed, many people, including
the press, thought they were doing the property owners a favor by
running them off their land. The general consensus was that the
people who inhabited these mountains were living as animals and
needed to be civilized. National Park Service official Arno Cammerer
stated, “There is no person so canny as certain types of mountaineers,
and none so disreputable.” SNP official James R. Lassiter stated
in 1935 that residents suffered from a lack of “independence
and resourcefulness” and from their “dependence on outside

So in order to avoid the slow
and painful process of negotiating prices with each landowner, Virginia
passed the Public Park Condemnation Act. The act simply confiscated
all the lands that would make up the park. Officials then formed
a three-man committee to assess the value of each property that
the owner would be paid. Once the condemnation had been signed into
law, the next task was to remove the inhabitants.

With the passage of the Public
Park Condemnation Act, some landowners decided to leave of their
own accord. They took the money the state gave them and reestablished
their lives elsewhere. But many landowners refused to budge, either
because they thought they were not getting fair-market value for
their property or simply out of principle.

The park proponents soon found
out that these “mountaineers” were a little more sophisticated
than they had thought. Robert H. Via challenged the takings on Fourteenth
Amendment grounds, claiming that his due-process rights under the
Constitution had been violated. The district court ruled against
him, but Via appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined
to hear the case. H.M. Cliser wrote to Gov. John Garland Pollard
of Virginia, “I am relying wholly on the Constitution in this
matter; therefore I have nothing to arbitrate.” And Lewis Willis
wrote directly to President Hoover, “We are unwilling to part
with our homes to help a small part of our population to get their
hands into tourists’ pockets.”

Overcoming resistance

Of course, all of their efforts
were of no avail. By 1935 most of the inhabitants had left voluntarily.
But the ones who chose to remain had to be removed by force. And
the tactics used on those most adamant about staying were forceful

H.M. Cliser owned a filling
station on one of the main roads that would lead into the park.
He had lived with his wife for 35 years in the house that his father
had built, and he steadfastly refused to leave. When the police
finally came to press the issue, they cuffed him as he started singing
“The Star-Spangled Banner.” He informed the police that
he was a free man and that he was simply defending his constitutional
rights. It took four officers to stuff him in the back of a police
car. Afterwards, his wife and children refused to leave the porch
of their house, even after the police had boarded it up. They all
eventually moved in with family outside the park boundaries where
Cliser appealed his eviction until he died at age 75.

John Mace had sold water that
he bottled from a spring on his property within park boundaries.
When he refused to leave his property, the police piled all of his
furniture and his belongings in his yard and then burned his house
down in front of him to let him know there was no chance of return.

Lizzie Jenkins was five months
pregnant when the police dragged her from her home, piled her belongings
in horse-drawn wagons, and pulled her chimney down so that she would
have no source of heat for the upcoming winter.

All in all, about 2,800 people
were forced from their homes. A small group of men decided that
a large park in the mountains would be a wonderful idea and they
uprooted an entire community and destroyed their culture in order
to accomplish it. The tyranny of the majority that Alexis de Tocqueville
warned against in the 1840s reared its head in the heart of the
Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1920s. As Madison wrote in Federalist
No. 51,

It is of great
importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against
the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society
against the injustice of the other part.

Indeed, the Constitution was
adopted to defend the likes of those poor mountain farmers from
the injustice that they eventually suffered at the hands of their
own government.

Any time the government
takes property under the power of eminent domain, it is forcibly
evicting someone from his property in the process. We have seen
it in Shenandoah National Park. We have seen it in Poletown, when
an entire Detroit suburb was razed and given to General Motors for
a new factory, and we have seen it in the recent case of Kelo
v. New London, where a township took people’s homes in
order to transfer the land to a developer.

The descendants of those who
were evicted from the Blue Ridge of Virginia are still bitter. They
still see the establishment of the park as sheer theft – their
families’ heritage stripped away in an immoral and violent
fashion. It is cases such as this that display the vile nature of
government takings, and it would be a proud day for our country
should men one day become wise enough to decide that the use of
eminent domain should be discarded completely.

4, 2007

Frazier [send him mail] is
program director at The Future of
Freedom Foundation

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