The Eminent-Domain Origin of Shenandoah National Park


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 help.”

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 indeed.

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.

January 4, 2007