Appalachian Trail Histories

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Benton MacKaye

Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) was a professional forester, community planner, and conservationist who first proposed and Appalachian Trail in 1921, in an essay in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects. Following the publication of his essay, titled "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," MacKaye traveled extensively to meet with hiking clubs to promote the project and was one of the conveners of the first meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in 1925. In 1935 he helped found The Wilderness Society, a conservation advocacy organization that played a pivotal role in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Although MacKaye never held a formal leadership position in the ATC, and broke with the organization's leadership in 1935, he continued to promote the AT project, as well as other trail endeavors, throughout his long life.

Benton MacKaye on the Appalachian Trail near Newfound Gap

Benton MacKaye on the Appalachian Trail

Early Life

Emile Benton MacKaye (pronounced Mack-eye) was born on March 6, 1879 and was the fifth of six children in his family. MacKaye's father Steele was a reasonably well-known New York City playwright, actor, and inventor, who devoted much of his life to grand schemes, none of which ever panned out. His grandfather James was a rich man, but his fortune passed out of the family, leaving Benton's father to attempt to support his wife and children through his various big ideas, resulting in the family being in precarious financial circumstances for most of Benton's life.

As the family's finances declined, Steele relocated them to Shirley, Massachusetts, where Benton's love of nature was kindled by what he called "expeditions,” his almost daily hikes into the surrounding hills and forests. During those expeditions, he took copious notes on everything he saw—plants, animals, and geology. These trips, and winters spent in Washington, D.C., where he haunted the halls of the Smithsonian Institution, led him to a lifelong concern with the conservation of nature and the natural landscape.

After high school MacKaye enrolled at Harvard, where he was, at best, an average student, excelling only in the sciences, especially anything to do with the natural world. Graduating in 1900, he returned for an MA in Forestry in 1903, where he was the first student in what was a brand new program. There he was powerfully influenced by Gifford Pinchot's views on scientific forestry and after graduation was hired by Pinchot (then the first director of the United States Forest Service) to be a field forester. Between 1905-1911, MacKaye alternated between work for the USFS and brief teaching stints in the forestry program at Harvard. His field work brought him into contact with Allen Chamberlain, then president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and took him to the forests of eastern Kentucky, where he encountered the Southern Appalachians for the first time. Back on campus, MacKaye became a prominent member of social reform circles on campus, including hosting meetings of the Harvard Socialist Club in his rooms.

Perhaps because of his progressive politics, or perhaps because of his personality, over the next decade, MacKaye struggled to find and keep full time jobs, working for various federal agencies. His most lasting contribution during those years was drafting a report that led to the creation of the White Mountains National Forest. MacKaye’s professional struggles were mirrored in his personal life. His engagement to the investigative (and controversial) journalist Mabel "Lucy" Abbott failed shortly after the end of his employment at Harvard, but in 1915 he married the social reformer and prominent feminist, Jessie Hardy "Betty" Stubbs. Shortly after their marriage, the Forest Service reassigned MacKaye to the Midwest, where he worked for a number of years studying the impact of clear cutting on local communities and writing progressive proposals for his superiors, none of which gained any traction.

In 1920, he left federal service and tried his hand as a journalist in Milwaukee while Betty became prominent in various social and political reform groups, especially those advocating for female suffrage and those advocating for rethinking sexual relations between men and women. Controversy surrounding Betty's proposal for a "bride strike," in which women would withhold sex from their husbands as a way of forcing men to disavow violence and war, cost MacKaye his job at the Milwaukee Leader, and the couple returned to New York City in late 1920. Shortly after their relocation to New York, Betty's mental state deteriorated, and in early 1921, she committed suicide by throwing herself into the East River and drowning.

Not surprisingly, MacKaye was shattered by his wife's death. Charles Harris Whitaker, an old friend with similar ideological convictions and a similar New England upbringing, invited MacKaye to spend time at his home in the country in hopes of finding solace after the tragedy. While there, MacKaye drafted the essay for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects that became the proposal for the Appalachian Trail.

Benton MacKaye's proposed map of an Appalachian Trail

MacKaye's first map of the Appalachian Trail

Benton MacKaye's proposed map for the Appalachian Trail (1925)

MacKaye's map for the first ATC meeting (1925)

The AT Proposal

Ironically, according to biographer Larry Anderson, Betty MacKaye's death "was the turning point of a lifetime, the event that set [MacKaye] on a path to his greatest social contributions.” While in residence at Whitaker's farm, MacKaye began pulling together his ideas about regional planning, social change, conservation, and the importance of time in nature for the average citizen. Whitaker introduced MacKaye to Clarence S. Stein, who headed the Committee on Community Planning of the American Institute of Architects, and Stein became interested in MacKaye's belief that a new kind of community planning could be organized around a network of trails.

Whitaker also encouraged MacKaye's more progressive views. Both men agreed that focusing on not for profit, volunteer projects that would help create "a socialized outdoor life for the workers of the nation" that would help cure American society of the problems capitalism, industrial exploitation of the environment, and rapid technological change had created. 

Ultimately, their discussions helped MacKaye formulate the essay Whitaker helped edit that was ultimately published in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects in October 1921. MacKaye wanted his proposed Trail to be more than just a path through the woods. It would be, he hoped, a place where people could find solutions to “the problem of living” caused by world war, economic dislocation, and the ever increasing stresses of urban society. Because this trail was to be built for the people who toiled in the great cities of the Eastern Seaboard, it should be located as close to those cities as possible along the ridges of the Appalachian mountains, and should include a series of “shelter camps” that would be “at convenient distances so as to allow a comfortable day’s walk between each.”

MacKaye’s back to nature utopianism also included the future development of what he called “community camps” that would not be “real estate ventures,” but rather would be “self-owned” communities that would remain small, and would promote various non-industrial uses of nature—recreation, recuperation, scientific investigation, and even outdoor education programs. He also hoped that one day “food and farm camps” would develop near the proposed Trail that could supply the nutritional needs of those in the community camps and hikers in the wilderness. These too would be cooperative ventures that provided opportunities for urban dwellers to return to the land.

To his and Whitaker's surprise, the proposal for a long distance hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachians found a ready audience among the hiking community in the Northeast. Two months after the essay appeared, MacKaye spoke to the New England Trail Conference. Leaders of this organization had already been working on ideas to link their various trail networks in New England, but were excited by MacKaye's much larger vision. Where MacKaye's vision different from theirs, however, was in the matter of ideology. MacKaye saw his Appalachian Trail as a project in social transformation, while for many in the hiking community, a trail was a recreational resource. This difference in outlook often put MacKaye at odds with those who began to work to realize his proposal.

Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery

Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery, 1935

Success and Failure

The representatives of the trail clubs who convened in Washington, D.C., in March 1925, agreed to form an “Appalachian Trail Conference.” While MacKaye was the featured speaker, author of the ATC’s constitution, and his talk was the highlight of the two-day event, he was not selected to serve on the new organization’s executive committee. According to biographer Larry Anderson, MacKaye’s omission from the ATC’s governing board was “a harbinger of the ambiguity of his future role and reputation in the conference.”

According to Anderson, the project MacKaye had originally proposed, which was to be a solution to “the problem of living,” had become a recreational endeavor taken over by, "well-educated middle-class professionals--lawyers, engineers, scientists--and government officials. The labor unions and settlement houses MacKaye had included in his early depiction of the project were not involved...The challenge it offered to capitalism, urbanism, and industrialism was already subtle at best."

Over the ensuing decade, MacKaye became increasingly disillusioned with the course of the AT project, especially with the Conference’s second chairman, Myron Avery. MacKaye and Avery ultimately fell out over the question of how the ATC should respond to the National Park Service’s plan to build Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. MacKaye opposed the Drive as an intrusion on the wilderness that he hoped to preserve for hikers on the Trail. Avery was much more focused on completing the Trail as a continuous footpath from Maine to Georgia, and thus was willing to compromise with the Park Service in order to bring the project to its conclusion.

At 10th annual meeting of the ATC, held in Shenandoah National Park, their differences spilled into the open. In his presentation to the Conference, MacKaye argued that, "the Appalachian Trail is a wilderness trail, or it is nothing." Avery responded that it was necessary to encourage federal agencies to help relocate bits of the Trail when their new forest roads impinged on it, otherwise the continuous trail might never be completed. Avery then staged what amounted to a coup, convincing delegates at the meeting to pass a series of changes to ATC bylaws that gave him and his supporters more of a voice in the executive committee’s decisions and marginalizing MacKaye and his friends.

Following the annual 1935 annual meeting, MacKaye wrote to Avery, "Here then is the first issue between us. You are for a connected trail--whether or not wilderness. I am for a wilderness trail--whether or not connected." An ensuing series of increasingly bitter letters between the two men led to a permanent breach between them, after which they never spoke again.

Benton MacKaye

Benton MacKaye

Later Life

Benton MacKaye's professional career revolved around the federal government agencies tasked with managing the natural resources of the country and from 1933-1945, he worked in a variety of capacities for various federal agencies. In 1933, there was a brief stint with the Indian Service (later Bureau of Indian Affairs) that took him to South Dakota, New Mexico, and Arizona where he was charged with organizing Native Americans into conservation crews similar to those of the Civilian Conservation Corps. As was too often the case in his professional life, MacKaye managed to get himself fired from this position after only a few months.

The following year, he took a job with the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority, where he hoped to see his grand ideas about regional planning, watershed management, and wilderness conservation implemented on a large scale. MacKaye's views ultimately did not prevail with the leadership of the TVA and he lost his job in a reshuffling of the TVA staff. Over the next decade, he returned to the Forest Service for a time, then there was a stint with the Rural Electrification Administration. But MacKaye was never cut out for long-term employment in any agency.

A much more notable success in his later years was his role as one of the founding fathers of the Wilderness Society in 1935. The Society's stated goal was to fight for the preservation of America's remaining wild places in the face of pressures from developers, loggers, mining interests and national and state government agencies. Perhaps the single biggest success of the Society was its role in the passage of the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964. MacKaye served as president of the Society from 1945-50 and remained active with the organization until the end of his life.

In 1966, Secretary of the Interior, Morris Udall, traveled to Shirley Center to present MacKaye with the Department's Conservation Service Award. Typical of MacKaye, he used the occasion to present the Secretary with the draft of a plan for a Continental Divide Trail, and he was gratified to learn that the Department's planners were already at work on just such a trail project (today's CDT). When Congress passed the National Trails Systems Act in 1968, MacKaye was invited to the White House for the signing ceremony, but was by then too old to make the trip. 

From 1945, until his death a 96 in 1975, MacKaye continued to promote wilderness conservation,  helped lay out nature trails in Shenandoah National Park, held forth on various regional planning initiatives, and generally played the role of elder statesman from his home in Shirley Center. After the death of his old antagonist Myron Avery in 1952, MacKaye reconnected with the Appalachian Trail community, occasionally attending meetings of the various trail maintaining clubs and contributing brief notes of encouragement to their newsletters. But the leadership of the Appalachian Trail project had passed permanently from his hands at the first meeting of the ATC, when he was not elected to the board, and then most publicly with his rift with Avery in 1935. His vision, however, remains a guiding force for Trail supporters and users.