Myron Halliburton Avery (1899-1952) was the person most responsible for the completion of the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s and was also the staunchest defender of the Trail from the time he assumed the chairmanship of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in 1931, until his death in 1952. In addition, he co-founded the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in 1927, and helped to spawn a number of other trail maintaining clubs along sections of the trail south of the PATC's territory in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania. Respected by almost everyone he met, Avery was not generally popular with many in the trail clubs, the National Park Service, and other federal agencies, largely because his greatest strength--his relentless drive--was also his greatest weakness. During his many years as the leader of the ATC, Avery became the first person to walk the entire length of the Trail, one section at a time. His demanding nature, his acerbic, often confrontational writing style, and his unwillingness to compromise meant that in addition to leading the completion of the Appalachian Trail, he also left a trail of broken friendships and broken professional relationships when he died at 53.
Myron Avery was born in Lubec, Maine, a small fishing town right on the U.S./Canadian border. After graduating from high school in 1916 as the class Valedictorian, Avery left Lubec for Bowdoin College, where he likewise excelled as a student, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors. From Bowdoin, he went on to Harvard Law School in 1920, earning his bachelor of laws degree in 1923. After graduation from law school, Avery worked as a law clerk in Connecticut, but within a short time had accepted a position as an admiralty lawyer in the U.S. Maritime Commission, a role in which he continued until his death, interrupted only by active duty in the Navy during World War II.
During his post-law school years, Avery began a project that consumed most of his free time--an investigation of the early explorations of Maine's Mount Katahdin, the eventual northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. At the time Avery began his study of Katahdin and its surrounding region, it was a mountain known primarily to those who lived nearby, or to the most avid hikers in New England. Renowned for its beauty and known also as a challenging, if not dangerous, hiking destination, Katahdin became Avery's obsession. That obsessiveness, as his biographer Jeffrey H. Ryan says, "utlimately cost him important spheres of support and assuredly contributed to his early death."
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
On November 22, 1927, a group of six men gathered in downtown Washington, D.C., for the first meeting of the "Washington Group of Appalachian Trail Workers." These men--Myron Avery, Frank Schairer, Laurence Schmeckebeier, Homer Corson, H.C. Anderson, and P.L. Ricker--came together that evening to report on their efforts to find a route through Northern Virginia for the Appalachian Trail, and to establish a formal trail club in the D.C. area. They agreed that evening that it would be possible to construct a section of the new Appalachian Trail from at least Stony Man Mountain (in what became Shenandoah National Park) and South Mountain in Maryland without too much difficulty. Having satisfied themselves that the trail project could begin, they turned to the establishment of the local trail club.
That club, they decided, should be named the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), and that Myron Avery should be the club's first president. Initiation fees for new membes were set at $1.00 and members were expected to contribute labor toward the building and eventually the maintaining of the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, through Maryland, and eventually into southern Pennsylvania. The following February, members of the new club cut their first stretch of trail between Ashby Gap (Paris, VA) and Manassas Gap (Linden, VA). Over the next four years, the PATC, with assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cut, marked, and took over supervision of more than 250 miles of the Appalachian Trail from the Susquehanna River to Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. From the very start, Avery had been the prime mover in the founding and then operations of the PATC. It was Avery who called that first meeting in November 1927, and it was Avery who served as the Club's president for the next 13 years.
In addition to his work with the PATC, Avery took a hands on interest in the creation of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Given his deep personal attachment to Mount Katahdin and to his home state, it was only natural that he would do so. However, Avery's brusque nature, his general intolerance for the ideas of others, and his often tactless correspondence brought him into direct conflict with the leadership of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which had taken on the Maine section of the Trail as their project. Avery's rows with the AMC leadership were the stuff of legend and ended with a permanent rupture, a reality that made his eventual chairmanship of the Appalachian Trail Conference a more challenging task.
The Appalachian Trail Conference
Shortly after the founding of the PATC, Avery began lobbying Judge Arthur Perkins, the chairman of the ATC, to hold a second conference of that organization in Washington, D.C. Perkins agreed, and at the second meeting of the Conference in 1928, Avery was named to both the board and the executive committee of the organization. Avery and Perkins agreed that it was time to move the ATC from ideas to action and so it was only natural that a "doer" like Avery should take a more prominent role in the Conference's affairs.
In 1930, Judge Perkins suffered a series of strokes and asked Avery to assume the title of Acting Chairman of the Conference, ultimately taking over as Chairman following Perkins' death in 1932. Over the next 20 years, Avery imposed strict discipline on the Appalachian Trail project, taking a personal interest in everything from how the Trail should be marked (and later blazed), to how trail maintaining clubs should be organized, to the intricacies of trail maintenance. As with everything in his life, he brought a perfectionist's sensibility to the work, often bruising the feelings of volunteers up and down the length of the Trail.
But the most famous, or infamous, falling out Avery had was with Benton MacKaye. The issue that ultimately divided them was the plans of the National Park Service to build Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. MacKaye strenuously objected to this plan, arguing that it would ruin the "wilderness" character of the Trail in the park, but Avery was much more interested in simply getting the Trail completed and was in no mood to challenge federal authorities on this issue, especially because he was simulatenously working with them in Maine to use CCC crews to help complete the Trail there. At the 10th meeting of the ATC, held at Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park, Avery and MacKaye's disagreement boiled over and in an ensuing exchange of increasingly bitter letters, the two broke permanently with one another. MacKaye stepped away from the Appalachian Trail project until after Avery's death and there is no evidence that this troubled Avery at all.
Preserving the Trail
In many ways, Avery's greatest challenge was holding the Appalachian Trail project together through the connected crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Financing the building and maintaining of the Appalachian Trail was always a challenge, a challenge made much worse by the Great Depression. As ATC Chairman, Avery constantly lobbied the various trail clubs to do as much as possible to raise funds to help care for the Trail, but those efforts were largely unsuccessful given the nature of the economic crisis. If it had not been for the unfailing devotion to the project by hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers throughout the 1930s, the Trail likely would have faded back into the forests. During those years, perhaps no one put in more time on the Trail than Myron Avery.
The Second World War proved to be a much bigger crisis for the Appalachian Trail. Like almost every other able bodied man of his generation, Avery mustered into the Navy following Pearl Harbor and remained on active duty until 1947. During the war years the Trail was largely let to care for itself and to no one's surprise, had substantially deteriorated by the end of the war. With characteristic drive and will, Avery returned to more active leadership of the ATC after the war and exhorted the various trail clubs to survey their sections, clear those areas that had been damaged or overgrown, and to do everything in their power to restore the Trail to its proper condition.
This would be Myron Avery's last great contribution to the Appalachian Trail project. The stress of holding down what amounted to two full time jobs--as a maritime lawyer and as the leader of the ATC (not to mention also being president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, a position he took after the war), was too much for Avery. On July 26, 1952, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Avery's greatest legacy to the Appalachian Trail was turning what was a big idea with lots of enthusiastic support into a reality supported by well structured local trail clubs that have maintained the Trail every since. Those who knew him best respected his accomplishments, even as they regretted the way he treated them.