Appalachian Trail Histories

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There have only been eleven murders since the early 1970s, making the Appalachian Trail seem relatively safe. Most considered the outdoors to be an escape from soicety, and an escape from the dangers that came with civilization. However, somewhere between May 24, 1996, and June 1, 1996, Julianne Williams and Laura Winans were brutally murdered along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. This murder was not only signifcant because it took place in a relatively popular location, but because the victims were also lesbian lovers.

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All along the Appalachian Trail hikers encounter remnants of the communities that once dotted the mountains through which the Trail passes. Stone walls, disordered cemeteries, bits of barbed wire on a rotting post, or a chimney standing alone in the trees often greet hikers as they pass north or south along the Trail.

In some cases the mountain communities that have faded away were much larger than the average Trail visitor might think, given the density of the forests and seeming wildness of the terrain. In 1930, more than 800 people lived on lands that today make up Shenandoah National Park. Few of the structures from those communities remain, either because the Park Service removed them, especially along Skyline Drive, or because the Park administrators decided to let the buildings rot away on their own.

One such remnant of the human past in the Park is the ruins of Pocosin Mission, one of many Episcopal misssion sites built along the Blue Ridge Mountains beginning in 1905. Little is left of that once thriving mission -- part of a wooden structure, some foundation walls, and the concrete steps leading up to what was once the front door of a small church.

Hikers who visit the site, less than a mile downhill from Pocosin Cabin which sits astride the Trail, can stop and imagine what it must have been like to live and work at the mission, or what it must have been like to be a member of the mountain communities that were the object of the missionarie's zeal.

The Appalachian Trail traverses history as well as Geography. In Virginia, the trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, established in 1935, as one of the first National Parks (along with Great Smokey Mountain and Mammoth Caves National Parks) in the Eastern United States and in the South. This presented a challenge to the National Park Service. The National Parks in other parts of the country were full integrated, at least in theory. Now that there were to be National Parks in the Jim Crow south, the Park Service was faced with the unsavory prospect of segregation in the new parks. The National Park Service policy at the time was to comply with local law and that meant the park would be segregated. This decision did not go down easily with everyone. From the Park’s beginning, African Americans and their white allies spoke out against the policy.

Nonetheless, initially at least the plan was for segregated facilities in Shenandoah National Park. Facilities for White visitors were constructed in the new park, while facilities for African Americans lagged behind. Complaints about the lack of facilities for African Americans were brushed off. As luck would have it, the Department of the Interior, of which the National Park Service is a sub-agency, was led by Harold Ickes, a longtime supporter of African American civil rights. Harold Ickes, aided by his advisor on Negro Affairs, William J. Trent, Jr., pushed for the creation of facilities for African Americans in Shenandoah National Park, but at the same time worked for desegregation of the entire park. Eventually a facility for African Americans was constructed, the campground at Lewis Mountain, but Ickes continued to push for desegregation and after World War II, the signs for segregated facilities quietly came down, the park was desegregated.

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