Appalachian Trail Histories


MacKaye's Vision: Social Idealism and Economic Reality

Benton MacKaye on the Appalachian Trail near Newfound Gap

Early AT advocate Benton MacKaye along the trail.

In 1921, Benton MacKaye penned his proposal for an Appalachian Trail project. His vision: To provide an antidote for the social ills afflicting the denizens of the industrial urban centers of the East Coast.

The Appalachian Trail was meant to loosen the yoke of drudgery that industry had placed around the neck of the American worker by providing much needed opportunities for leisure away from the noise and foul air of the city.

MacKaye envisioned the establishment of small, planned communities dedicated to the purposes of cooperative work and recreation at various points upon the trail. These communal farms would provide a place where frazzled factory workers could enjoy a respite from urban stress while directing their leisure time into agricultural productivity. Inhabitants of these rural areas would then share in the benefits of these not-for-profit enterprises.

Of course, this is not how things worked out. One could easily make the argument that the establishment of the Appalachian Trail has fulfilled MacKaye’s promise of leisure for overstressed urbanites. However, rather than providing an idyllic backdrop for harmonious collectives of workers, the AT has instead thrown an economic lifeline to rural communities on the brink of extinction.