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Community and “the Care of the Countryside”: Benton MacKaye’s Original Conception of the Appalachian Trail

In April 2021, I helped organize an on-line “virtual symposium” with a small group to discuss a theme we described as “Civic Responsibility and the Conservationist.” The event was instigated by Alan French, a Massachusetts businessman (now retired) and activist (still very active), who spearheaded the completion of the Bay Circuit Trail, a 230-mile walking route through the outer suburbs of Boston, along an arc from Plum Island in the north to Duxbury in the south. I’ve known Al French since the early 1990s, when he was at the beginning of his trail-building quest. We share a common interest in the ideas, life, and accomplishments of Benton MacKaye (1879-1975), the long-time Massachusetts resident and visionary conservationist best known for his conception of the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye had also played a significant role during the 1920s and 1930s in conceiving and promoting the “Bay Circuit,” a plan to create a circumferential greenway of connected open spaces surrounding Boston, in the terrain now bounded by two major Interstate Highways, routes 495 and 95. The Bay Circuit was never developed on the scale originally envisioned. But Al French, in the early 1990s, launched the effort to build a footpath (which follows bike paths in some locations) along the route of the original Bay Circuit.

Al had noted that MacKaye, throughout his life, regularly organized various gatherings—some ad hoc and loosely structured, others more durable and formal—to share thoughts and ideas on a wide range of subjects. Over the years, inspired by MacKaye, Al has asked me to help organize several “Benton MacKaye Symposiums,” as he likes to call them. The year 2021 represented a particularly timely occasion to hold another. It was just a century earlier, in 1921, that MacKaye published his history-making, pathbreaking article first proposing the Appalachian Trail. Appearing in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” immediately lit a fire under hikers, conservationists, and public officials throughout the region spanned by the Appalachian Mountain range. By 1937, primarily through the efforts of volunteer enthusiasts, a hiking path of some 2,000 miles was completed along the mountain ridgeline from Maine to Georgia.

Benton MacKaye’s original map depicting the Appalachian Trail, accompanying his article “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, October 1921.

A dozen of us with some connection to Al French and the Bay Circuit participated in the April 2021 conversation. Each of us offered a five-minute presentation related to the theme of “civic responsibility and the conservationist.” These presentations provided a basis for further discussion. Included below is my contribution to the conversation.

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Exactly one hundred years ago today, April 14, 1921, Benton MacKaye had unknowingly arrived at possibly the most consequential moment of his life. At age 42, he was without a job or any concrete career prospects. In fact, he had retreated to the farm of an old friend, a surveyor, engineer, and socialist, Rotus Eastman, in southern Quebec, just over the Vermont line, to gather maple sap and take stock of his future. The next day, he received an urgent telegram from friends in New York City, reporting that his wife, Jessie Hardy Stubbs MacKaye, known to family and friends as Betty, was in serious distress. He immediately caught a train back to New York by way of Boston. Two days later, Betty’s body was recovered from the East River, an apparent suicide. It was the turning point of MacKaye’s lifetime. Six months later, his article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. That article changed the trajectory of his life – and has ever since significantly influenced the direction and purpose of the American conservation and environmental movements.

The word “conservation” does not appear in the article. Nor does the phrase “civic responsibility.” The words “wilderness” or “wilds” appear three times. But the words “community” and “communities” appear more than 25 times. For Benton MacKaye, the central purpose of his initial Appalachian Trail proposal was the creation and nurturing of human communities. The spirit and substance of his proposal, I believe, encompass the link between what we now might call “civic responsibility” and “conservation.”

In his lengthy, somewhat discursive article, MacKaye took a while to get to the specific description of his vision. He wrote:

[T]his is the job that we propose: a project to develop the opportunities—for recreation, recuperation, and employment—in the region of the Appalachian skyline.

The project is one for a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, these to be connected by a walking trail. Its purpose is to establish a base for a more extensive and systematic development of outdoor community life. It is a project in housing and community architecture.

So these were three principal purposes of his scheme: recreation, recuperation, and employment. Among these three purposes, the second – recuperation – assumes a special poignancy in MacKaye’s case, that would have been understood by only a handful of the article’s first readers. He wrote:

The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a natural resource (and a national resource) … that could save thousands of lives. The sufferers of tuberculosis, anemia, and insanity go through the whole strata of human society. Most of them are helpless, even those economically well off. They occur in the cities and right in the skyline belt. For the farmers, and especially the wives of farmers, are by no means escaping the grinding-down process of our modern life.

Most sanitariums now established are perfectly useless to those afflicted with mental disease—the most terrible, usually, of any disease. Many of these sufferers could be cured. But not merely by “treatment.” They need acres not medicine. Thousands of acres of this mountain land should be devoted to them with whole communities planned and equipped for their cure.

Along with his wife, MacKaye had opposed American intervention in World War I. Perhaps thinking of Betty’s frustrated public advocacy, during her last days, in support of a world peace movement, MacKaye saw the Appalachian Trail project as an act of genuine patriotism, grounded in love for the land. Citing Harvard philosopher and mountain hiker William James, he likened it to a “moral equivalent of war.”

I’ll conclude with the final paragraph of MacKaye’s pathbreaking 1921 article:

Here is a job for 40,000 souls. This trail could be made to be, in a very literal sense, a battle line against fire and flood—and even against disease. Such battles—against the common enemies of man—still lack, it is true, “the punch” of man vs. man. There is but one reason—publicity. Militarism has been made colorful in a world of drab. But the care of the countryside, which the scouting life instills, is vital in any real protection of “home and country.” Already basic, it can be made spectacular. Here is something to be dramatized.

Benton MacKaye’s high-minded and inspirational rhetoric proved to be effective beyond his, or anyone else’s, realistic expectations. He demonstrated that “the care of the countryside … can be made spectacular.”♦