Shenandoah National Park: A Future for Brook Trout with a Sordid Past
Updated: Mar 19
Stretching north to south from central to northern Virginia stands Shenandoah National Park. Almost 200,000 acres of nearly all dedicated wilderness area that has been set aside in the Appalachians to secure a pristine stretch of mountains, forests, and tumbling streams. Every strand of water that falls from rain and springs begin to collect in small hollows, still surrounded by hemlock and rhododendrons. Maples fill in the canopy, and spring time fills the woods with floating plates of white dogwood blossoms. These streams are untouched by pollution and, as soon as they are a solid enough flow, hold ample amounts of brooke trout. This is a popular destination for camping, hiking, and most of all fly fishing.
However, this wilderness was not always so. The Park was signed into law in 1923 during the Coolidge administration, the same time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created. Plenty of families, farms, and orchards were already located in the proposed park area. Around 5,000 separate plots of land were identified and Imminent Domain was claimed by the Virginia to reclaim the land. In the early 1930's Governor Byrd stepped up efforts to reclaim these parcels. Originally the park would gain land as the tenants passed away, but now direct removal was put into place. Publications like Hollow Folk and cartoons like lil' Abner and Dogpatch painted a hillbilly perspective of the area; an area essential for reclamation and a people in need.
It is true that the mainly agricultural area did have a rough spell in the early 1930's. The chestnut tree, which was timbered trough out the area, suffered a terrible blight. Still to this day efforts are being taken to try to re-establish it's species. There was also a drought that vastly effected crop production. However, rural mountain folks understand how to make it through tough times. Education was still available, and local jobs throughout the Shenandoah Valley in a growing textiles and tourism industry was emerging. This was the Great Depression after all, and not many were doing really well.
Many did take direct payouts from the government in an opportunity to relocate. Towns like Front Royal, Luray, Harrisonburg, and Waynesboro were growing, offering jobs and housing. However, not everyone wished to leave. Some were able to stay, a lot of elderly that would continue to honor the transference of land upon death. Others were forcibly removed by local authorities and by the mid 1930's the park officially opened. The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) was the main labor behind the camp. They built trails, cleared land of the dead chestnut trees, and burned the cabins of former residents to prevent them from coming back and trying to resettle. Only one person retained their private property in Shenandoah National Park, one George Freeman Pollack, who's resort is now named Skyland Resort and offers lodging to this day.
Almost a hundred years later it is easy to forget any of this history when you are on the water. Trees have filled the orchards and farmlands, laurel surrounds the streams, and ferns and wildflowers draw the eyes to the natural world. Sometimes my eye catches something a little too geometric, though. I've found remains of fireplaces, or old paths where one shouldn't be. It makes me think of what it must have been like 150 years ago. No electricity, no running water, but tucked into a small hollow with a little stream and subsistence farming. How different our lives are in such a short span of time.
But then I get back to fly fishing because those brook trout are rising for BWO's... also not used 150 years ago!