Conceived in the early 1900’s the Foothills Parkway set out to be a window looking into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the time, America was experiencing an age of motorization which enabled people to travel greater distances and enjoy scenery that was previously unavailable to the everyday man. The idea of the Foothills Parkway was created from the decision to block the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance into Tennessee.
Frank Maloney, Vice-president of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, recognized this loss for the local economy and worked with officials to conceive of and advance the Foothills Parkway idea. Maloney’s hard work paid off when Congress passed an act in 1944 for the creation of the parkway. Right-of-way rights and land were purchased throughout Cocke, Sevier, and Blount Counties in the 1950’s. However, construction did not begin until the 1960’s.
Years of low federal funding delayed and stalled the parkways progress. By the 1970’s less than thirty percent of the parkway had been completed. Geotechnical disasters and funding continued to plague the project well into the 1990’s. Currently, the completed portions of the parkway serve as important economic drivers and vehicular connectors for numerous cities and counties. It connects U.S. Route 129 along the Little Tennessee River and Interstate 40 along the Pigeon River. In total the Foothills Parkway is 71 miles in length and is the oldest unfinished highway project in the state of Tennessee.
I had the opportunity to visit the portion which extends between Walland and Wears Valley. The construction of this portion began in the early 1980’s and was stopped due to local stream contamination with sulfuric acid as well as erosion. This portion was redesigned in the early 1990’s and construction commenced once more in 1994. This missing link section would consist of bridges, walls and structural fills. Bridges 2, 8, 9, and 10 have all been completed.
The National Park Service closed this section of the Parkway to hikers and trail users in December 2010. Bridge two construction began in 2009 and was funded by the Title 23 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The remaining bridges three through seven are funded by Title 23, the Federal Lands Transportation Program and by multiple Federal Highways Appropriations. The Parkway crews recently completed bridge two and have a goal set to complete the remaining bridges and roadways by 2016, which is the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. This would make for a great celebration!
Standing on the bridges, the views of the Appalachian mountain range and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are absolutely stunning. You truly feel removed from the hustle and bustle of the Parks busy roadways and the highway which runs through Townsend. Bridge two sought to have a small impact on the mountain side and restrict the footprint which the construction crews could access. A fourteen foot wide cut was the set maximum width that the crews could work within.
Construction of the bridge began in 2009 and recently completed slightly behind schedule. The bridge is a 790’ long pre-cast, post-tensioned segmental concrete box girder bridge with two abutments, four precast piers and stone masonry veneer. In more simple language, it was a huge seemingly free floating bridge.
The minimal impact by construction retained a large portion of mature tree canopy. It seems, therefore, that the bridge is floating on the tree tops gliding around the side of the mountain. It truly is a technological wonder and a slick design. Construction for bridges three through seven are currently underway by Lane Construction of Charlotte North Carolina. This construction includes installing modular block retaining walls, cleaning for additional bridges, and revegetation efforts.
In and off itself the project truly is a feat to behold. Even more impressive is the numerous entities which have participated in this highway development. The National Park Service, the Federal Highways Administration, the Denver Service Center (which has an onsite Landscape Architect), Hedstrom Design (a landscape architecture firm out of Knoxville), and numerous construction crews. I certainly have not even begun to list all of the parties involved.
Fingers crossed, the Foothills Parkway will escape the devastating effects of the economic recession, congressional indecision, and environmental hiccups and achieve its completion goal of 2016 for the National Parks Service’s Centennial.