Part 1. Dentons and Campbells lead a 170-mile relocation of the Appalachian Trail
Since its founding by faculty and staff of Roanoke and Hollins colleges as well as a mostly-female hiking club called The Nomads, RATC was a social outdoors club composed of middle class professionals. Photos of the Dentons and Campbells show bespectacled, fun-loving, nerd-like characters who loved the outdoors and organized much of their lives around the club. The Dentons moved further north and became leaders in the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club by the late 1950s, and there is a shelter named after them on the PATC section.ii Tom Campbell was an accountant at the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, then headquartered in Roanoke, and he remained a leader in both the RATC and the Appalachian Trail Conference until the mid-1970s. A shelter near McAfee Knob is named after him.
Although it differs substantially from the current route, the hallmark of this massive relocation is the RATC’s partnership with federal and state agencies to assure a permanent, protected footpath with significant wilderness elements. For example, Denton’s 1949 proposed route left Tinker Mountain, omitting McAfee Knob in favor of US Forest Service land on North Mountain (the current North Mountain Trail). The footpath then generally followed Forest Service property to Hungry Mother State Park and on to Damascus.
On the northernmost part of the RATC section, from Black Horse Gap to Salt Pond, Denton and others worked with both the National Park Service and the US Forest Service to move the AT away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here is how Denton described the plan at RATC’s 1949 Annual Meeting:
As most of you know, the Blue Ridge Parkway has all but taken the route of the Appalachian Trail in this section. I proposed to Mr. Avery, chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference, that a relocation could be made away from the parkway and a wilderness aspect of the trail. On this suggestion, Mr. Avery organized a meeting at which several of our members, Mr. Weems, Supervisor of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Mr. John. Sieker, Chief, Division of Land and Recreation, of the United State Forest Service, were present. It was agreed that since the Park Service was obligated to relocate the trail away from the Parkway it would be advisable to relocate the trail to best advantage. This route will be within the bounds of the Jefferson National Forest.
Mr. Cochran, Supervisor of the Jefferson National Forest, has agreed that the route is satisfactory to his office and that the section of trail would come under the Appalachian Trailway Agreement. [Cochran’s son, Bill, became the Outdoors reporter for the Roanoke Times, and he has donated many materials to the RATC archives.]
With this much to work on, several of us have blazed a route from South Pond Road to Black Horse Tavern Gap. The Park Service, when they are ready to build the trail, will expect us to mark the trail so that their workmen can follow the route. This will entail several trips to the area, and I urge you to come out and help when this job has to be done. If this project goes through it will add a nice hiking section to our area and a good solution to a tough problem so for as the Appalachian Trail is concerned.
As he completed his second and final year as the club’s president, Denton noted that he was now a member of the Appalachian Trail Conference’s Board of Managers, where he would push for true completion of the Trail. “If I can find the time, I promise to make myself a nuisance by continually harping on the subject. Any work which we put in is one step toward the final goal.”
By the end of 1952, Jim Denton and Tom Campbell reported that 60 miles of the relocation had been completed, with an 11.29-mile section between Va 621 and Va 311 (current McAfee Knob parking) fully described.iii The section includes Dragon’s Tooth and was rougher than the current route. One advantage for hikers: they could take a bus to both Va 621 and Va 311. Denton and Campbell recommended leaving a car at Va 311, taking the bus to Va 621 and walking back to their cars. And they asked for help in creating a good impression with local residents:
It should be remembered that part of the Trail is on privately-owned land. If any Trail traveler sees any of the people along the route, please make it a point to have a talk with them and let them know what you are doing. The Roanoke A.T.C. has had to do quite a bit of missionary work along this relocation and any ‘advertising’ that the hiker can do do and good will he can create will be welcome.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s 1960 AT guide described the results of this relocation:iv
[The original AT route] afforded some outstanding views and access to the remarkable Pinnacles of Dan and the Dan River Gorge, as well as Fishers Peak. However, with the gradual improvement of old roads and resultant increasing use, and the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway virtually along the Trail route, it became clear it was no longer a suitable location.
Accordingly, a project was developed to re-route the Trail far to the west in the Jefferson National Forest. First proposed in 1940, World War II delayed action, but in 1951 the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club began the work of scouting, locating, clearing and marking the new Trail route. By 1955 it was completed [Ed. note: not exactly!].
The new, i. e., the present, route is an outstanding trail in a superb location.
The actual work of relocation was extremely challenging. Details from Tom Campbell will be part of a future article. Furthermore, the relocation had just begun and would continue into the late 1980s. Stay tuned for more news from the RATC archives!
For many years, the RATC’s archives lived in the basements of its former presidents. Thanks to people like Bill Gordge, Blanche Brower, Dick Clark and Michael Vaughn, we have begun to assemble, inventory and scan the records since our founding in 1932. If you have records, photos or stories you want to share, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Minutes of January 5, 1940 RATC Annual Meeting, RATC Archives.
ii Thomas Johnson, PATC: A History of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 2020.
iii Cambell, T. and Denton, J.,”Southwest Virginia: Portion of relocation open for use,” Appalachian Trailway News, January 1953, p. 1-2. Many thanks for ATC’s director of publishing, Brian King, for scanning articles from this ATC magazine and emailing them to me for this article.
iv Guide To The Appalachian Trail In Central And Southwest Virginia. SWVirginia. U.S. 11 at Cloverdale – Va. 16. Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Fifth Edition 1960. This section of the guide was almost certainly written by Campbell and Denton. Many thanks to independent researcher James McNeely for making me aware of this resource.