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Trail of Years
After six and a half contentious decades, the Natchez Trace Parkway nears completion.
By Chris Fordney

photo by Bill Witmer

Go west on Broadway in Nashville, past the country music bars and the panhandlers and the wanna-bes strumming guitars in dark doorways, past the suburban sprawl on the west side of the city, into the countryside of Tennessee, and you come to the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Go south on the parkway just a few miles and you can plunge into dark, thick woods and walk on the historical trace, still a sunken, muddy path with just a hint of the old menace of the trail, where outlaws were known to disembowel their victims and fill their abdomens with stones to keep their bodies at the bottom of the swamps where they were dumped.

The long, rich, and often bloody history of the Natchez Trace (named for an Indian tribe wiped out by the French in the 18th century), which began as an animal and Indian path, has always been the driving force behind its preservation as a scenic road, and that makes the parkway unique among the system of national parkways in that it commemorates an earlier transportation route. Begun in 1937, the 445-mile scenic road between Nashville and Natchez, Mississippi, is now nearing completion at a cost of roughly half a billion dollars and, with the exception of the final segments of the Foothills Parkway around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, will finish the parkways that arose as make-work projects during the Depression. And with shifts in environmental and road-building practices, that may spell the end of the parkway era in U.S. history. "I don't know that you'll ever see another one like it," said Bill Witmer, a landscape architect with the National Park Service's Denver Service Center.

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