Benton MacKaye: A Wilderness Visionary
Why is it that the beauty of nature must be spoiled by Man? Man, though the highest of beings, is, in one [sense], the lowest, never contented until he has spoiled all the beauty of nature in his power by cutting down vegetation, killing animals, and even cutting down hills when he has the power to do so …Emile Benton MacKaye was born on March 6, 1879, the fifth of six children, to a family deeply burdened with financial troubles. It was months before they named their newborn son, who was referred to in the interim as "Little Mr. Nemo." When he was finally given a name, it was derived from his paternal grandmother's name, Emily Benton Steele. His father, Steele MacKaye, was a struggling playwright in New York, and his mother, Mary, stayed at home in Stamford, although she was also occasionally involved in theatre (Anderson, 2002).
How much more beautiful the surrounding would be, in every way, if men were not such fools. -Benton MacKaye (Anderson, 2002, p. 2)
MacKaye's childhood was plagued with a succession of moves, as his father continued to squander whatever earnings he made in the theatre. Finally, his brother William, the second oldest, obtained a modest family estate in the small village of Shirley Center, Massachusetts. In July of 1888, the eight-year-old MacKaye moved with his family into "The Cottage," as they came to call it. He was immediately enamored with the beauty and freedom of the country and proclaimed he enjoyed it far more than urban existence. Tragically, William died the following winter of a respiratory disease, but the family cherished his legacy. The Shirley Cottage would become MacKaye's true home for the remainder of his long life (Anderson, 2002).
Although he had a passion for learning, MacKaye was an indifferent student. He once wrote that school "might be defined as a place that boys like to run away from" (Anderson, 2002, p.18). In 1890, his family took a trip to Washington, DC, and he spent many days at the Smithsonian Institution gaining a more valuable education, in his estimation, than the one offered in the schoolhouse. Encouraged by his brothers, MacKaye spent his days drawing and taking notes on the different specimens of birds and other wildlife (Anderson).
In February 1894, Steele passed away, and MacKaye became the man of the household, as his older brothers were attending college. He wrestled with the emotional turbulence resulting from the loss of his father whom he had seen so little. As he turned 15, however, he began to think more about the future and considered how to best prepare for the Harvard entrance examinations,. He enrolled at the Cambridge Latin School in September 1894 and moved in with family friends, the Davenports. MacKaye enjoyed living in Boston, but his situation at school was not so desirable. By December, he dropped out and decided to prepare for the entrance exams on his own. His determination paid off, and he was accepted into Harvard (Anderson, 2002).
The 17-year-old MacKaye registered at Harvard on October 1, 1896, and he was particularly enamored with his earth science courses. His professors, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and William Morris Davis, provided him with theories, techniques, and perspectives which he would carry for the rest of his life. MacKaye was fortunate to have two of the most influential figures in the emerging conservation movement, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, visit Harvard during his undergraduate studies. Muir was a writer, mountaineer, and founder of the Sierra Club, and Pinchot was chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, which later became the Forest Service. Both men spoke passionately about the challenges facing the American forests and wild lands, and MacKaye was moved by their enlightened views of the destructive fate of the wilderness (Anderson, 2002).
Following his freshman year, MacKaye embarked on his first hike in the mountains of northern New England. He was experiencing the undefiled wilderness for the first time, but other observers lamented the rapid destruction of the forest by rapacious logging companies. It was his experience atop his first mountain that changed the way he responded to the world around him (Anderson, 2002). He later reported to a friend: "I felt then how much I resembled in size one of the hairs on the eye tooth of a flea" (p. 37)
As his graduation from Harvard approached, MacKaye was uncertain of his career plans, and employment opportunities in forestry were limited. His brother, Percy, helped him secure a teaching position in New York City, and he reluctantly moved back to the "Big Apple." During the few years that he spent tutoring, however, the forestry profession began to firmly establish itself in America. MacKaye returned to Harvard in the fall of 1903 as the first student to ever pursue a graduate degree in forestry from the university, where he would remain, as both a student and instructor, for the following six and a half years (Anderson, 2002).
In 1909, MacKaye became secretly engaged to Mabel Foster Abbot, nicknamed "Lucy." His fiancée was a recent Radcliffe graduate intent on becoming a journalist, an ideal match for MacKaye. His forestry background and connections with the Forest Service provided Abbot with a ready subject, and she could help bring conservation issues into the public eye. The succession of Theodore Roosevelt by Howard Taft in March 1909 proved detrimental to the conservation movement, which had flourished under the Roosevelt administration, and the couple soon became involved in the controversy of Pinchot's dismissal from the Forest Service. In the spring of 1910, MacKaye received the shocking news from his superior that he would not be invited to return in the fall. While not entirely conclusive, the circumstances surrounding MacKaye's dismissal suggest that his left-wing campus politics and involvement in national conservation affairs may have incited Harvard's decision not to rehire him (Anderson, 2002).
MacKaye's sudden unemployment created a crisis for his entire family, as he was the primary supporter of his mother. His sister, Hazel, helped him find work on the forestry textbook he had been intent on writing for several years, and he undertook the project of planning the grounds of a Peterborough, New Hampshire estate. He used the property as a key case study for his textbook. MacKaye was defensive and insecure about his writing, but he eventually unveiled the manuscript, titled "A Theory of Forest Management." He was unsuccessful in finding a publisher, but he showed it to Forest Service chief, Henry Graves, who offered him a job as a "forest examiner." At the same time, however, MacKaye's relationship with Abbot was under considerable stress, and when he assumed his duties in Washington, D.C. in December 1911, the two went their separate ways (Anderson, 2002).
Soon after his arrival in Washington, MacKaye was becoming involved in a social and political circle which included many of the progressive leaders of the conservation movement. His professional, political, and personal lives became, once again, inextricably entangled. In 1913, he met suffrage activist Jessie Hardy "Betty" Stubbs. The couple was married on June 1, 1915, having known each other less than a year. They both remained exceedingly devoted to their respective causes, and when MacKaye would travel to different parts of the country to continue his Forest Service fieldwork, his new bride often travelled with him doing suffrage work. They also combined forces in actively opposing World War I. The marriage was short-lived, however, and came to a tragic end in April of 1921 when Betty committed suicide by jumping into the East River. His wife's death emotionally plagued MacKaye for the rest of his life. He remained a bachelor and rarely mentioned, even to his closest friends, that he had ever been married (Anderson, 2002).
Betty's tragic death proved a turning point for the widower, and within a few months of her passing, MacKaye publicly proposed his revolutionary idea for a hiking path along the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. He sought refuge at the home of Charles Harris Whitaker in New Jersey, where he outlined his plans for the redevelopment of Appalachia, including a hiking trail stretching the entire length of the ridgeline. He refined his vision into two lengthy memos that he wrote during the summer. These memos exposed a sense of urgency that lingered from World War I and the domestic strife that followed. As a result, they included strong calls for action, but they also contained a strategic plan. He then revised these memos into an article entitled "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," which was published in the October 1921 edition of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. The article proposed that there needed to be wild lands set aside in the populous Eastern United States like the ones being created in the West, and it detailed his plan for the Appalachian Trail (Sutter, 1999).
In the wake of the article's publication, trail activity proceeded in several areas. The Committee on Community Planning (CCP) adopted MacKaye's plan as part of its agenda and served as the trail's major benefactor in its early years. Clarence Stein, then chairman of the CCP, obtained reprints of MacKaye's article, wrote a brief introduction to it, and distributed it to potential supporters. New hiking clubs began to emerge, and in 1925, they converged to form the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC). Work on the trail proceeded quickly, and it was completed in 1937. However, the hurricane of 1938 and the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway wiped out many sections, and the trail was not marked complete again until 1951 (Sutter, 1999).
In 1935, MacKaye helped found The Wilderness Society with some of the other prominent figures in the wilderness movement, including Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall. This became the first national organization dedicated to the preservation of wilderness. In the years immediately following the establishment of The Wilderness Society, they fought several battles, and although they achieved few clear victories, the group's influence on government policy and public consciousness grew steadily. In 1937, MacKaye was elected vice-president of The Wilderness Society, which had acquired 576 members, and in July 1945, he was made president. Following his five-year tenure as president, MacKaye was elected to the newly-created position of honorary president which he held for the rest of his life. Throughout his involvement with The Wilderness Society, MacKaye's experience, ideas, vision, and energy stimulated veterans of the wilderness cause and spurred newcomers to join it (Anderson, 2002).
MacKaye passed away on December 11, 1975 at the age of 96, but his influence lives on (Anderson, 2002). In 1979, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association was organized by people who desired to create a hiking path along the original path MacKaye had envisioned for the Appalachian Trail. The nearly 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, officially completed in 2005, intersects with the Appalachian Trail on either end and passes through some of the most remote backcountry in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina (Benton MacKaye Trail Association).
Anderson, Larry. (2002). Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Benton MacKaye Trail Association. (n/d). "BMTA Home Page." Retrieved November 13, 2007 from http://www.bmta.org/index.htm
Sutter, Paul. (1999, Oct.). "'A Retreat from Profit': Colonization, the Appalachian Trail, and the social roots of Benton MacKaye's wilderness advocacy" [Electronic version]. Environmental History.