Colonial Parkway Pleasures

A history of the picturesque Peninsula roadway prepares us for a season of fall foliage and Sunday drives

Colonial Parkway is a graceful anachronism— a road our parents might have chosen for Sunday afternoon drives in the family sedan. There are beautiful views of the James and York rivers and pull-offs where visitors can read the interpretive signs, fish, watch birds or nap in the sunshine. It’s a road to history, connecting three of the nation’s most important colonial sites. It’s a treasure.

Parkways were an 18th-century English innovation. Inspired by the idealized landscapes of Romantic painters, landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown created picturesque vistas along carriage roads on large country estates. Artful enhancements to the terrain such as lakes and ponds added scenic appeal and carefully sited trees framed the views. A century later Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux appropriated many of Brown’s ideas in their plans for Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Eastern Parkway, the Olmsted-Vaux road to Prospect Park, was built in the early 1870s. Planned expressly for ‘pleasure riding’ with commercial traffic excluded, it was the nation’s first parkway.

The golden age of parkways came during the 1920s and ’30s as more Americans acquired automobiles and road planners believed that scenic beauty and landscaping were essential design elements. Parkways connected New York City to suburban enclaves in Westchester County and on Long Island. The National Park Service jumped onto the parkway movement with such scenic Virginia roadways as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Vernon Highway (today’s George Washington Memorial Parkway). The new parkways preserved scenic landscapes and historic sites.