Myron Avery: The Bully Who Built a Trail
Most of you probably know that the great green corridor running from Georgia to Maine was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye. You probably also know that same corridor, the Appalachian Trail, ultimately owes its existence in large part to Myron Avery. What you may not know is that Avery, despite dedicating his life to the trail and being the driving force behind its completion, was largely unpopular and was ultimately a bully who left in his wake hurt feelings, burnt bridges, and one of the greatest long-distance trails in the world.
To understand how Avery came to be known as a bully we have to understand the man beneath that moniker. A passionate, obsessive, stubborn, dedicated, hard-working, tyrannical perfectionist who would shape the trail from MacKaye’s original vision into what we know today. Avery was a complex man from a simple background. Though it’s that very background that ultimately laid the framework for the bully he would become.
From Humble, Sardine Factory Beginnings
Myron Halliburton Avery was born in 1899, in Lubec, ME, a small town on the Canadian border that holds the distinction of being the easternmost town in the contiguous United States. Many of the residents at the start of the 20th century relied on fishing and its related industries to get by. Avery’s father, Halliburton, was no different and indeed worked for the North Lubec Canning Company, a sardine processing plant.
Not surprisingly, with such a future to look forward to, Avery became focused on his academics and a desire to achieve more than many of his peers. He was the valedictorian and president of his high school graduating class and would go on from there to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, before heading to Harvard Law School. In 1923, degree in hand, he entered the workforce and never looked back, eventually finding his way to the U.S. Maritime Commission, where he practiced admiralty law for the rest of his life.
Avery’s childhood in Maine prepared him well; it gave him an appreciation for struggle, built his work ethic, and made him unafraid of getting down and dirty (literally and figuratively) in order to get things done.
The Clash with Sun Up
Despite growing up on the coast, Avery had become obsessed with a monstrous mass of stone over 5,000 feet tall that sat 120 miles to the northwest of his hometown… Mount Katahdin. This obsession would fuel his first great project involving the outdoors. He began cataloging, in excruciating detail, the early history of exploration around the mountain, a task that consumed practically all of his free time for the next five years.
As his work progressed he sought to have some of his research published. In a series of letters between Avery and Virginia Gates, the editor of the periodical Sun Up, we’re given one of the earliest examples of his stubbornness and personal belief in his own self-righteousness. Gates openly praised Avery’s submitted article on Katahdin but requested that the length be shortened so that it would fit the standards of Sun Up. To most this would be a simple request, but to Avery, it was practically offensive. In his mind trimming anything from his article would degrade it beyond repair and he flat out refused to make any modifications to his submission. For nine months Gates and Avery would go back and forth, and for nine months Avery refused to yield until finally communication between the two ceased altogether, his article unpublished.
Myron Avery V. Arthur Comey; The Nomenclature Devastator
The episode with Sun-Up was just the start for Avery; shortly thereafter he would clash with Arthur Comey, the chair of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Nomenclature Committee, in what would be the first in a near endless series of rows with Comey and the AMC. In 1927-28 Avery corresponded with the AMC quite frequently. Given that he was pouring all of his spare time and energy into researching Mount Katahdin and its surrounding geography, Avery felt he was in a position to offer advice and suggestions to the nomenclature committee as they worked on mapping and naming the various regions involved.
Avery had spent time speaking with locals and historians about how the names around Katahdin came to be and whether they were still in use, and submitted numerous suggestions to the AMC. Avery was shocked to find that Comey and the committee were not as receptive to all of his suggestions as he felt they ought to be and soon tensions began to rise. Just as with Virginia Gates, a series of letters went back and forth between Avery and Comey and before long others tried to mediate the situation.
One such mediator was Judge Perkins (chair of the ATC at the time). Perkins attempted to insert himself between the two men and act as a go-between to sort the whole dispute out. But it was of no use. Avery responded to one of Perkin’s letters with a scathing response in which he belittled and insulted Comey. And then he sent a copy of it, insults and all, to Comey himself. I’m sure you can imagine how well that went over.
We start to see that when Avery believed he was in the right (which he nearly always did) that he was an immovable object that held nothing back in order to get his way. Despite this, he had developed a reputation for his work ethic and genuine intelligence. Perkins, during the height of the row with Comey, had offered Avery an opportunity. He asked if he would help him with the AT by recruiting or creating a hiking club for the purpose of mapping and cutting the trail around the Washington, DC, area; thus in 1927 Avery and seven other men founded the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).
Avery was elected as the PATC’s first president and would hold the position until 1940. From that moment forward he would apply more and more of his energy and focus on the AT and its completion. During the first four years of its existence the PATC would map, cut, and blaze some 250 miles of trail from Rockfish Gap in Virginia to the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Even as Avery led the way in the Mid-Atlantic, Maine was always on his mind.
Myron Avery V. Arthur Comey II; The Fate of the Pine Tree State
His old nemesis, Arthur Comey, and the AMC had been working on extending the trail into Maine and on to Katahdin and had made some headway by 1929. Yet Comey believed that further development of the trail in Maine should halt until local support for the AT could be drummed up in the state. He feared that many landowners, private and commercial alike, would oppose the trail and thus risk its survival in the Pine Tree State.
To Avery, a man of action, this approach was unacceptable. He believed that the only way to guarantee the trail’s success and support was to build it first and let the locals realize its worth, otherwise he believed they would never be willing to dedicate the time and resources to its completion. Avery reasoned that once it was completed the owners of the land and of fishing and logging camps would see the economic potential of having what equated to a tourist destination running through their lands. He believed the way to win Maine over was to appeal to the economic climate of the Great Depression.
In classic Avery style he didn’t wait for approval or bother trying to convince Comey; he knew he was right, so he charged ahead. From DC Avery began reaching out to interested parties in Maine who could begin work on the trail under his direction. In 1930 Avery became the acting chair of the ATC and would be officially elected to the position in 1932. As he found himself in a position of greater power and influence in the conference he began to exercise even more control over the progress of the trail. His correspondence with clubs and workers around this time show the extent of his dedication to the trail and his impatience for those who did not rise to his level.
Harry Davis and his son Lyman were one such example. The pair had been recruited to work on various aspects of the trail in Maine but Lyman specifically had been contracted to cut a 40-mile section in what would become the 100-Mile Wilderness for a fee of $75. In 1933 Harry wrote to Avery that his son had been unable to cut any of the agreed upon trail the year before and would be unable to fulfill his obligation due to taking a job elsewhere. Harry Davis offered to oversee the cutting of the trail himself but added that he would only be able to complete it piecemeal, by working on it when he had time to spare and could not give Avery an estimate of when it would be done.
To Avery, he may as well have said, “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Avery, in his results-driven mind-set, could not accept this and responded sarcastically, “I appreciate that other than your public interest, the thing means nothing to you but a lot of labor…” Shortly after, Avery requested that the trail markers be returned to the ATC and had another cutter complete the trail in Davis’s section.
The Final Straw and the Rise of Myron Avery
With the rise of automobiles came a new threat to the AT: parkways. Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and similar projects were being proposed all up and down the Appalachians. These roadways threatened the isolation and pristine wilderness that MacKaye believed crucial for the success of the trail. Avery, on the other hand, was concerned more with completing the trail than ensuring its isolation, saying, “Our main problem is to actually create it. Then we may discuss how to use it.”
Avery believed compromise was the best way forward. He and his supporters weren’t willing to lose the trail for the sake of preserving wilderness; instead they believed that projects such as Skyline Drive should be used to their advantage, as a means of generating publicity and interest in the trail. He suggested that if the government wanted to go forward with the project and other similar projects that they not try to stop it but encourage the agency to pay for the relocation of the trail themselves.
Yet if Avery offered compromise with one hand he consolidated his power with the other. As the ATC voted to approve Avery’s proposed compromise over Skyline Drive and future projects he subtly changed the bylaws and procedures within the ATC. Under these new rules a trail club’s voting strength was based on the number of trail miles it maintained. Thus, Avery, as president of the PATC and chair of the ATC, controlled such a substantial voting block that he could, to MacKaye’s dismay, effectively steamroll any opposition within the organization.
This divergence between MacKaye and Avery would ultimately be a permanent one, with the two men unable to reconcile their different views in what they each believed the trail was and should be. In a letter from MacKaye to Avery, “You are for a connected trail – whether or not wilderness. I am for a wilderness trail – whether or not connected.”
MacKaye summed it up in this excerpt from his final letter to Avery:
“For some time past I have noticed in you a growing, self-righteous, overbearing attitude and bullying manner in your expression. Your statements to me now—of assumption, distortion, and accusation—constitute a piece of insolence which confirms my former observations, as well as various reports of your conduct which have come to me from individual club members in the North and South. In your present frame of mind, therefore, I feel that further words are futile.”
What I have provided here is only the barest account of Myron Avery’s rise within the ATC and how he became known as the bully. He wrote countless letters and had hundreds of clashes along the way. Hopefully this gives you a clearer idea of the man Avery was and just why he was so successful, even if it meant a lot of hurt feelings along the way.
Bates, Dave, “Myron Avery: Portrait of a President” The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club History. Accessed January 25, 2019. http://www.patc.us/history/archive/avery.html
Pesha, Ronald “Myron Avery, Lubec, and the Appalachian Trail” accessed January 28, 2019, http://lubec.mainememory.net/page/1197/display.html
Ryan, Jeffrey H., Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, and the Rivalry That Built the Appalachian Trail (Boston, MA: Appalachian Mountain Club, 2017).
“Avery, Myron” Maine: An Encyclopedia. Last modified June 08, 2017. https://maineanencyclopedia.com/myron-avery/
“Myron Avery” Appalachian Trail Histories. Accessed January 25, 2019. http://appalachiantrailhistory.org/exhibits/show/builders/mavery
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