According to a new report published by Jim McNeely, one could say, technically, that Earl Shaffer did not complete the first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
According to McNeely's research, Shaffer bypassed at least 170 miles of the trail during his historic 1948 hike. Most of those miles were the result of taking shortcuts on country roads, mainly due to not being able to find poorly marked sections of the trail at that time.
On two occasions Shaffer accepted short rides in cars - of 5.5 miles and 4.8 miles.
Jim McNeely, a lawyer and avid hiker, focussed his research on the section of Appalachian Trail between Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia (which was the southern terminus of the trail in 1948) and Rockfish Gap in Virginia. His report is based on Shaffer's daily journal, his report to the ATC in 1948 that led to his recognition as the first thru-hiker, and his 1983 book, "Walking With Spring."
In his conclusions, McNeely makes his final arguments:
Since Shaffer voluntarily skipped such a substantial portion of the AT in the South, and particularly in Virginia, in 1948, his hike can be accepted as a thru-hike only by acceptance of his attitude that he hiked an “equivalent” hike to one actually following the AT. What constitutes such an “equivalent” hike is a matter of community standards and ATC policy, and is therefore beyond the scope of this Report.
He also points out that:
Given the new information now available about the true nature of Shaffer’s 1948 hike, should the question of certification of that hike as the first thru-hike be revisited? From Shaffer’s own point of view, revisiting the question of a previously listed “high-profile” thru-hike would seem entirely appropriate. In fact, Shaffer personally requested that the ATC remove the name of a previously listed thru-hiker whose hike is of considerable public interest. According to December 2000 ATC correspondence found in the NMAH Shaffer collection, Shaffer sought removal of the name of Max Gordon from the ATC “2,000-miler registry” once and, when the ATC Board of Managers refused to do so, renewed his request a second time. The Board refused that second request as well. By that precedent, Shaffer’s 1948 hike could appropriately be subject to the same reexamination that he requested of the 1936 Gordon hike.
This brings up another interesting piece of Appalachian Trail history that I had never heard of. Six Boy Scouts from the New York City area, including Max Gordon, purportedly hiked the A.T. in 1936, a year before the Appalachian Trail was completed as one continuos, unbroken footpath. However, this story was recalled late in life, and is obviously disputed, but is no less an interesting tale.
My take is that, although Myron Avery and the ATC knew that Shaffer had by-passed several miles of the trail, they decided to recognize his thru-hike as the first in order to garner publicity and support for the trail. I have nothing to really back that up, but rather offer it up as a possibility for their decision.