The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in our country. I spent so many summers as a little girl camping with my family in the Smokies. And having lived in the area for two years, the park’s unique history always fascinated me.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Story
The Great Smoky Mountains are some of the oldest mountains on our planet. They’ve seen hunter-gather communities pass through before most permanent communities developed, and they saw the Cherokee become one of the most advanced tribes on the continent before European-American settlers arrived in the 1700s. These new settlers were looking for the opportunity to start a new life in an area many started to call the “promise land.” These settlers built log cabins (some of which you can still see today in the park and its surrounding areas) and lived off the land. Between farming the land and taking advantage of the rivers, streams, and forest around them these communities started to grow. Churches, general stores, and schoolhouses became the center of life in the Smokies.
The Cherokee’s homeland was, and still is, one of the most biodiverse in our country. They understood the land. They had a deep knowledge of its plants, wildflowers, and animals. And they adapted with its changing landscape. They were advocates for their homeland and shared a heartbeat with the land of blue smoke as they called it. After their forced removal from the land during the Trail of Tears, it didn’t take long for the logging community to sweep in and change everything.
There were vast differences in life between the settlers and those in more contemporary areas at first, by the 1900s there weren’t anymore. In less than 20 years, the self-sufficient economy that the Smokies had was replaced by a dependence on manufactured goods. As logging towns popped up so did the use of cash and the purchases of store-bought products. We still see the footprints of the logging economy in the park with places like Elkmont, Smokemont, and Tremont that get their names from these logging towns that sprang up overnight. And this booming logging business almost saw an end to the area’s wilderness as they were rapidly cutting down the forests that the mountains would be known for. A change came in the form of a National Park designation when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934.
Becoming a National Park
Becoming a national park was not easy for the Smokies. Unlike the National Parks out west like Yellowstone that were already federally owned land, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was largely a collaborative effort between private citizens, the state of North Carolina, and the state of Tennessee. Establishing most of the first national parks in the western United States like Yellowstone and Yosemite was relatively easy. Congress just had to carve them out of lands already owned by the government. Joining the National Park System for the Great Smoky Mountains required a lot of money and the support of thousands of people.
The Great Smokies were owned by hundreds of small farmers who had lived on the land and a few timber and paper companies. Neither wanted to leave. The farmers did not want to leave the family homesteads that they had established and raised their families on. And the large corporations didn’t want to abandon huge forests of timber, the many miles of railroad track they had invested in, extensive systems of logging equipment, or whole villages of employee housing. For each side, there was a lot invested in the area and giving it up to create a park didn’t really sit well with them.
The idea for a national park
The idea to create a national park in the Smoky Mountains started in the late 1890s. A few visionary people started to talk about preserving the land in the southern Appalachians that was unlike anything around. A bill even made its way to the North Carolina Legislature but failed. By the time the 20th century rolled around more people were pressuring the federal government to create some kind of public land but there was disagreement on whether the area should be a national park or a national forest.
What is a National Park?
This is the point of the story where you’re probably asking yourself why did it matter? Well, there are some important differences between national parks and national forests. A national forest allows for consumptive use of its renewable resources. With this in mind, forests were set up for timber harvesting and grazing which put the national forests under the Department of Agriculture.
In a national park, everything is protected. Nature is allowed to rule with little intervention. Given the devastating effects that logging had already had on the area, a national park seemed to be the better option.
The park movement was not just spearheaded by the hardcore conservationists, backpackers and trout fishermen who loved the area, but also by motorists and businessmen. Newly formed auto clubs wanted good roads that passed through beautiful landscapes. And businesses hoped that the park would be bringing in tourism dollars and investment to nearby areas.
Raising the Money
In May 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that provided for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. This bill gave the responsibility of administering and protecting the soon to be 150,000 acres to the Department of the Interior. The federal government was not allowed to buy land for the national park so both Tennessee and North Carolina appropriated $2 million each to be used for land purchases. Individuals, private groups, and even school children raised money and donated to help make the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a reality.
By 1928, a total of $5 million had been raised but by then the land had doubled in price and the campaign came to a screeching halt. And it wasn’t until the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated an additional $5 million, assuring the purchase of the remaining land, that the idea for a national park was saved.
Buying the Land
Buying the land wasn’t an easy task even with cash in hand. The land they were looking to purchase for the park’s creation had to be surveyed, appraised, and in some cases, condemned in court. The bigger companies also had the equipment and a standing inventory which added to the compensation. There was also the emotional toll the buying took on those it displaced. While some were happy to take the money and run, others felt that they had lost more than they had gained. Some were allowed to stay under special provisional leases but they weren’t allowed to cut timber or hunt/ trap at will as they had always done, creating a new way of life for those who wanted to try and stick it out.
Building the park
The Civilian Conservation Corps was established during the Great Depression and employed young men who worked on federal and state lands. The program provided employment as well as education while simultaneously providing much-needed work and restoration on our public lands.
Many of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s trails, bridges, and roads were built by the CCC by over 4,000 enrollees. Their work helped establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as one of the most visited in the country.
The final touch in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was on September 2, 1940, with the parks formal dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt. While Roosevelt spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the ceremony marked and designated the park as an example of collaboration and preservation “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park today
Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a place where the past meets the future as older generations bring their children and grandchildren to experience the wonders of nature in our nation’s most visited national park. As the park was created more than 1,200 land-owners left the park leaving behind their farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches.
More than 70 of these historic structures have since been carefully looked after and maintained so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now preserves the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East. Seeing these historic homes and schoolhouses have always been one of my favorite ways to spend the day in the park. As a little girl with my grandfather, we would drive through Cades Cove in the evenings and years later when Tim and I moved to Tennessee it was a tradition that we kept alive. I feel like I got to know John Oliver and Noah “Bud” Ogle as I visited the cabins over the years.
Hikes and days on the river in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wrapped in history – a story that started years ago and continues to be written by visitors.