2015 Trip Six: The Great Smoky Mountains, October 14-15

Gatlinburg, TN Oct. 15

The creation of Great Smoky Mountains National park would make for a great movie. (Books have been written on the process.) What storyline would the movie have? Well: school kids collecting money to buy land for the park; fisticuffs in board meeting of the organizing group; lumber companies grasping for dollars; bribes given; deadlines given and met; political machines in action; lawsuits; and the impact of the Great Depression.

Great Smoky Mountains from Cataloochee valley overlook

Great Smoky Mountains from Cataloochee valley overlook

The park was a dream beginning in the late 1800s but grew more serious in the 1920s. The country had gone through a major discussion and creation of the National Park Service in 1916. A major focus of the discussion was a difference in attitude that resulted in the national forests being more “utilitarian” in purpose (lumbering being one major emphasis allowed) and the national parks outlawing lumbering and only for preservation and recreation. Thus lumber companies that owned much of the land in this area were opposed to a national park being created. The lumbering interests were clear cutting the land, creating a wasteland, allowing forest fires that, due to trees being removed, burnt down into the shallow topsoil and resulting in run-off that silted up the streams. However, the lumber companies employed many people and were a major tax base. People preferred the local economy that they knew versus a promise of future riches.

Easterners were pushing for their “own” national park. All of the other national parks were out west. Proponents of new national parks in the east pushed the economic advantages of tourism dollars staying here rather than going to Arizona, California, etc. The federal government had a policy then that it would not use federal dollars to buy land for a new park, the land had to be donated in some fashion.

Well, long story short. Tennessee and North Carolina citizens raised $1,000,000. The Rockefellers donated $5,000,000. The states donated additional funds. Park acceptance was tied in with development of Shenandoah National Park to create greater Congressional clout. In 1934 enough money and land was committed that the National Park Service took over the land ownership and future development. This park was a major site for the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked in the 1930s to create recreational facilities and to build trails and roads. In 1940 the park was actually dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt.

One of the preserved original farm homes

One of the preserved original farm homes

We mentioned Cades Cove in an earlier post. We have visited several park locations now where families sold their land and moved out for development of the park. Unfortunate timing meant many of them sold land that had allowed for self-sufficiency in exchange for money that was lost during the bank failures of the 1930s. Over 4,000 people were moved out, a lot of them unwillingly. A lot of hard feelings existed for many years, some still lingering today. However, the promise of regional economic prosperity due to a national park has come to fruition. Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park with twice as many visits as the Grand Canyon.

Bull elk and some of his cows

Bull elk and some of his cows at Cataloochee Valley Great Smoky Mountain National park

One of those settlement areas was Cataloochee valley where in 1910 over 1200 people were living. A few buildings have been preserved. We drove there (two hours one way) and had great mountain views and watched a herd of 20 elk. The prime male bull was bugeling and minding his harem of female cow elk, with two young bulls hanging around. The elk had been re-introduced into the park in 2001. There are about 100 elk in the park now.

While people were hanging round watching the elk, the crowd was not unreasonable. Part of that may be due to several miles of narrow dirt curvy roads that frequently require ongoing traffic to back up or wait at slight widening in the road for the opposing cars to pass by. We met one couple where the husband was the local service rep for Marvin Windows based in Warroad MN. You may recall that we toured the Marvin factory back in August of this year.

Hiking along the Little River

Hiking along the Little River

Otherwise we continued our varied hikes. Today’s major hike was five and a half miles along the Little River, watching and listening to the hum/roar of the water rushing past the rocks. On this hike we encountered a large number of anglers. This area is home to the largest number of diverse salamander species.

Cabin in Elkmont area

Cabin in Elkmont area

Other hikes continued the climbing paths through forests and along streams. Old farm buildings, churches and schools were encountered. One area of the park (Elkmont) was the vacation cottage area of the Knoxville, TN elite. A whole block of buildings are on display to convey the camp resort feel of the time with a central clubhouse.

Wednesday we went on a ranger led talk. He covered many topics but also touched on the great loss to these forests with the near elimination of the American chestnut tree due to chestnut blight in the 1920s. The chestnut tree grew to 100 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter. The nuts were major sources of food for bears and people. Now the American chestnut is, for all practical purposes, no longer in this area.

This wraps up our week at the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort. Tomorrow we drive over to North Carolina where we spend most of the next week.

Ed and Chris 8:45 PM

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