Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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A Brief History: How the Smokies
Became a National Park

Photographs courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service

The notion of establishing a national park within the Great Smoky Mountains was an idea met with numerous obstacles and set backs, even before its inception in 1923. Political, financial, and cultural issues were but a few of the various hoops park founders had to jump through in order to forge what is today the country's the most visited national park. Here is a short history on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its formation and those whose vision and ideas encapsulated 17 years worth of effort until the park's dedication in 1940.

A simple idea was hatched....

Mr Willis P. DavisMr. and Mrs. Willis P. Davis (left and below), an influential and wealthy Knoxville family, were credited with the original idea for a national park in the Smokies. Upon their return from a visit to a few of the country's western national parks, the Davis' began questioning the feasibility of establishing a national park in the Smokies. Before long, other influential Knoxvillians began to voice their desire for a national park initiative. Businessmen, naturalists, politicians, and others began to join the movement as well, but for their own personal reasons.

Momentum is a funny thing, sometimes an initiative is such a good idea that it gains momentum due to its own sheer power. Mrs DavisOther initiatives succeed because of influential, wealthy, strong-willed individuals that have a certain vision. Both elements were present when talks about creating a national park in the Smoky Mountains began to take shape. Still, it would be awhile before it was all smooth sailing.

Obstacles to Creating the Great Smokey Mountains National Park

The movement for creating a national park had its friends, as well as it foes. Those that aligned themselves against the park initiative consisted of political foes with their own ulterior motives, cultural proponents that wanted the Smokies to remain as they were, and financial interests to businessmen. A portion of those businessmen were exclusively interested in constructing a road between Tennessee and North Carolina in order to make their business easier. For the most part, the Smokies were a place where they could get away to hunt and fish. Some would rather have seen the Smokies designated as a national forest - the distinction being that national forest status would still allow for exploitation of the area's natural resources; national park status would forever protect the area from timber cutting, hunting and fishing. Horses Pulling LogsTimber and pulp companies were chief among the business interests. At the time, they owned most of the region's wilderness areas and virgin forests. Groups like the families who already lived in the mountains were considered part of the cultural set. These were people who had purchased land for retreats or vacations and people who were descendants of the original settlers.

Obtaining sufficient funding to purchase all the land needed to create the park became the next hurdle. Only a small portion of what was required to purchase the land came from solid contributions. Scarred MountainsideComing to the rescue would be Congress, the Rockefeller family and both the Tennessee and North Carolina state legislatures.

Time and Money

As previously mentioned, 1923 was an landmark year for the park in that it was when the idea for a national park was first formulated. Fund-raising for the initiative began in 1925. Legislation aimed at protecting the land as a park was drawn up and passed shortly thereafter in 1926. This bill contained strict stipulations on the minimum commitments in funding that must be obtained. It also read that a minimum of 300,000 acres be acquired. Even those who had held out for a national park strictly in North Carolina, finally settled on a shared border. The state's governing body committed $2 million in 1927 - but only if Tennessee's legislature matched it. Needless to say, it didn't take long for Tennessee representatives to appropriate $2 million themselves.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.It soon became clear that the appropriated funding and donations were not going to be enough to see the project through. So, Colonel David C. Chapman of Knoxville and Arno Cammerer of the National Park Service, persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. (picture, left) to make a contribution to ensure the establishment of the park. Known to be sympathetic to national park causes (having contributed to the success of others), the philanthropic Rockefeller family gave a gift of $5 million to the project, the only stipulation being that there would be matching funds. Now, it was the states and parks commissions' turn to come up with their own $5 million.

With funds fully committed, landowners received the full court press to sell in 1929. This was trickier than it looked. Despite the number of timber companies and their large land tracts, there were many other owners but with very small tracts to obtain - over 6,000 in all. Some simply loved their homes, many were descendants from original settlers and didn't want to move under any circumstances, and a few were big business interests. Some, like the Champion Fiber Company (the single largest owner) and the Little River Lumber Company, held out for as much money as possible. By the time 1930 rolled around, condemnation suits began. The right to "condemn" property for higher use was the right of every state. And the Champion Fiber Company's suit wasn't settled until 1931. Little River Lumber would settle as well, but continued to cut timber for 7 more years. The park's first superintendent (Major J. Ross Eakin) and rangers reported for duty in June of 1931. Land acquisition continued through 1932, mostly smaller tracts, and would continue through 1939. Approximately $1.5 million more was allotted in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt based on new estimates of funds needed to purchase adjoining lands. The minimum number of acres was finally acquired to officially qualify for park development in 1936 – nearly17 years after the initial idea. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially dedicated at Newfound Gap, which lies on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Lying on half of each state's boundary, a plaque memorializing the Rockefeller Foundation gift was erected. This memorial commemorated the single most important financial milestone in the development of the park.

Key Contributors

Huge Tree in the SmokiesOf the many dedicated and tireless individuals who lent their time and energy to help create the park, various markers were raised to commemorate their efforts. Colonel ChapmanSome of the park's highest peaks are named in honor of these individuals. Mt. Davis and Davis Ridge were named in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Willis P. Davis. For Colonel David C. Chapman (photo, right) , who backed the Davis' idea and helped convince the Rockefellers to give a final financial gift to the effort, we now have Mt. Chapman. Mt. Kephart is named for Horace Kephart, who at one time was a librarian before deciding to go live among the people of the Smoky Mountains (chronicled in Our Southern Highlanders).

Arno B. Cammerer, a director of the National Park Service, was recognized for his efforts with Mt. Cammerer.

The Morton and Webb Overlooks, as well as Maloney Point, were also named to recognize individuals who contributions to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park project had much to do with its success.

Cost and Value

In the end, over $12 million was spent in land acquisition for the park. Today, the market value would be immeasurable. Still, the value now or then really can't be compared when you step back and look at what has been created and preserved in the form of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The diversity of plants (over 1,500 species), recreation opportunities (approximately 800 miles of hiking and horse trails), trout streams, wildlife, the blend of high peaks such as Mt. LeConte and beautiful valleys such as Cades Cove. If you have seen the Smokies in Spring's renewal, Autumn's splendor or even the breathtaking mountain vistas of Winter, there is just no way to put a monetary value on the park's natural beauty.

It's also a park that gives back. With 10 million visitors annually, the park's revenues are such that Tennessee doesn't need an income tax. This is due in large part to the popularity of the Smokies area.

What's in a Name: Great Smoky (Smokie, Smokey) Mountains National Park

How did the Great Smoky Mountains National Park get its name? Dedication by President Franklin D. RooseveltThe Smokies are named for the blue mist that is seen around its peaks and valleys. The Cherokee Indians called the Smokies shaconage, (shah-con-ah-jey) or "place of the blue smoke"...

As for the way it's spelled, just as many people call the range "Smokey" as do those who call them "Smoky". Both forms are acceptable in the dictionary. Whether you say Smokies, Smokys, or Smokeys doesn't matter. All renditions conjure up the same vision that millions of visitors take in each year. As for the "Great" in Great Smokey Mountains, that's just a matter of visiting the park yourself.

Park Visitation

In it's first full year, more than one million people visited the park. Visitation has grown steadily (except for the war years of the 40s) until nearly 10 million visitors annually enjoy the national park. However, the numbers are so great that it adversely affects the environment. The Smokies are smokier and pollution is beginning have a permanent effect on the park's majestic mountain views. Now, unbelievable traffic jams due to local development is the norm, especially on weekends. These problems are being addressed though. Some of the issues include promises that were made in the original charter that stated there would never be an admission charge to the park. And another stating that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would always be maintained for the enjoyment of all the people for generations to come.

So, inevitably, the Park is still being "made". The park is there for our enjoyment, but it's our job to help protect it for future generations. The beneficial restrictions that are placed on the visitor are there for a reason and should be observed so that everyone can enjoy the park for years to come.

More Park Information

This is an attempt to summarize 17 years about how the Great Smoky Mountains National Park came to be. Much is left unmentioned including a number of other individuals who figured prominently in the creation of the park. For additional information about the history of the park, its early inhabitants, and individuals responsible for creating the park, these books should should help fill in some of the holes:

Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Kephart, 1961, University of Tennessee Press
The Making of A National Park, Carlos C. Campbell, 1964, University of Tennessee Press

More bibliographical info can be found on the General Park Info page.

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