Looking back today, it is remarkable that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park exists at all. It took 17 years, and the combined efforts of Tennessee and North Carolina residents, plus local, state, and federal politicians, to achieve the complicated and daunting job of setting up the park.
The primary challenge was that by the 1920s, when talk of the park began in earnest, the land was in private hands. Some was owned by about 4,000 mountain residents, but the greatest expanses belonged to lumber companies, which had been plundering the mountainsides for timber since the turn of the century.
Early park boosters were businesspeople and politicians from East Tennessee and western North Carolina, who argued that a park would be an economic boon for the region. They foresaw a future when visitors would come in droves to see the park, spending money in the gateway communities on their way. Boosters launched an all-out public relations campaign to promote a park, and in 1926 alone residents pledged $1 million towards the purchase of lands.
The popularity of the park idea among residents drew the attention of state and federal politicians. In 1926 president Calvin Coolidge signed a bill committing the federal government to begin development of a national park in the Great Smokies, as soon as 423,000 acres of land were provided by the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. The states then offered $1 million each for land purchases, and the final $5 million was given by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. in memory of his mother, Laura Spellman Rockefeller.
Money in hand, states-appointed commissions had the difficult task of purchasing land. The timber companies resisted. First they tried to derail the project itself and later they sought to get the highest possible price for their land—much of which had now been stripped bare of trees. The states took five of the companies to court, a process that depleted funds meant for land purchase and allowed the timber companies time to continue logging in the Smokies.
In part because of the devastating effects of continued logging, support for a park grew even stronger. In 1933 president Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed a previous federal position and earmarked federal money for the purchase of land. By 1940, when the park was dedicated, the U.S. government had contributed more than $2 million.
Perhaps the biggest losers from the park project were the 4,000 people who lived within park boundaries. With no deep pockets like those of the timber companies, they were often stuck taking very little in financial compensation for their homes and farms. Some older residents chose to stay in the park—they sold their property to the government and leased it back for the duration of their lives. But making a livelihood on a land where they were now forbidden to hunt, fish with bait, or cultivate crops was near impossible. Some residents, like the five Walker sisters who lived in a cabin in Little Greenbrier until the 1950s, managed to survive. Others, however, moved to communities outside the park and began new lives.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated on September 2, 1940. President Roosevelt came to stand at Newfound Gap and dedicate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Among his words were these: “In this park we shall conserve the pine, the redbud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people. The old frontier that put the hard fiber in the American spirit and the long muscles on the American back, lives and will live in these untamed mountains to give future generations a sense of the land from which their forefathers hewed their homes.”
If you watch the short introductory video at park visitors centers, you will see footage of the presidential caravan as it made its way up the mountain to Newfound Gap for the dedication ceremony. The footage of that difficult drive up to the top of the mountain is a powerful symbol of the remarkable efforts and convergence of circumstances that gave rise to this remarkable national park.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition