GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Fives years ago, wildfires spread throughout Gatlinburg and Sevier County so quickly that 14 people lost their lives, more than 17,000 acres burned and more than 2,400 structures were destroyed.
It was a night no one saw coming, and it’s now a big part of the area’s history.
“You don’t ever expect something like that to ever happen here. You know, you see it out west, the wildfires that you see and you think of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and it’s like this is a small area, we know everybody. Like, that’s the stuff you see on the news. You wouldn’t expect it to happen here,” Marcus Watson, Administrative Director of the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, said.
The main strip along Downtown Gatlinburg was spared, but buildings and structures nearby weren’t as lucky.
The Gatlinburg SkyLift Park was one of the only attractions in downtown damaged by the fires and needed to rebuild.
“The upper terminal, we used to have a souvenir shop up here. That burnt down. The upper terminal of the SkyLift burnt down. And we had enough fire damage on our entire lift that we had to replace it,” Watson said.
The only part of the park left standing after the fires was the ticket office.
Watson said the gift shop at the top of the ride was burnt to the ground, the upper terminal of the lift burnt down and the entire lift itself was damaged just enough to need replacing.
He said 90% of the landscape surrounding the attraction was destroyed by fire. Five of their employees lost their home.
Once the smoke settled, Watson said the people showed the country what being mountain tough is all about.
“Many people working together and staying positive and just long-term thinking, ‘hey, you know, we’re going through a tough time right now, but if we persevere, keep our eye on what we’re trying to get to, it will ultimately be a positive outcome.’ And that’s what we’re looking at today,” Watson said.
Watson said saying by to the more than 60-year-old attraction never came to mind. The lift was an iconic part of the town that needed to rebuild and continue on.
“You know, we’ve offered such a unique attraction for people for 67 years, and people have made a tradition of coming up here with families. They rode the chairlift with their grandfather, now they have grandkids and want to ride up there with them. And now, we even get to enhance the view of what they experience back in 70s, 80s and 90s even better with the SkyBridge,” Watson said.
The SkyBridge is just one example of how the park rebuilt and became even better, according to Watson.
Plans for the bridge were in place before the fires. Watson said it was fate they didn’t get to building it when planned.
“This is one of those times we’re glad that we missed our timeline for the opening of the something, because the bridge was actually supposed to open in October of 2016. If it would have, in theory, it would have burned down,” Watson said.
Watson said the fires were an important piece of their story, so that history needed to be included as they rebuilt and grew the park.
“That piece of the story helps shed light on the type of people that live here. That when trouble’s happening, when you’re faced with adversity, how Gatlinburg just banded together and got through it,” Watson said.
In most of the SkyLift Park, visitors can learn about the fires.
In the new gift shop, the original American flag hangs on the wall as a reminder, along with a picture of the Tennessee National Guard 278th division properly taking down the burnt flag from its pole at the top of the lift.
On another wall in the gift shop, there are three photos of the SkyLift Park: when the lift first opened, a before photo of the park in 2016 and another photo immediately after the wildfires in 2016.
One new adventure at the park was built specifically to remember the fires: The Tulip Tower.
“On each level, there’s a little Tulip Tree, because there was a little tulip tree that was back there that was damaged from the fires, and we were going to incorporate it as part of our attraction, but once we found out that it had fire damage, we had to take it down,” Watson said.
On each level of the Tulip Tower, visitors learn the history of the tree, along with what happened during the fires.
As visitors head to and from the Tulip Tower, they have more opportunities to take a walk through the history of the park and the wildfires on the SkyLift Trail.
“You don’t want to live in the past, but you know, it’s part of our story. And we want all of our guests to understand what we went through, what Gatlinburg went through, and how we’ve come back better than ever,” Watson said.
From a distance, someone might not be able to see the history. Up close, it’s a different story. Left over charred trees and regrowth show exactly what the area went through.
It’s obvious to those who know what to look for along the SkyLift as well.
“That’s what’s beautiful about nature. It’s like it’s kind of taking care of itself, you know. I mean we’ve done a big part in planting new trees. On the way up the lift you can see that. We’ve done some hydroseeding up here. Every dead tree that we had to take down was chipped back into the earth, so we’re trying to promote that regrowth,” Watson said. “It’s symbolic of Gatlinburg and it’s symbolic of us of what we’ve been through and how we’re growing back.”
Watson said more is to come from the SkyLift Park as it continues to grow.