SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Exit 407 is a cultural landmark. Without saying where it is located, many people already know that it is where State Route 66 meets Interstate 40 in Sevier County.
While many look forward to the future of the exit (such as when Buc-ee’s opens this summer), here’s a look back at the foundation of this Gateway to the Smokies.
In the 1960s, a conversation was already happening about how tourism could impact areas around the fairly young Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Robert Freeman, a planner with the Knoxville Regional Office of the State Planning Commission is quoted in a 1963 article after speaking in a joint meeting of the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg planning commission. Freeman said then that Sevier County’s future would depend on tourists.
Much of what Freeman shared in that meeting was about how Sevier County needed buildable land for recreational and municipal facilities and services, which would require flood prevention, and highway and road improvements.
“In most cases,” [Freeman] pointed out, “the low lands below the proposed dams, now subject to flooding, is the best buildable land in the area.”
The article also mentioned a five-year construction plan by the Tennessee Highway Department that included the development of Highway 66 north to the future Interstate 40 and US 76, and a highway from Sevierville to Newport that was under construction.
Around the same time, work was being completed in Cocke County to extend I-40 to the North Carolina state line, according to a 1963 article. The article says that in addition to the challenge of cutting a highway into the side of the mountains, there were also complications crews had to work around — such as how much should be paid for a mule’s day of work and how to give moonshiners advanced notice that allowed them to move their stills.
Creating Exit 407
Drafts for the Exit 407 interchange date back to the 1970s. Tennessee Department of Transportation Spokesman Mark Nagi shared that the plans for the bridge over I-40 are dated 1972. Nagi estimates that it would have taken about two years for the bridge to be completed, so Exit 407 likely opened in 1974.
Since then, Exit 407 has been rebuilt at least twice, Nagi said. The most recent was in June 2015, when the diverging diamond intersection opened. Each time the intersection was updated, it was because traffic through the intersection had grown.
In 1973 and 1974, the average daily traffic of the exit that was anticipated was 25,800 cars a day. Average daily traffic has more than doubled since then, reaching an average daily volume of 50,761 vehicles in 2021.
Gateway to the Smokies
The increase in traffic reflects the growth of tourism recorded in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Though established in 1934, visitor use statistics date to 1994, a year when the park saw 8.6 million visitors. Since 2012, the park averaged almost 11.5 million visits per year.
Last year was the second busiest for the nation’s most popular national park, with 12.9 million visitors. The record is held by 2021 when 14.16 million visited.
The exact number of those who came to the mountains on I-40 is not known, but county officials and others suspect a large portion did so through the famous Exit 407.