The History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – The history of the Great Smoky Mountains dates back thousands of years, “the Cherokee people have been here probably 25,000 years. And more than likely there were tribes before that that came in [the] area,” says Brad Free, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Historian.

European settlers entered the story of the Smokies in the 1700s. By the 1800s, whether by land purchase or a land grant, communities grew in the foothills of the mountains.

Land Sale

By the late 1890’s early 1900’s, residents started to sell their land. “They were selling mostly their mountain land,” says Free.

“It was areas they couldn’t clear and there were a lot of logging companies that were coming down from Pennsylvania, Illinois, and even up towards New York. They were coming down here and buying up land to start cutting down some of the last old-growth forests east of the Mississippi River.”

Huge trees were cut down during this time, drastically changing the landscape.

Creating a national park

While acres of forest were being decimated in the Smoky Mountains, Anne and Willis Davis went out west in 1923 and saw the national parks. It gave them an idea. They wanted to preserve something for future generations in the Eastern United States.

Anne and Willis Davis

But Free says the dream would take some time to materialize, “They thought it’d be easier just to create a national forest here and do that. But, how do you start a national park out of private lands? Yellowstone, Grand Canyon. All those out west were federal lands already. President Grant in 1872, right off there’s a national park. Woodrow Wilson in 1960, national park. But President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt couldn’t do that until 1933. So they started petitioning. They started to work on how they could do this.”

Ten million dollars was needed to buy all 6,600 land tracts owned by individuals in the mountains.

They worked to raise money, “Everyone from school kids to some of the richest people in the world, at that time, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. gave $5 million to buy the land.”

With the caveat that Tennessee had to raise the other $5 million.

“The park commissions in Tennessee and North Carolina basically went door to door and they said, ‘Okay, we’re going to give you a choice. We’re going to give you a fair market value for your property or you can get a lifetime lease and stay here till you die.’ That was the agreement. Most people had lived on their land, or at least two or three generations had lived on their land since the 1840s.”

Many took the lifetime lease. The decision resulted in a new issue though for those who took the deal. They lost the rights to their land. “You could not go out and cut a tree down in your front yard for firewood. You could not shoot a squirrel off your front porch for food. You had all these restrictions that were put onto it and most of them couldn’t farm anymore, because their land belonged to the government then. It became a national park, so everything was protected.”

Some tried to make it work for a while, but they ultimately decided to take the fair market value. Free says many ended up getting paid far less than what their property was worth. “Logging companies, on the other hand, had lawyers. And a lot of them.”

Logging companies were selling clear-cut land $4.75 an acre and there were 18 logging companies who had major acreage.

The Great Depression

Some people were getting anywhere from $2,000 up to $10,000 for their property. Naturally, they put the money in the bank. Then the stock market crashed in 1929, kicking off the Great Depression.

“These folks not only lost their property that had been in their land or their families for generations, they lost every red cent as well. We would not be sitting in this beautiful park if it wouldn’t have been for the sacrifices of the people who sold their land for it,” says Free.

Civilian Conservation Corps

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program to get young men back to work in the 1930s. Four thousand young men worked in the park between 1933 and 1941 as part of the CCC.

“One of the park historians once said that if we had not had the CCC from 1933 to 1941, we would not have the park we had today. Because what those guys did between that time period would have taken our park employees today, 75 years to do what they did in just that short amount of time.”

They built the park’s headquarters and first visitor center, each stone hand carved.

“The forest [in the park] was devastated due to logging. They planted hundreds of thousands of trees here. They built trails. They built campgrounds, they built roads.”

Park Dedication

On September 2nd, 1940, President Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”

Free Admission

Unlike many other national parks, there is no admission fee to the Great Smoky Mountains. The aptly named Brad Free explains why, “One reason is there’s a US highway going through the middle of the park.”

Free says it’s also due to a ‘gentleman’s agreement’, “It goes back to the way this park was created. It’s created out of private lands, and one of the theories behind this is that there was an agreement made between the people who lived here and the federal government never to charge a toll on the road going across the mountain. Because this road going across the mountain was a toll road from the 1830s up until the Civil War. A lot of folks felt like charging an entrance fee would be like charging a toll. So, it was kind of a gentleman’s agreement that they would never do that.”

News 2 is taking a deep look in the Smokies with the digital exclusive series “The Great Smoky Mountains: The Good, The Bad, The Future”. Click here to see more.

Janet Ivey is a special correspondent for News 2 on this report. Learn more about her here.

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