Before the Park – Life in the Smokies

By Stephen

Most of us in this area of North Carolina live in close proximity to the most visited national park in the United States: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   Last year the park celebrated its 75th anniversary with an array of  celebrations of the mountain culture that was endemic in the park’s area before it transformed a number isolated of communities into a national treasure.  Scattered across East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are individuals and descendants from  families who gave up their home places when the park was created so all Americans could enjoy the beauty of the mountains.  This is the first of a series of blogs describing library materials about the area before it became a national park, the founding of the national park, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as it is today.

There are number of books in the regional library’s collection giving describing life in the Smokies before the park was open:  Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders describes people who lived  in the “back of beyond.”   Kephart worked as a librarian in St. Louis before  escaping to the  Smokies, where he lived a simpler life on the  Hazel Creek watershed and worked to establish a national park in the Smoky Mountains.

In her book, Dorie, Florence Cope Bush describes her mother’s hard life  in the lumber camps in the Smokies, where her father worked at various dangerous jobs in Elkmont, before moving his family to the cotton mills in the piedmont of North Carolina.  The evolution of Elkmont from a lumber camp to a tourist attraction described by Vic Weals in Last Train to Elkmont.  The railroad tracks that originally carried lumber out of the Smokies, brought tourists from Knoxville into the mountains to the Wonderland Hotel.  (Note:  The modern Wonderland Hotel can be found in Wear Valley outside the park.)

A few families had an agreement with the Park Service to live on park land after the park was opened.  The last family to do this was the Walker sisters, who lived in Little Greenbrier.  Their story is told in The Walker Sisters of Little Greenbrier.  After an article about them was published in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940’s, the sisters became a tourist attraction.    At Home in the Smokies is another book the explores the daily lives of residents who lived in the Smokies before the park.  Michael Ann Williams explores the arts and crafts, as well the music of  the mountain people in the book, Great Smoky Mountains Folklife.

Another area of the GSMNP popular with modern-day tourists is Cades Cove.  Cades Cove: the Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community,1818-1937, by Durwood Dunn, traces the history of the valley, surrounded by the Smokies, before it became a haven for travelers.  Dunn is very critical of the Park Service for interpreting the valley as a pioneer settlement, when in reality people who lived there in the 20th century had automobiles and other modern conveniences.

Before the decision was made to build Fontana Dam, the southern boundary of the park was on the crest of the mountains west of Newfound Gap.  Construction of the dam meant the Little Tennessee River would be turned into a lake, drowning a series of communities along the river, forcing people to leave their homes and the railroad to alter the route from Bryson City to Wesser.

 In Passage Through Time by Michael George and Frank Strack, published by the Great Smoky Mountain RR, a chapter describes how the railroad route was changed with the advent of Fontana Lake.    The branch that went almost 14 miles to the Fontana community is now under water.

Proctor on Hazel Creek, a tributary of the Little Tennessee, was the site of a lumber mill early in the twentieth century before was it was swallowed up by the lake. In Hazel Creek From Then Till Now, a former resident  remembers life in the community of Proctor and the families who lived there.  Hazel Creek was also the site Horace Kephart’s “Back of Beyond.”   You hike the Hazel Creek area of the park at home by viewing Hazel Creek Hike, which is available from your local branch of the Fontana Regional Library.

Fontana:  a Pocket History of Appalachia, traces the history of the land under Fontana Lake and the watershed of tributaries of the Little Tennessee River along what is now known as the north shore of the lake.  The copper mine Eagle Creek and  lumber industry of Hazel Creek  had to make way for the production of electricity to help the war effort and the communities that were not drowned by the lake were otherwise taken by the expansion of  the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The grassroots movement that was responsible for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountians National Park will the subject of my next blog.

4 thoughts on “Before the Park – Life in the Smokies

  1. This was very interesting! Last time I camped at Cades Cove I met a man who was born in the Cove, and he spent about an hour sharing all sorts of interesting stories.


  2. Having this much nature at our door steps makes for a wonderful life here in Bryson City. Stephen tell us more about whats out there.


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