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Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

The Little River watershed

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Nestled in the northern center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elkmont was once a thriving logging community that inspired Walt Disney’s screen image of Snow White’s cabin and now serves as a key research site for studying synchronous fireflies.

Wanda DeWaard, who leads nature hikes in the area, is eager to share her interest in Elkmont’s rich history.

In its heyday, Elkmont included three neighborhoods of about 80 cabins in all built by the Little River Logging Company back in the early 1900s. Rough and tumble logging roads gave way to a train route that hauled lumber and, later, tourists. Eventually Elkmont became the site of an outdoors and social club for hikers, hunters and the well-to-do of Knoxville and Eastern Tennessee. At its peak, Elkmont was one of the largest towns in Sevier County. The Appalachian Club and the Wonderland Club Hotel offered guest rooms for those looking to get away from city life and enjoy mountainous scenery, hiking trails, fishing and big game.

Colonel W.B. Townsend and a pair of fellow Pennsylvania business associates purchased about 75,000-80,000 acres in the Little River watershed to harvest timber. Townsend, the legendary president of the Little River Logging Company, had cabins built to house his workers and their families. Some of these houses had wheels — the original mobile homes — that could be picked up and carried on up the mountain as areas were logged.

Though it may seem hard to believe for those who hike through Elkmont today, much of the Little River watershed was massively clearcut back in the first half of the 20th Century. DeWaard has heard stories of huge tulip poplars 30 feet in diameter, plentiful brook trout, lots of wild game and groves of giant chestnuts.

The 100-year-old community is full of stories.

DeWaard tells of one particular day when a limousine rolled into Elkmont. Since the area was so rugged and trains usually brought people in, any automobile would have been a rare sight back then, especially a limousine. The village was all abuzz over this strange car. Then, out stepped Walt Disney himself. Apparently, DeWaard explained, Disney came to Elkmont to sketch drawings of the cabin that would eventually become Snow White’s cabin for his 1937 movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The cabin burned down a few years later.

By the early 1930s, private landowners were buying up property to create what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though some argued against the influx of tourists, Townsend agreed to sell 76,500 acres of his timber property to help form the park. According to DeWaard, when the park was formed in the 1934, some private landowners got a cash settlement, some got a land swap, and some got land leases. Cabin owners in Elkmont got leases that allowed them to continue living on the land, but after three land lease renewals, the Sierra Club got involved and argued that private landowners should not be allowed within national park lands. Many of the leases expired in the 1990s, and cabin owners were ordered to leave.

On a recent June night, DeWaard walked through the ghost town of cabins that the forest is gradually reclaiming. Most of the buildings have fallen into disrepair, worn down with disuse, their roofs velveted by moss, yards overgrown with weeds and trees, windows smashed by vandals.

DeWaard said she hoped some of the cabins could still be saved and used for visitors or scientific researchers who study in the area. With proper maintenance, the cabins might even become a money-maker for the park.

For more information about the history of Elkmont, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Web site at www.imagebuilder.com/gsmnp/elkmont.html.

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