More than 200 state and local dignitaries gathered for a ceremony atop Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week.
The event kicked off the celebration of the park’s 75th anniversary, bringing together communities from North Carolina and Tennessee to pay homage to the shared triumphs and tragedies that led to the park’s creation.
“Welcome to your national park,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson told the audience in his opening remarks.
The words couldn’t hold more true for the Smokies. While every national park belongs to the people, the Smokies’ unlike others was occupied land at the time of the park’s creation. It was riddled with family farms and rural communities, complete with churches, schoolhouses and hundreds of cemeteries. Even the steep mountainsides were integral to survival as communal hunting and fishing grounds and an open range for livestock.
As many as 7,000 people were pushed out to make way for the park, according to leading historians. It marked the first time in history the power of eminent domain claimed land for recreation purposes.
The historic sacrifice bonds neighboring communities to the Smokies more so than in other parks. Ditmanson asked those in the audience to stand whose family heritage stems from lands taken by the park, and at least two dozen rose, among them Alice Aumen of Cataloochee Ranch in Haywood County; Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority; and Luke Hyde, owner of the Calhoun House in Bryson City.
“For those who gave so much, a heartfelt thanks,” Ditmanson said.
Ditmanson said the park is indebted to the families uprooted so the park could be created.
“Time has healed many but not all wounds. There are still many who wished it turned out different,” Ditmanson said.
Many now realize, however, the park saved rather than destroyed their heritage, Ditmanson said.
“The park saved the mountains and preserved their beauty,” Ditmanson said.
Ditmanson heard this sentiment reflected during a speech a recent Cataloochee Reunion, an annual gathering of hundreds of people with family ties to Cataloochee Valley, a section of the park in Haywood County.
“’We can’t trust other people’s grandchildren,’” Ditmanson recalled of the speaker’s words. “Everybody laughed, but people got it. Somebody’s grandchildren would have sold out and it wouldn’t be the beautiful place it is today.”
The Smokies is the “people’s park” in another sense. The idea for a national park in the Smokies rose from the vision of local leaders who fought nearly two decades to bring it to fruition. Park proponents first had to convince the nation the Smokies was worthy of national park status and esteemed enough to join the ranks of only a small handful of Western icons at time like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.
Meanwhile, they had to convince people at home that national park tourists would provide an economic engine, justifying the sacrifice of those losing their land.
And finally, the park fathers had to raise the money to buy all the land. Of the $10 million estimated cost, $1 million had to be raised within towns and cities neighboring the park.
“We have to remember the many people whose foresight and vision made this possible,” N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said during last week’s ceremony. “Let us pause to honor the many men and women whose vision, commitment and love for the mountains has made the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a treasure for future generations.”
The preservation of grand landscapes and vast wilderness is important to the human psyche, Ditmanson added.
Indeed, the best part about the celebration for many in attendance was the blue sky, spring air and crisp, long-range views of the Smokies at their finest. The parking lot sits above 6,000 feet, offering unrivaled vistas.
“I don’t think you can get any closer to heaven than where we are sitting here today without being in heaven,” Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks said when he took the podium.
Hicks said the park has preserved his ancestral landscape, which holds spiritual and cultural meaning for the Cherokee.
“The park helps keep us whole from any other people moving in on the historic landscape of the Cherokee,” Hicks said.