An eye for mountains: An Ansel Adams of the Smokies, George Masa was one of the greatest photographers of his era. So why have so many people never heard of him?

By Michael Beadle

There’s a view on the way up to Clingmans Dome, an overlook where a maze of finger-like ridges unfurl at your feet and spread across the landscape before tumbling into the Oconaluftee River Valley below. Surveying this vast, unspoiled wilderness, photographer Don McGowan likes to think George Masa once stood here taking photos nearly a century ago.

McGowan can’t help but wonder whether the views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he enjoys today are largely the result of Masa’s tireless efforts to capture the subtle beauty and awe-inspiring vistas that many take for granted.

“I think he felt a kinship with these mountains,” McGowan said of Masa. “To see through his eyes is always an inspiration to me.”

Masa, who once helped scout the course of the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and recorded peaks and distances in the Great Smokies, earned his very own spot on the Tennessee side of the park with the naming of Masa Knob in 1961. While the self-taught, Japanese-born photographer earned a great reputation for his endurance as a hiker promoting the idea of preserving mountain land for posterity, he died in 1933 before the Great Smokies became a park. Grieving over the death of his good friend Horace Kephart, plunged into debt during the Great Depression, and suffering from influenza, Masa died in 1933 in the Buncombe County Sanatorium in Asheville. Hundreds of his photos fell into obscurity, many unidentified, lost or stored away by private collectors. Even his grave at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville (the resting place of famous writers Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry) was unmarked. Today much of Masa’s work remains largely unknown beyond the Southern Appalachian region.

But that’s about to change.

A new Ken Burns documentary called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is set to air on UNC-TV the week of Sept. 27 and features the work of George Masa and the role he played with friend and writer Horace Kephart in making the park a reality. The 12-hour, six-part film by the award-winning and famous Burns may finally give Masa’s legacy the attention he so rightfully deserves, according to Paul Bonesteel, an Asheville-based filmmaker who collaborated with Burns on the “National Parks” documentary.

Bonesteel directed a Masa documentary of his own in 2003, “The Mystery of George Masa,” that fueled a resurgence in learning more about Masa’s work and found a home on PBS stations nationwide. Thanks to the added clout from Burns, Bonesteel’s documentary on Masa will be made available to PBS stations for the next three years.

“A lot more people will be hearing the story of George Masa because of that,” Bonesteel said.

Recent magazine articles, art exhibits, lectures and historical essays have given more people a chance to get to know George Masa, though his younger years before coming to Asheville are still shrouded in mystery. Why did he leave Japan? Why did he not discuss his past with friends and close business associates? How did he die penniless and in obscurity when he once counted the Vanderbilts as clients of his photography business?

Bonesteel learned of the man dubbed “the Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains” through a biographical article written by William A. Hurt Jr. in the book May We All Remember Well: A Journey of the History & Culture of Western North Carolina, published in 1997. Intrigued by what he read, Bonesteel contacted Hurt, who said he felt like he’d only scratched the surface of this enigmatic figure. After a few years of researching Masa’s life, poring over letters and photographs from various university archives and private collections, Bonesteel found a fascinating story of a man who was leading the environmentalist charge long before the hippies of the 1960s.

“He was a curious and mysterious fellow,” Bonesteel said. “There are mysteries that we won’t ever be able to answer. And people like mysteries.”


Masa’s background

Masa was certainly not the first to photograph the majestic peaks and scenic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, but in the early 1900s, no one had taken on such a monumental task of measuring, mapping and photographing as many of these mountains with the passion and skill as Masa.

Based on the limited information about his early years, there’s not much to tell. He was born in Japan in 1881. His birth name was Masahara Iizuka. Late 19th century Japan was in a state of social and political upheaval. The long-running shogun government system which had isolated the country from Westernized culture finally opened up, bringing a flood of European and American traders into the country.

The Japanese ban on emigration had also been lifted, and tens of thousands of Japanese left their homeland for work in America, many going to Hawaii to toil in the sugar plantations, while others relocated to California, which saw an explosion of population and business after its gold rush.

Iizuka ended up in Asheville in 1915 as part of a traveling group of Austrian students. Together, they would go on mountain hiking excursions, and Iizuka fell in love with the region. When it was time for the Austrian group to leave, Iizuka stayed behind and found work as a valet at the Grove Park Inn. Fred Seely, the manager of the Grove Park Inn who also organized Biltmore Industries, hired the young Japanese newcomer as a woodcarver.

Iizuka, like many foreign-born immigrants with hard-to-pronounce names, decided to Anglicize his name, keeping part of his original moniker. And so he became George Masa.

Masa got his start in photography by developing film for hotel guests. By the 1920s, Masa developed his own business as a photographer, taking portraits and working as a freelance photojournalist for Asheville newspapers and news services. His photography studios went through various names and partners, but he soon became well known locally as a landscape photographer, and his work found its way into magazines, newspapers and chamber of commerce brochures.


The Kephart connection

Historians are not clear exactly when Masa befriended the outdoor travel writer Horace Kephart, but the two found a mutual passion in hiking through the mountains and for creating what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Ellison, a writer based in Bryson City, N.C., who has researched and lectured extensively on Masa and Kephart, notes that the two had a lot in common. Both were wiry men who loved the outdoors, and the park gave them a mutual goal to save the mountains they loved so much. They hiked and camped together, and Masa’s photographs would often accompany Kephart’s articles.

“They were quite a formidable team,” Ellison said.

When Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, Masa was devastated, and before Masa died two years later, he asked to be buried along side of his friend. Though that wish was not granted, and neither lived to see the official creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they were among an elite few to have place names in their honor. Today, Masa Knob stands next to Mt. Kephart, two peaks for two kindred spirits.

While many of Masa’s photographs remain lost or undiscovered, Bonesteel believes that a large body of his work has been made available to give us plenty of insights into his artistry. Masa, sporting his signature bandana and home-made bicycle wheel odometer that he used to measure distances along trails and up to the tops of mountains, is pictured alongside fellow hikers and curious tourists.

There are various stories of this painstaking perfectionist hiking miles into the woods and waiting for hours to get the clouds and the lighting just right before taking his photos. Masa lugged heavy camera equipment into the wilderness and when he pitched a tent, he might store the camera and equipment under shelter as he slept outside. Sometimes friends and fellow hikers would help him carry the equipment up and over mountains.

Author and outdoors photographer Bill Lea said he admires Masa not only for his creative eye for putting the viewer right in the middle of a wilderness setting but also for his work ethic and his willingness to trek great distances with little provision for himself in his quest to find the best photos.

“In fact,” Lea explained, “many people felt he died young due to the disregard he had for his own welfare and subsequent exposure to the elements in his great desire to capture those perfect images.”

In addition to enduring long hikes and inclement weather through rough terrain, Masa most likely had prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals used in film developing that may have given him respiratory illnesses. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis and ultimately succumbed to influenza.

And not everyone was keen on Masa.

Bonesteel found evidence in letters that Fred Seely, who once hired Masa as a woodcarver at Biltmore Industries, secretly reported on Masa to the federal government. At a time when immigrants and outsiders were viewed suspiciously, Masa’s meticulous record-keeping and documentation of his photographs may have raised some red flags, but Seely soon called off the dogs when there was no substantive evidence that Masa was doing anything un-American. From Bonesteel’s research, he found some subtle forms of prejudice, but more often than not local residents were accepting of Masa and his work and were attracted to the novelty of a talented Japanese photographer in their midst.

“He did a lot of work to capture the grandness of the mountains,” Bonesteel explained. And even in his more commercial work of buildings and architecture, the quality is still there.


True scope unknown

While Masa has been compared to Ansel Adams, whose photography popularized the Rocky Mountains and the beauty of the western U.S., Bonesteel argues that the two had very different intentions. Adams saw himself as an artist and had his work shown in galleries. Masa never had an exhibition in a gallery during his lifetime and made a living by selling postcards, portraits and tourist shots.

Bonesteel speculates that there may be hundreds, even thousands of Masa photographs still out there waiting to be seen. A Buncombe County listing of Masa’s possessions at his death suggest the possibility of thousands of negatives. Today, there are several sizeable archives of Masa’s work found at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville, as well as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

George Frizzell, head of special collections at Western Carolina’s library, helps to preserve Masa’s photos by storing them in Mylar sleeves to keep the natural oils in fingers from damaging them. Given the latest digital photography techniques and computer scanners, Frizzell hopes that more of Masa’s photos can be stored indefinitely and shown to wider audiences via the Internet.

Since Bonesteel’s film came out in 2003, he has been contacted by a family that once kept Masa as a guest at their boarding house in Asheville. Descendents of the family who knew Masa claim to have letters Masa received from Japan. Masa still owed this family about $1,200 at the time of his death, but they kept his letters because of the beauty of the Japanese characters on paper. If these letters could be acquired and translated, they might shed some light as to whether Masa was still in contact with Japanese family and friends and what his relationship was with them. But so far, Bonesteel hasn’t been able to procure those letters.

“I don’t rule out the possibility that something may come out of that,” he said. “There’s work yet to do. The answers may be out there.”

Hard-to-get taxonomists could make or break ATBI’s future

As the inventory of every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trudges into its tenth year, it turns out the biggest hunt so far isn’t for obscure slime molds or nocturnal flies — it’s for taxonomists to do the counting.

“In the beginning we cast a wide net: all these things need to be researched and if you want to do that, come,” said Todd Witcher, the director of Discover Life in America. “Now the park is wanting to look at things that are understudied. There are cases where there just is nobody to do it.”

Witcher’s pitch to lure hard-to-get taxonomists — beyond simply being part of the world’s premier species inventory — includes the thrill of finding and naming a new species.

“The idea of discovering a new species is intriguing,” Witcher said. “That’s why they are in science or taxonomy.”

As more national parks and preserves follow in the footsteps of the Smokies and launch their own all-species inventories, the global shortage of taxonomists is becoming even more apparent. The competition for experts in an already strained field makes it unclear how or when the Smokies’ All-Taxa Biological Inventory will eventually conclude.

“When it comes to getting taxonomists in a field where there are no experts, it’s hard to predict how long some of that will take,” Witcher said.

Life in the richest place on earth

When Jim Lowe strikes out on his twice-monthly foray to check insect traps in the Smokies, he never knows just what is in store.

Lowe runs various and sundry traps — tiny cups sunk in the ground, large mesh nets draped from poles and funnels dangling in the tree canopy. As a volunteer for the All Taxa Biological Inventory, Lowe ambushes moths, spiders, millipedes, bees, flies, beetles and the whole array of insects in the name of science.

During his collection rounds, he often wonders, “Is this a new species?” It is usually months, or even years, until he knows the answer, after taxonomists get their hands on the specimens and cull through them.

But to Lowe, the ATBI is more than the thrill of the hunt, more than a laundry list of new species or bragging rights as the most diverse park.

“We are asking the fundamental question: what do each of these things do? What is their role in the ecosystem?” said Lowe, who lives outside Robbinsville. “The Smokies is a most extraordinary place. There is so much diversity.”

The quest to document every life form in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has rallied researchers from across the globe, inspired by this last frontier of exploration. While cavers probed the park’s limestone depths, climbers harnessed ropes to explore life in the vast canopy of old-growth trees. Teams outfitted in wetsuits and snorkels peered under rocks in the ancient river beds, while others combed the dank underside of logs for mysterious breeds of fungus.

The undertaking is the first of its kind in the world. Ten years and counting, the ATBI still has long way to go. The Smokies is a bastion of biodiversity and ferreting out the estimated 60,000 species hasn’t been easy.

“Some of it’s under the ground, some of it’s on top of the tree canopy, some if it’s out at night when we’re not around,” said Paul Super, a research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County, N.C.

Some species are so specialized they appear only when the right conditions align, perhaps every 20 years or more. Super has been waiting for years for a good winter snow pack to reveal rare slime mold species that only emerge under the right spring thaw conditions.

While discovering new species is exhilarating in its own right, it’s not the driver behind the ATBI, Super said.

“We have been charged with protecting this 550,000-acre black box, to take care of all the resources that are in it and make sure they will survive centuries into the future while allowing people to visit and enjoy the park,” Super said “We want to open the black box and see what’s in it so we can protect its biological diversity with a foundation of science and understanding.”

While the ATBI has earned the Smokies bragging rights as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Park Ranger Keith Langdon says the ATBI is much more than a ledger of species.

“How could it make us be more intelligent stewards of the park forever?” asked Langdon, chief of inventory and monitoring in the park.

Until the ATBI, the park had only a vague idea of what birds lived where, but now they have maps of breeding grounds for different species and the niche microclimates they inhabit, Langdon said.

Todd Witcher, the executive director of Discover Life in America, doesn’t discount the value of sheer knowledge: science for science’s sake.

“People are interested in what’s out there. Anytime you go on a hike, people want to know, ‘What is that? What is this? What’s behind that rock?’” Witcher said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go any further than putting a name to something.”

But the study of individual species is a key to unlocking the secrets of the ecosystem as a whole.

“An ecosystem is made up of all these things that are interdependent. The big stuff wouldn’t be there without the small stuff,” Witcher said. “In general, we are trying to find out what the small stuff is and how it connects to all those bigger things.”

Life on earth hinges on thousands of “cryptic yet important” microorganisms, according to Peter White, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and board member of Discover Life in America.

The ATBI is going a long way to detect those critical links, like the slime mold that decomposes fallen logs and leaves, creating fertile soil for acorns to sprout. The oak from that acorn will one day become a winter den for a black bear giving birth to cubs — all on the backs of the microscopic slime mold that until now no one knew existed.


A worthy cause

At Discover Life in America, Witcher’s job is to convince the public — and people handing out grants — that the ATBI has value beyond an interesting counting exercise. Discover Life in America is the non-profit established to coordinate the operation, from training volunteers to the all-important fundraising.

When pitching the ATBI, the allure of pharmaceutical discoveries or DNA breakthroughs rise to the top. For example, the Smokies has garnered repute for its slime molds, bestowed with the charming title of “Slime Mold Capital of the World.” While slime molds have all sorts of important roles — an anchor at the bottom of the food chain that higher life depends on — medical researchers have latched on to a particular slime mold species from the Smokies as holding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The ATBI has provided a platform for scientists to collude with the other top experts in their field, such as a fly blitz held a couple of years ago.

“There were 25 brilliant scientist from all over the world to study flies,” Witcher said, ticking off countries like Israel, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Peru.

They collected flies and studied specimens by day, and took turns putting on mini-presentations at night. Man’s understanding of the natural world was better off at week’s end than at the beginning.

Even flies have a vital function. They are the top pollinator after bees, and in maggot form they play a vital role in decomposition of dead animals and plants.

The ATBI has captured the imagination of scientists worldwide. More than 700 researchers from 20 countries have flocked to the Smokies to be a part of the ATBI. What started as a scrappy undertaking, even a pipedream, has become the largest sustained natural history inventory in the world.

“Assisted by volunteers and with only a shoestring budget, they have built it into a major enterprise of biological research,” according to famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

The ATBI has not only enchanted scientists, but it has dropped school children into the woods as first-hand explorers.

“Children are innately curious about the living world and are closer to the ground than we are — and more ready to turn over rocks and logs,” White said.

School children from surrounding communities on fieldtrips in the park have been enlisted in the hunt for everything from moths to salamanders.


Life on a string

One of the scariest tasks staring down the Smokies is protecting species found nowhere else on earth. Known as endemic species, these hyperlocal life forms carved out a niche on the planet so specific that if they disappear from the park, they disappear forever.

“The national park’s mission is to protect what exists in the park,” Witcher said. “If you don’t know what’s there, you don’t know what is disappearing.”

And the threats are daunting.

“There’s air pollution. There’s global warming. There is acid rain. There is urban development jutting right up next to the park. There is overuse, loving our park to death. There are also invasive exotic species,” Witcher said.

So, the ATBI is providing a crucial baseline to measure future changes against, the very diversity of the Smokies serving as a giant canary in the coal mine.

“Ecosystems and species provide for an early warning system for the health of the biosphere and the human habitat,” White said.

The Smokies’ biodiversity is partly due to its array of unique habitats: a combination of warm valleys and frosty peaks, moist rich coves and dry southern slopes, creating hundreds of microclimates and ecosystems. Each niche teems with its own thriving species.

The peak biodiversity is found in mid-range elevations, where the lower and higher altitude species overlap. That’s something the park didn’t realize prior to the ATBI, Langdon said.

The Smokies’ high-elevation ridges host numerous species otherwise found in more northern climes. Isolated from the rest of their species since the last Ice Age, these northern vagabonds trapped on high-elevation islands in the Smokies can evolve on their own track and end up genetically different from their northern cousin.

One such peripheral population marked a major milestone in the ATBI — the 5,000th species discovered in the Park that was not previously known to dwell here.

The Velvet Leaf Blueberry was found during an inventory field day at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in Haywood County. The thigh-high shrub was first encountered in the Park a few years earlier, but eluded botanists until it was found blooming during an ATBI field day.

Not every species uncovered by the ATBI is cause to celebrate. Take another find from Purchase Knob, a small round beetle found feeding on St. John’s Wort by two volunteers, retired entomologist Dr. Charles Stains and his wife.

Their unfortunate find was the “Klamath Weed Beetle,” an invasive species from Europe and Northern Africa, adding to the depressingly long list of exotics undermining the native ecosystem. Another exotic species unearthed during the inventory is the Chinese jumping worm. It aggressively devours organic matter before it can be synthesized by the soil, severely compromising the nutrient composition.

The worm was likely released inadvertently by fishermen who had purchased the worms from bait shops. Thanks to the ATBI, the species was detected before becoming widespread in the Park and can hopefully be stopped.


How it all began

When the Smokies launched the ATBI in 1998, it was the first of its kind in the world. Despite the many parks and preserves now emulating the research, the Smokies remains at the forefront.

Along the way, the Smokies benefited from a little blind luck. In the early 1990s, a famous and pre-eminent tropical ecologist, Dr. Dan Janzen, began rallying scientists to join him in an inventory of life in Costa Rica. Janzen urged ecologists to take note of the critical crossroads facing the planet today: that we’re losing life faster than we can catalog it.

Janzen raised millions for his project and entrusted it to an agency created to spearhead the Costa Rica project. But it barely got off the ground before the agency recanted, pitching other uses for the money than just the species inventory.

Janzen was furious. He terminated the project, leaving the hordes of scientists geared up for the undertaking not only disappointed but wondering what to do next.

From his corner of the Smokies, biologist Keith Langdon watched the rise and fall of Janzen’s great tropical inventory. Langdon and his fellow park rangers had long held the notion that life here in the Smokies was just as rich — and fragile — as the famed rainforests.

“We, too, are losing things faster than we can catalog it,” Langdon said.

Langdon occasionally finagled small pots of money for tailored inventory work, like the number of crayfish in a particular stream or the trees preferred for breeding by a single endangered bat.

“It would have taken us about 150 years at that rate to finish the inventory of the park,” Langdon said.

So Langdon called the fuming Janzen and pitched the idea of deploying an inventory in the Smokies instead. Janzen was in, but they couldn’t do it without support from the world’s scientists. Unsure if those who’d previously signed on for Costa Rica would invest in the Smokies, Janzen agreed to hold an informal talk in the park to gauge interest.

“We had 120 scientists show up,” Langdon recalled. “He’d gotten the taxonomists all excited. They were looking forward to showing what they could do if they all joined together.”

Langdon still needed a green light from national park bureaucrats, so the lobbying began. In a fitting move, the deputy director of the park service flew down from D.C. on Earth Day (April 20) of 1998.

“He said ‘Yup, let’s do this. We want to try this out and the Smokies will be our pilot. We aren’t going to give you any money, but you can do it,’” Langdon recalled.

Then began the tough job of logistics. Who would run it, where would money come from, where should scientists start counting?

“We knew it was a big deal, a big commitment and a lot of work,” Langdon said. “It’s a big park, it’s diverse and difficult to get around. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

The park looked to Friends of the Smokies for help. The Friends agreed to help launch the project, but ultimately planned to spin off a separate non-profit tasked solely with managing the ATBI. Together with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies co-sponsored the creation of Discover Life in America to get the ball rolling.


Trial and error

Now the brass tacks could begin. But the logistics of just how to do this thing proved difficult. In fact, 10 years into the project, Langdon is still sorting out the best approach.

When people hear about the ATBI, they envision a chain of scientists sweeping quadrants of the park, crawling along the ground with a magnifying glass in hand, perhaps a crew leader bellowing through a megaphone for all the critters out there to please stand still for a head count.

But in fact, there will still be vast sections of the park never touched by scientists when the books are eventually closed on the ATBI. Instead, the park will pick sampling sites that theoretically represent every habitat niche.

The past decade has focused on just 11 plots subjected to intensive sampling. A rotating door of experts on spiders, moths, ants, slime molds, fungi, and birds took their turn trapping and tagging at the targeted plots. Teams of volunteers were critical in the sampling, from checking insect traps, wielding nets or toting clipboards for the scientists.

The plots had to be checked and rechecked every two weeks all year long, since many species emerge during certain seasons, whether it is a short-lived wildflower or a bat showing up to nest. For example, the synchronous fireflies, famous for their choreographed light show and found few places other than the Smokies, are only active for a 10-day window. The “when and where” of species is a critical part of the ATBI data.

“If somebody came to me and gave me a list of all the species, it wouldn’t help me. I need to know where they are at, their abundance, the seasonality of it, which ones are rare to keep track of and which ones are common, and something about their ecological role,” Langdon said.

That initial strategy — intensive sampling at 11 sites — wasn’t perfect, however. For starters, the parade of bio blitzes and life quests raked in an unmanageable volume of organisms still queued up waiting for a taxonomist to inspect them, Langdon said. The backlog could take years to clear out, specimens languishing in storerooms for want of scientists to sort them.

Plus, the 11 sites weren’t representative enough of the park’s numerous microhabitats, Langdon’s realized.

“We just missed it with 11 sites,” Langdon said.

Enter the next phase of the ATBI: far more sites, but far less intensive. The park mapped out 150 sampling sites for quick hits, comparatively, by tactical teams. The new strategy will likely define the next decade of the ATBI.


In the Smokies’ footsteps

National parks and private preserves all over the world are tackling similar inventories. Exactly how many isn’t known, but there were nine that cropped up at other national parks in 2008 alone. Top that off with some at state parks, private nature preserves and parks around the world, and there are likely a couple of dozen.

“A lot of people initially said ‘You can’t do that, it is too much,’” Langdon said. “I think we have shown you can make some great strides wading into that. There are a lot of parks following in our footsteps.”

For a national park embarking on a species inventory, their first step is usually calling Todd Witcher at Discover Life in America for advice.

“We are helping the other ATBIs learn from our mistakes and learn from our knowledge,” Witcher said. “We want to share that information even though there will probably be a little competition.”

That competition — whether for grant money or luring researchers — has contributed to a slowdown of the Smokies own ATBI.

Witcher’s top bit of advice: the drudgery of data management. A laundry list of species isn’t useful unless they can be mapped, charted, sorted and searched with computer programs.

“We are still dealing with our backlogged data,” Witcher said.

Discover Life in America is more than an ATBI facilitator. Witcher sees the nonprofit as a scientific arm of the park, coordinating science and research on a host of levels. Discover Life has an annual budget of about $120,000, varying with grants. The nonprofit recruits and coordinates volunteers, raises awareness for science in the park, manages teams of researchers cycling through the project, stores the data and generally makes the ATBI possible.

Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association provide the core of Discover Life in America’s budget.


The road ahead

The ATBI will likely continue in some form for decades to come, although it will taper off in intensity. A decision no one relishes is when to declare mission accomplished.

“If we get to 90 percent, is that enough?” Witcher asked. “The last 10 percent is probably really, really rare and hard to find, so do you want to spend a lot of money on something that is going to take a lot of effort and be really difficult to complete?”

But getting to 90 percent is still a long way off. So far, 16,000 species have been identified. Scientists believe the park holds as many as 60,000.

As Phil Francis, a long-time assistant superintendent of the park once remarked, “How many species are there in the Smokies? It reminds me of the question we used to get at Mammoth Cave National Park: How many miles of unexplored cave are there?”

Another challenge is keeping the public excited about yet another slime mold or millipede.

“About half of all the species in the park are believed to be insects and other invertebrates,” Langdon said. Lichen and plants take up another good chunk of the pie. That leaves perhaps just 1 percent for the birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and mammals that most capture the public’s interest — or at least until now. The ATBI has moved the public’s image of the Smokies beyond the bears and elk and trout.

“The project draws people from the human scale to see the hidden, unknown, and obscure, but often beautiful, intricate, and ecologically important species of natural ecosystems,” White said. “It shows parks as oases, storehouses, and protectors of biological diversity.”

Volunteers keep the Smokies ticking

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more volunteers than nearly any other park. Last year, 2,780 volunteers logged a total of 117,537 man-hours. They wielded Pulaskis on trails, handed out maps at visitor centers, donned historic costumes for heritage days, scooped ashes out of campfire rings and promoted ethical wildlife viewing during peak elk times in Cataloochee.

Some volunteers turn their commitment to the park into a full-time endeavor, like Jim Lowe of Robbinsville. The Smokies hit a home run when Lowe sought out the area in his retirement. With a Ph.D from Yale in entomology and botany, and a forest service career that centered around plants and bugs, Lowe not only has hours and passion to spare but a real knowledge of science.

Lowe found his true niche as a volunteer with the All Taxa Biological Inventory. During the height of ATBI insect collections, the 77-year-old Lowe made twice-monthly treks to Purchase Knob for three years to check insect traps.

To catch crawling insects, Lowe used a pitfall trap: a plastic jar sunk in the ground. Any bugs stumbling along would fall in and drown in a dose of propylene glycol, poisonous only to insects.

For flying critters, Lowe draped a large mesh net over a pole, called a malaise trap. When insects collide with the mesh, they have a naturally tendency to fly upwards looking for a way past the obstacle. But at the apex of the net, the insects found themselves face to face with a bottle of ethyl alcohol.

Since black bears would lap up the ethyl alcohol if given the chance, an electric fence was strung around the whole contraption.

After three years, the Park finally put the breaks on the intensive collection after running out of storage space for the insects.

“Literally thousands,” Lowe said.

Lowe wasn’t the only one making the weekly rounds to check traps. Similar stations were set up at 10 other sites in the park. Lowe frequently pinchhit for volunteers manning the other locations.

“Between that and my trail maintenance, I never hike recreationally any more,” Lowe said.

As an on-call volunteer, Lowe often gets the chance to rub elbows with the troop of researchers funneling through the Smokies on ATBI quests. Lowe has a boat on Fontana Lake and is often tapped to give researchers a lift across the water to the wild and remote North Shore area of the Park. One week it might be ornithologists snaring birds in mist nets, and scientists tracing water mites the next.

Lowe sometimes serves as a backcountry guide for what he calls the “intellectual types” with less than savvy outdoor skills.

The ATBI has overshadowed any semblance of retirement Lowe had to his name.

“It’s a long standing love of the park and wanting to contribute to the knowledge of it,” Lowe said. “At the risk of sounding sappy, I am just devoted to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has been a great part of my life.”

Great Smokies become instant recipe for tourists

The mountains of Western North Carolina were no stranger to tourism prior to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which today rakes in 9 million visitors and is by far the most visited national park in the country.

Trains loaded with wealthy tourists from Charleston, Atlanta and beyond pulled into the stations in Bryson City and Waynesville daily. Many spent their entire summers in the mountains to escape the Southern heat.

But the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park catapulted the region into a new era of tourism: one centered on the burgeoning automobile.

Initially automobile trips into the Smokies became a lucrative business for those capitalizing on the throngs of summer tourists arriving by train, said Henry Foy, whose mother operated the Herren House in Waynesville.

“We would be in the dining room at dinner and the owner of a taxi company would come down and tell people he was organizing a daytrip to the Smokies if they were interested,” Foy recalled.

As owning cars became commonplace following WWII, the Smokies offered an unrivaled auto touring adventure. Nowhere was the impact of tourism more prevelant than in Cherokee, the final gateway to the park from North Carolina. Traffic would often back up for miles as it inched along Cherokee’s main drag toward the park entrance.

“It was bumper to bumper to bumper for miles,” recalled Bill Gibson, who lived in Bryson City but worked as a short-order cook at a foodstand in Cherokee as a teenager. “I had never been anywhere, so I didn’t relate to where these people were coming from or going back to other than what I saw in a geography book in school. These folks weren’t alien Martians, but I can recall seeing a Florida plate, and it was unusual enough to be something to be proud of.”

License plate spotting was apparently a popular pastime for the region’s youth.

“We played this silly game where we tried to see the most exotic license plate,” said Gary Carden, who whiled away the summer afternoons along the roadside in Cherokee with other children. As they watched the tourists go by in their Henry Js and Studebakers in the 1950s, without fail a carload of tourists would make hand motions like a teepee, prompting the children to mock the silly gestures after the car had passed. Even thought the Cherokee never lived in teepees, historical accuracy was lost on the tourists who held their own notions of what Indians should look like. So the Cherokee soon lined the road with fake teepees, donned headdresses and posed in photos for money.

“With all these people coming through our front yard they said ‘Let’s sell them something.’ They had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to stimulate the economy,” Carden said. “What they got was a strange new economy based on tourism that was only good for six months. Then you were out of work for six months when the tourist left.”

Bryson City capitalized on the influx of tourists as well. Luke Hyde, 69, remembers the droves that would funnel through the Calhoun House, a large inn in the middle of downtown, where his mother worked as a cook. Hyde would often carry the tourists’ bags in, and remembers the first time someone tipped him a dime. Hyde was confused, and handed it back to the man.

Meanwhile, Leonard Winchester spent his teenage years pumping gas for tourists at his dad’s rural store and roadside motel outside Byrson City.

“There was a dramatic difference in business in the summer,” Winchester said.

Winchester liked the chance to see people from all over the country coming past his doorstep. One tourist from out West had a carload of timberwolf pups and gave one to Winchester. But not all the memories are fond ones.

“Some of them were on the obnoxious side. They were pushy,” Winchester said. “They had stereotypes about this region. They pretty much looked down on us as hicks.”

JC Freeman, 81, of Swain County, also had the feeling that outsiders were here as much to gawk at the local people as they were at the mountains.

“The biggest thing they were hunting for is somebody they could make fun of,” Freeman said, recalling loads of tourists on Packard busses. “They wanted to see old Snuffy Smith and L’il Abner and they did their best to show it to them.”

An unfortunate object of affection

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been synonymous with black bears. From the first automobile tourists to today’s long-distance backpackers, catching a glimpse of the the iconic animal is the ultimate Smokies’ experience.

Of course, it was much easier to see one in the park’s early days when tourists regularly fed the bears without fear of reprisal. While it’s illegal to feed wildlife now, it was once an accepted practice, ensuring tourists could get a good, long look.

There was no such thing as bear-proof trash cans, so campgrounds and picnic areas became the bears’ main stomping grounds, giving rise to a host of problematic encounters. Some bears even broke into vehicles to get food left inside.

“They were always trying to catch a bear that was mischevious and getting into trouble,” said Teresa Pennington, who spent lots of time in the park during her childhood years in Asheville. “They would have big traps set up with a piece of meat inside and the gate would fall behind them. They would take them out of the park and release them, but three or four weeks later they were back again. They even had names for them.”

Many of the tourist shops in Cherokee would put bears in a cage and charge tourists to see them, spawning a black market for live bears. Trying to catch a bear was not just a source of money but entertainment for the kids, recalled Gary Carden of Sylva.

“You would pull up at Smokemont and raise the trunk lid and throw a pound of bacon in the back and then go hide. When the bear came in there to get the bacon you slammed the lid and drove off. Sometimes the bear tore that car all to pieces. You would drive around half the night and if nobody wanted the bear you had to go back to the park and let it out,” Carden said

Casino donates money to national park non-profit

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has donated $10,000 to Friends of the Smokies in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year.

The contribution recognizes the value of having the most visited national park in the country at Cherokee’s doorstep.

“I can remember as a child sitting under an apple tree under the highway watching the traffic go by just bumper to bumper,” said Joyce Dugan, the director of Communications and Relations for Harrah’s.

While Cherokee is a unique tourist draw in its own right, Dugan said the creation of the park instantly catapulted Cherokee into a tourism economy.

“There was a little dabbling in tourism prior to the park opening because there was curiosity about Indians. But being the gateway to the park brought thousands more through,” Dugan said. “There was just one way in and one way out. It really did open up Cherokee.”

Harrah’s sees 3.5 million visitors a year — roughly the same number that the North Carolina side of the Smokies sees every year.

“I think we share some of the same patrons,” Dugan said. “I think we can work hand in hand and promote each other.”

Cherokee has been retooling its tourism image in recent years. A large part of the new image has involved incorporating themes of nature into architecture and town layout, and promoting the Tribe’s various cultural tourism attractions like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

The park means more to the tribe than just tourism, however. The Cherokee have a spiritual connection with the landscape that was preserved by the park’s creation.

“As a tribe in these United States, our role should always be about the protection of the earth,” said Dugan, who previously served as chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That’s what we stood for: not taking from the earth anything you could not use and always giving back. But we have adopted so many modern ways, we tend to abuse it, too. The park serves as a reminder to us of what preservation is all about.”

Dugan said there is some resentment against the park for the recent loss of gathering rights, which the Cherokee see as their right as native peoples. Cherokee historically were allowed to gather wild plants — mushrooms, berries, ramps, herbs, greens and the like. The park has recently tried to put an end to the special status afforded to the Cherokee people.

“Even though there have been resentments along the way, we know what a wonderful thing it was,” Dugan said of the park. “I think sometimes personally, ‘What if that park had not been designated? What would it look like?’ I just can’t imagine. In that respect, most all of us here who are Cherokee appreciate that.”

Families sacrifice land for creation of the park

Gudger Palmer has never forgotten the fond memories of growing up in Cataloochee Valley. At 100 years old, one memory in particular brings a smile to his lips every time he returns to his old one-room school.

“That’s the place where the greatest love letter was ever written,” Palmer said. “I was sitting up front and someone punched me on the side. I reached back and saw it was a tablet. I opened it up, and there it was written with a pencil. I knew who it was from, that little girl sitting in the back. It said ‘I love you as good as apple butter.’”

Palmer was a grown man by the time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park claimed his homeplace in Cataloochee Valley. Palmer’s been asked many times, as have all Cataloochee descendents, what it was like to lose his land. At the annual Cataloochee reunion one year, Palmer asked the others how they respond to the inevitable question.

“I said ‘How can you tell other people just how you felt?’ and they said, ‘No, Gudger, you can’t tell other people,’” Palmer said. “There’s no way of getting across to you the feeling we have of losing Cataloochee.”

For Raymond Caldwell, 86, the hardest part of moving out was seeing how much it hurt his father.

“I think daddy carried that grief with him right on through the years, and he lived to be 92. He thought it was awful to have to give up their home and move out with not much compensation,” Caldwell said. “He loved that valley. He would go over there and stay in the campground by himself and walk on those trails up into his 80s.”

More than 1,200 family farms were bought up for the park’s creation, uprooting roughly 7,000 people and forcing them to start anew. Over the decades, they returned to the spots where their homes once stood, watching as the forest slowly closed in, first claiming the fields and the garden plots. The foot paths they’d worn over time slipped back into the earth. And eventually, their old foundations were obscured by the sprouting wilderness. At least to the casual passerby.

“I always had in my mind a picture and could see where everything was,” said Commodore Casada, 99, who grew up on Deep Creek, a section of the park outside Bryson City, N.C. “I could tell where the barn was and the house and so on and so forth, but no one else could now.”

Even though Hattie Davis was only 6 years old when her family moved out of Cataloochee Valley, her memories are vivid, too.

“It is in my mind completely. I can still see the rail fence and the fat cattle and the fine horses and herds of sheep. The long straight rows of corn,” she said.

Every year since the park was created, Cataloochee families hold a reunion at their old church, the Palmer Chapel, which draws up to 600 descendents today. The reunion was bitter-sweet in the early years.

“They loved being with their family and friends again, but they would see their houses falling down and some would cry,” Davis said.

Davis grew up in the Caldwell house, one of the few buildings that was preserved by the park and offers a glimpse of the past. But when Davis walks through the house, through the kitchen where her mother made biscuits or the room she slept in as a little girl, the nostalgia is sometimes more than she can bear. Davis is even more heartbroken by the growing number of initials carved into the doors and banisters and woodwork of her childhood home.

“I cry when I see where people have put their initials on it,” Davis said, welling up with tears to think of it. “We would have gotten our tails beat good with a paddle if we marked the wall growing up.”

Only time will tell

Every week or so for the past 50 years, Caldwell has returned to Cataloochee, usually to fish. During his working years, he would close up his plumbing store early in downtown Waynesville, set off for Cataloochee and return home with fish to fry by dark. He had a lot of time to reflect on the past, and eventually came to a realization, though he would never admit it to his father.

“The best thing that ever happened to Cataloochee was for the park to come along there,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell’s sentiment was once in the minority. Most old-timers went to their graves harboring a sense of betrayal and resentment. But later generations are making their peace.

“I think to most people now the benefits outweigh the negatives,” said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian in Bryson City. “They may well complain their family got moved out but they go back in and camp and walk and picnic on Deep Creek. It means a lot to them. They ultimately wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Davis said there was a concerted effort by many to hide their bitterness.

“They didn’t want their children to hate people,” Davis said. “The parents were so hurt they didn’t want to recall the hurt they had of giving up their home.”

Steve Woody, a Cataloochee descendent, saw the softening of emotions from one generation to the next play out in his own family. His grandfather, known to all as Uncle Steve, was the last resident of Cataloochee Valley, remaining until 1942. He died within a few months of finally moving at the age of 90.

Just two generations later, Woody is one of the region’s most ardent supporters of the park. He helped found the park boosters organization Friends of the Smokies and is on a first name basis with the park superintendent.

“I think most of my generation doesn’t harbor the same resentment. We see it as a good thing,” Woody said. “We have this great park that’s protected and is an economic driver.”

Woody thinks his father eventually accepted the park as well, though he never asked him outright.

“I think he understood that it was probably the best thing,” Woody said. “He loved to go back there. Later in life he would say, ‘If the park hadn’t come, what would Cataloochee look like now?’”

It’s impossible to know, but one thing is certain. It would not be frozen in time, forever capturing the beauty of early life in the Smokies the way it does now.

“Now it’s hallowed ground,” said Dr. Barney Coulter, former chancellor of Western Carolina University and founding member of Friends of the Smokies. “It is a source of great pride to the people who lived there.”

Culture and history to take rightful place in new visitor center

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held this week for a new visitor center at the main North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee.

The new visitor center will showcase the cultural heritage of the region, from the Cherokee to early Appalachian settlers — or the “human side of the park,” as Steve Woody, a founding member of Friends of the Smokies, called it.

A proper visitor center for the North Carolina side of the park has been a long time coming — 75 years to be exact. Since the park’s creation, North Carolina has limped along with a cramped, make-shift visitor center fashioned out of an old ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The new visitor center could help mend North Carolina’s second-fiddle status to Tennessee by establishing a greater presence on this side of the park.

“You have a huge influx of tourists that need a reason to stop here,” said Tom Massie, Jackson County commissioner and former chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Since the Smokies’ creation, a master plan has called for a visitor center showcasing the cultural heritage of the region to be constructed at the N.C. entrance to the park. The $3 million project will finally come to fruition thanks to donations raised by the Friends of the Smokies and proceeds from bookstore and gift shop sales by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Bo Taylor, leader of a Cherokee traditional dance troupe, said it is fitting that the new visitor center museum will emphasize Cherokee history on the land. The Cherokee were the first people to call the Smokies home.

“Remember us as you go through this park,” Taylor said. “It is part of the DNA of our people.”


75 years and counting

The groundbreaking of the new visitor center on Monday (June 15) doubled as a 75th anniversary celebration. The Smokies was officially created by an act of Congress on June 15, 1934.

“Today we give special thanks to the families who sacrificed to give us one of the great treasures of the United States,” said Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who spoke during the program.

Shuler said the park provides a connection to the collective heritage of the region. It is also a conduit to teach children about nature. Shuler recalled the life lessons imparted to him on hiking and fishing trips with his father. Shuler encouraged the audience to take the young people in their lives on a hike and get them outdoors.

Shuler also lauded the new visitor center and its cultural focus.

“Visitors from across the county will be able to come here and see our heritage,” Shuler said.

Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson thanked the community leaders and visionaries who helped create the park 75 years ago, as well as the families who sacrificed their land for the park’s creation.

The promise of tourism was a driver in the creation of the Smokies, and has indeed held true.

“Tourism really is the engine that fuels our county,” said Glenn Jones, the chairman of Swain County commissioners. The national park is the anchor of that tourism economy, Jones said.

But the preservation of the land has also been important to locals.

“I can take my grandkids into the park and they can take their grandkids,” Jones said. “It will be here forever.”

A race against time

While it’s hard to imagine as one gazes at the vast wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than two-thirds of the lush forests were clear-cut by timber companies in a couple of short decades preceding the park’s creation.

Ridge after ridge, the slash operations of the timber giants denuded the mountains, gobbling up massive forests at lightening speed during the 1910s and 1920s.

“Looking at these wonderful mountains with this timber, they couldn’t wait to cut it down,” Duane Oliver said of the timber barons arrival. Oliver grew up in the Swain County portion of the park prior to its creation and recalls their lasting influence.

Large mill towns were born virtually overnight to support the operations. Oliver remembers the hustle and bustle of Proctor, one of the larger logging towns. The once rural area was suddenly home to a movie theater, tennis court and their first resident doctor.

While the lumber camps attracted hundreds of workers from outside the region, the logging operations and their railroads gave rise to a cash-based economy on a scale previously unknown by local people. For many, the desire for a steady paycheck often outweighed their internal conflict over the destruction they were witnessing.

“People were glad to get jobs that paid money,” said Luke Hyde, 69, of Bryson City, whose grandfather on both sides worked as loggers. “Most people in the mountains were subsistence farmers and considered it lucky to get work where they made money. Even when I was a lad people conducted business by barter. Money was in short supply so people would swap things.”

The timber boom wouldn’t last forever, of course. The barons would soon move on, leaving the mountains denuded and thrusting the local people back into poverty — only this time, without their prized forests. The stripped hillsides would no longer be fertile hunting grounds and the creeks once teeming with trout would be decimated by clear-cutting.

In this sense, the park movement entered the stage at just the right time. When talk of a national park in the Smokies began percolating in the early 1920s, local people could see logging would soon go bust. It made it far easier to latch on to the idea of a tourism economy hung on the neck of a national park, even though it was still a foreign concept.

“You’ve got to understand how poor people were. They were looking for anything that might help,” said Claude Douthit, born in 1928 amidst the movement to create the park.

While the lumber companies had brought a short-lived boom, mountain people could see that the jobs would dry up when the lumber companies disappeared. But unlike logging, tourism would be here to stay, park proponents pledged.

“If we use this a magnet to draw tourists, it will be something that will produce forever,” Pierce recounted of their argument. “If we make this a park it will be like the goose laying the golden egg.”


Wresting it away

When the states of North Carolina and Tennessee began buying land for the park in 1927, there were eight large lumber companies operating in what would become the park — among them the well-known Ritter, Norwood, Kitchen, Champion, Suncrest, Whitmer-Parson and Crestmont — as well as a myriad of smaller ones.

Some timber companies had already logged most of the timber and saw a chance to unload the wasteland left behind.

“The lumber companies had come in here and dry-cleaned the whole darn thing,” said Douthit. “They came in and bought the land for nothing, cut the lumber then sold their land to the park.”

The timber companies didn’t exactly go quietly, however. They fought hard for a national forest instead of national park. With a national forest, they could return every few decades to recut what had grown back, but not so with a national park.

Many timber companies balked at the price initially offered for their holdings — in North Carolina it was $10 to $20 an acre — and went to court to get more. The crux of the argument was they needed to be paid not just for the land, but the value of the still standing timber.

While lumber companies had certainly burned through vast tracts of timber already, they weren’t ready to quit while there was still logging to be done, according to Dan Pierce, a UNC-Asheville professor who is an expert on Smokies history.

“Most of these companies still had plenty that had not been logged,” Pierce said.

The timber companies had the deep pockets necessary to fight the land takings in court — and in the meantime continued logging. One of the more storied cases involved Champion, a large timber company with a paper mill in nearby Canton. To demonstrate the cost of logs needed to feed its mill, Champion faked a shipment of specialty spruce from Sweden at a vastly inflated price to flout as evidence of the great cost they would incur through the loss of their timber land.

A jury awarded Champion a generous amount, due in part to the economic tour de force the timber companies were in local communities (although the IRS later discovered a juror in the case got a $15,000 bribe from Champion).

The government appealed Champion’s award — indeed it seemed whichever side lost would have done the same — and the two appeared locked in a dead-end battle.

“Champion recognized this could drag on a long time, and meanwhile they have all these assets tied up,” Pierce said. “Once the Depression hits, Champion realizes ‘If we get this cash, we can do a lot with this.’” So they settled out of court for $2 million — about $20 an acre.

The lengthy court battles with the timber companies pushed the tab for the park’s creation higher than anticipated. Park proponents estimated the raw cost of buying land would be $10 million, and it was.

“What they didn’t figure on were the legal fees and the cost of appraisers to estimate the value of the timber,” Pierce said, “which ran close to $1 million.”

The timber company owners went to their graves claiming they had lost money on the sale of their holdings to the park.

But Margaret Brown, a history professor at Brevard College and the author of a leading book on the park’s creation, The Wild East, thinks otherwise.

“I think they made out like bandits. They made money on the land three ways. They bought it very cheaply, they got everything off it they could, and then got reasonably good prices from the United States government once it was sold,” Brown said. “I think they did just fine for themselves.”


An unlikely ally

Ironically, if it weren’t for the massive logging operations, it is likely the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would not be here. The timber companies made critical contributions to the park movement.

For starters, they played a valuable role sorting out the muddled nature of property deeds in the high mountains, Brown said. When the timber companies arrived in the early 1900s, land ownership often dated back to the first land grants. The boundaries of the original claim, let alone how it had been parceled up through the generations, was fraught with confusion.

When timber companies made their first forays into the Smokies, they often relied on a land speculator to buy up a hodge-podge of tracts and resell them as a block, often landing in court to sort out who held clear title. Unfortunately, a few landowners were out-lawyered and in effect had their land stolen. By the time the park came along two to three decades later, much of the land had been consolidated as large tracts owned by a handful of timber barons.

The timber era also had pushed the region into a cash economy, and it seemed there was no going back to a subsistence lifestyle, Brown said. Addicted to commerce, even if on a rural scale, it made people more willing to accept the idea of tourism as a replacement.

But most importantly, the nation and locals alike saw intrinsic value in the Smokies. Before the timber barons, people couldn’t imagine losing the mountains, so they had no concept of saving them.

“It raised the consciousness of people that it was something they wanted to protect,” Brown said.

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