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.

Artists’ renderings of Smokies benefit National Park

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The misty mountaintops and bubbling creeks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have served as a source of inspiration for countless artists. In celebration of the Parks’ 75th anniversary, some are now choosing to give back to the place that has given them so much by creating special pieces to benefit the Park.

“Pastels for the Park,” which opens June 6 at the Artists House Too in Bryson City, brings together 11 pastel artists who have created 36 paintings of the Park’s natural wonders. Ten percent of the proceeds from sales of the pieces will be donated to the Friends of the Smokies, the only North Carolina nonprofit that works on behalf of the Park. The exhibit is one of the only artists shows sanctioned as an official 75th Anniversary Celebration event.

“Being that it’s in my back yard and I use it constantly, I thought it would be nice to do some sort of event that would benefit the Park in some way and bring more attention to our side of the Park,” said Artists Too owner Peggy Duncan, who came up with the idea for the show.

Duncan recruited fellow members of the Appalachian Pastel Society to create pieces for the show. Each painting is done with pastels, which are pure sticks of pigment mixed with a tiny amount of binder.

The scenes chosen by the artists are varied, ranging from wildflowers like trilliums to rushing water scenes with creek and rivers to some of the Park’s best-loved mountain views.

Duncan herself has contributed three paintings for the show of her favorite Park spots. One is of the Oconaluftee River cascading near the Smokemont Campground. Another depicts the confluence of Deep and Indian creeks, a popular destination in Swain County. A third painting is of a fisherman casting his fly at Deep Creek.

“I think we have a beautiful show,” Duncan said. “It hangs together very well. The pieces are different and varied, and subject matter and color are very soothing. There are a lot of nice, soft pieces, and very vivid bright pieces.”

The paintings range in size from a small 6-by-8-piece to larger, 24-by-30-inch framed images, and run from $120 to $900.

“In this kind of economy it’s hard for people to think about purchasing art,” said Duncan. “All the artists have made their prices very reasonable. We would love to have a big turnout and some sales to benefit the park.”

Creation of the park was marked by triumph and tragedy

The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75 years ago was nothing short of a miracle. The pitfalls were enormous and often narrowly skirted.

The battle for a park came close to defeat many times, yet park boosters fought and clawed their way to the finish line. It seemed they had fate on their side, delivering a needed push at all the right turning points.

Had the quest for a park come any earlier or later, it would have missed the rare coalescence of events that aligned in the decade leading up to the park’s creation in 1934.

“The odds were so extreme of it happening because of all the things that had to come together,” said Dan Pierce, a history professor at UNC-Asheville and author of The Great Smokies: From Natural History to National Park. “Essentially it couldn’t happen today.”

Park fathers realized early in their quest they would need a suitcase of different strategies depending on who they had to win over. On the national stage, the argument to save the Smokies was largely environmental.

The national parks of the West were in vogue among the elite. The desire to save grand landscapes and set aside natural wonders was not only understood, but proved to be a successful motivator. By the early 1920s, the Eastern politicians even developed a case of national park envy.

“They thought ‘By God they have some big ones out West. We need one, too,’” said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian on the park who lives in Bryson City, N.C.

Another national motivator was the new pleasure of auto touring. A big roads movement was afoot, aimed at the vehicle as a form of recreation, Pierce said. Americans would need somewhere to drive their new cars.

The question quickly became not whether but where to put a national park in the East, Ellison said.

“The mountains were the only place you could do it. The population was too great elsewhere,” Ellison said.

But where in the mountains was another story.

In Western North Carolina, the leading site in the public’s eye was not in fact the Smokies, but Grandfather Mountain. Those inside the park movement, however, realized a park that straddled two states to include Tennessee would give them a stronger position: double the political clout on a national stage and double the fundraising.

Charles Webb, the publisher of the Asheville Citizen newspaper in the 1920s, orchestrated a shift in the region to support the Smoky Mountains instead. Webb would go on to play a critical role in creating the park, from convincing local people of its worth to driving fundraising.

“The paper really becomes a huge advocate for it and provides a publicity barrage,” Pierce said.

But park boosters also had to sway the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission, sanctioned by the Department of Interior to recommend the best site for a park. The Smokies initially wasn’t in the running. Armed with beautiful photos of the Smokies, boosters convinced the commission to at least visit the mountain range.

At the time, they were known simply as the Smoky Mountains. The word Great was slipped in as a clever bit of marketing genius, and possibly helped sway the National Park selection committee to recommend the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1925.

Park boosters still had to convince the nation at large that the Smokies had what it took to be a national park. That was accomplished in part by the photographs of George Masa and the words of Horace Kephart. The two roamed the mountains, capturing their eloquence and presenting it to the nation through brochures and newspaper articles.

Masa’s photos did for the Smokies what Ansel Adams did for the grand parks out West: inspire those who had never seen the mountains to want to save them. Their work even served a similar purpose locally.

“A lot of people had never been into the Smokies themselves, other than seen them from a distance so they didn’t even know what was there in many cases,” Pierce said.

While preservation was an effective motivator on the national stage, at home park boosters needed a different tack. “I think it was the first time they had heard that kind of notion of conservation articulated,” Ellison said.

The pitch to locals hinged on a promise of commerce. Create a park, and an influx of tourists will follow.

“The argument was one of economics, that this would be a huge economic benefit to the region,” Pierce said.

After all, it held true for the parks out West, whose ranks included the famed Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.

“If you look at the gateway community of essentially every national park, it became like it was touched with a wand of gold,” said Margaret Brown, Brevard College history professor and author of The Wild East, a leading park history.

But there was another hurdle to overcome. The Smokies were home to massive logging operations in the 1920s. The timber barons had bought up vast holdings and were furiously slashing their way up every holler and across every ridge. They were poised to clear-cut the entire Smokies — and nearly did.

Not only were the powerful timber barons a force to contend with for park boosters, but local people had become dependent on the market-based economy ushered in by the logging boom. Park proponents had to convince people that tourism could fill that void.

For park boosters, the creation of the Smokies became a race against time. Every day that passed, more timber fell, and the appeal of the park-to-be was diminished. But the devastation wrought by massive logging also helped rally support to “save the Smokies.”

“The Asheville Citizen did a series showing the contrast of beautiful areas and not very far away where cut-and-run logging practices had pretty much devastated [the landscape],” Pierce said.

Of course, people in the mountains at the time had little point of reference for a national park.

“They didn’t know what a national park was. Nobody did,” said Claude Douthit, 81, of Bryson City.

Only nine existed in the country at the time, and most were out West.

“I guess a lot of people didn’t have any idea what was going to happen,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who was a boy in Swain County, N.C., at the time. “I had a couple aunts who had been to Yellowstone and came back talkin’ about the mud puddles and geysers a spewin’. I wasn’t sure if that’s what we’d be getting.”

Freeman was disappointed to learn not only would there be no geysers, but the romping and roaming he had enjoyed through the Smokies would actually be curtailed.

“They told us there wouldn’t be any hunting and fishing in the park. So I couldn’t see much advantage to having one,” Freeman said.

The high mountains not only served as a communal hunting and fishing ground, but also were used as an open range for livestock, free to roam and forage on the acorns and chestnuts.

“My grandfather would tell me stories about taking the cattle into the Smokies in the spring, going back a couple times a year to check on them and driving them back down in the fall,” said Bill Gibson, 61, who grew up in the shadow of the Smokies. People notched them and branded them to tell their animals apart.

While the businessmen and political leaders in Bryson City were pushing for the park, average people who relied on the high mountains for sustenance saw it differently.

“The business people were a little more educated and could see further out to where it would be an advantage,” said Commodore Casada, 99, of Bryson City. “People like me, I just felt like there was something being taken away. You could go hunt, fish, camp out anywhere, anytime you wanted with no limit on anything you caught or killed. I had taken that as a right for me, and I saw it as being taken away after the park was established.”

The concept of a national park was especially difficult to grasp for those being kicked off their farms.

“People thought ‘Well that’s foolish. We got this valley all cleared out and raising cattle and crops. Why do they need us to leave to make a place for people to loaf around in?’” said Hattie Caldwell Davis, whose home place and farm in Cataloochee Valley were claimed by the park. “When they made it into a park, everybody thought it was a disgrace.”

While park proponents were busy rallying support and raising money, a looming logistical problem lay ahead: buying up the land. The timber companies would not go quietly. They would want top dollar for their vast holdings and would be quick to turn to the courts.

And of course there were the thousands of rural people who lived in the park-to-be. Sure, the park had its share of rugged outposts and remote log cabins, but there were also well-established communities, replete with churches, stores and schools. Uprooting them would be no small thing.

The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would have to rely on the power of eminent domain for a novel purpose.

“This was the first time it had been used for recreational purposes, which isn’t an absolute, clear common good the way a road is,” Brown said.

There was a great debate over the boundary for the national park. Most settled areas lay in the valleys, so a park that took in only the high mountains would not be nearly as controversial. Initial maps indeed left out most of the settled valleys, targeting only the sparsely populated uplands dotted by remote cabins and hardscrabble farms.

“People living in marginal land were easier to make offers to, were easier to motivate,” Brown said.

But as the park movement progressed, lines were redrawn to take in a few well-to-do farming communities like Cataloochee in North Carolina and Cades Cove in Tennessee. Park boosters balked initially, but the National Park Service insisted.

“They said, ‘We honestly cannot make a park only on rugged, uphill land. We need to have some beautiful valleys for visitor centers and campgrounds,’” Brown said.

When word circulated that the park line had been expanded to claim Cataloochee, no one believed it, Davis said.

“They thought ‘No it was just a rumor. They will never take us here,’” Davis said. The valley remained in denial until a preacher announced the news in church one Sunday.

By then it was too late to orchestrate a resistance.

“There was already momentum to create a national park,” Brown said. “A lot of people in those communities were taken off guard.”

Whether the bait-and-switch was concerted is unknown. It was nonetheless effective. Had places like Cataloochee and Cades Cove been part of the map all along, rallying support for the park would have been much harder.

“The American people wouldn’t have allowed it to happen,” Brown said. “They would have said ‘These are the Jeffersonian communities that our country was built on.’”

The park service blunted the impact by promising no one would have to leave. While the park would buy the land, hundreds of families living within the park would be allowed to stay on their farms and lease it back from the park, the park service claimed. However, this was not a promise that was ultimately kept.

The logistical challenge to buy land dragged on for 12 years, much longer than park fathers anticipated. By the time they were done, the national park boundary claimed 1,132 small farms and forced the removal of more than 7,000 people.

While so many elements had to coalesce simultaneously, the most critical was money. Without it, no matter how much public or political support boosters could muster, there could be no park. Money, and lots of it, was needed to buy the land for the park. Park proponents estimated it would take $10 million.

The states of North Carolina and Tennessee each pledged $2 million toward the cause in 1927, contingent on the rest of the money being raised from private donors.

“Anyone who had big money at the time was hit up for a donation,” Pierce said.

The one who ultimately came through was the John D. Rockefeller Foundation, without which it is quite likely there would be no Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rockefeller’s heirs laid down a whopping $5 million, and suddenly the park became possible.

That still left $1 million to raise, and park proponents turned to the public in the towns and cities surrounding the Smokies. An oft-repeated tale that captures the hard-fought nature of the park’s creation is that of local school children collecting spare pennies.

“I remember how the people took their pennies to school to help buy the land for the park,” said Douthit.

Generating enthusiasm for people to open their pockets proved difficult. Fundraising fell so far behind, that the National Park Committee nearly pulled the plug on the Smokies. The big daily newspapers in Asheville and Knoxville regularly browbeat the public into giving more and chastised them whenever fundraising stalled.

In exchange for a donation, people were given a signed National Park Founder’s Certificate, which stated as park founder they were “entitled to the particular respect and gratitude of visitors who through the years and ages will benefit by the vision and generosity of those who have made possible the preservation of the virgin forests and varied flora of the choicest section of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.”

Many of these prized certificates still exist in the mountains, squirreled away with family Bibles and records, passed down from one generation to the next. Joyce Patton, 75, of Canton, N.C., still has the Founder’s Certificate awarded to her mother. A school teacher in Sevierville, Tenn., during the park movement, Patton’s mother gave up a year’s salary for the creation of the park.

“I’m sure mother’s contribution was just a stone in the creek compared to what Rockefeller and others did, but for her it was all she had,” Patton said.

The regional fundraising fell short of its goal, however. Many who made pledges of support during the campaign failed to deliver in full.

“People pledged they would give $10,000 and then the Depression hit and they only gave $1,000,” Pierce said.

Ultimately, people in the mountains put up just $800,000 toward the park’s creation.

“There was more symbolic value than actual monetary value,” Pierce said. “It showed the politicians how people felt, that the park had widespread support by the people in the region and that they really wanted this.”

It also had another important side-effect: it made the Smokies “the people’s” park.

“It does give local people a lot of ownership or feeling of ownership that they helped make this happen,” Pierce said.

When it came time to collect on the promise of $2 million from each state, park proponents hit resistance.

“A lot of lawmakers who voted for it did so because they thought the park would never happen,” Pierce said. “They thought ‘I’ll vote for this and it will make me look good but we’ll never have to pay this money.’ But of course Rockefeller throws them a curve, and the states had to pay up.”

North Carolina Governor Angus McLean tried to backpedal on the funding in the late 1920s, forcing a contingent led by Charles Webb, the Asheville Citizen publisher, to travel to Raleigh and demand the Governor relinquish the money.

At the end of the day, however, park proponents still came up short. The cost of land for the park had exceeded their estimates. Once again, the park was nearly derailed, and once again it was saved. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the government would contribute $1.5 million to finish buying the land.

By the time land purchases came together and Congress passed an act creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the fight had been so long and so fraught with obstacles, it’s likely park boosters were amazed at their own success.

“We owe a lot to the people at that time who had the foresight and energy to do it,” Ellison said of the fight for the park’s creation. “If they had waited any later it wouldn’t have happened.”

There are so many what-ifs that the propitious intersection of events is hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine is a world without the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Creating the park: the early years


Logging and lumber companies built railroads, camp towns and timber camps, slashing across the landscape while fueling an economic boom.



National Park Service Director Stephen Mather voices his support for creation of a national park in the East.



A Southern Appalachian National Park Committee is sanctioned to scout locations for a park. Proponents in North Carolina and Tennessee join forces and lobby for the Great Smoky Mountains.



President Calvin Coolidge signs a bill endorsing the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fundraising begins.



John D. Rockefeller Jr. pledges $5 million for land acquisition. The money will only be made available when the two states can raise enough funds to match the donation.



North Carolina appoints a commission to begin buying land for the park.



Representatives from both states including Gov. Henry Horton of Tennessee and Gov. Max O. Gardner of North Carolina travel to Washington, D.C., to present 158,876 acres in deeds to the U.S. government. It is enough land to get a park started. The National Park Service sends the Smokies’ first superintendent and a crew of rangers to monitor and protect the area.



The Civilian Conservation Corps is created, providing a large labor pool of young men to build roads, trails, campgrounds and park buildings. The Smokies was home to more CCC workers than anywhere else, with 4,350 men in a total of 17 camps up and running within the first year. Their work continued for nearly a decade.



A motor access road across Newfound Gap, elevation of 5,046 feet, connecting North Carolina and Tennessee was opened.


June 15, 1934

Congress passes legislation creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, realizing the dream of the many who had supported the idea so vehemently.


Sept. 2, 1940

Thousands gather at Newfound Gap to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicate the park. Standing on the recently finished Rockefeller Memorial, with one foot in each state, FDR speaks of the importance of preservation, but also of the growing conflict in Europe.



Park visitation tops 1 million for the first time. By 2000, visitation peaks at 10 million visitors a year, but dropped back to 9 million by 2008. The Smokies continues to see more visitors than any other park.

Research outpost engages scientists and students under backdrop of the Smokies

There are few places where scientists probing the mysteries of the natural world would rather be.

The sweeping vistas of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, a remote outpost straddling the Cataloochee Divide, has lured researchers from across the globe to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just outside the station’s door.

Since its addition to the park in 2000, the site at Purchase Knob has become a crown jewel of the national park. The outpost is not only a conduit for research in the park, but provides children in neighboring communities with a window on the natural world. The research station provides an intersection for scientists and students to come together, fulfilling one of its missions of citizen science.

Nearly 5,000 middle and high school students funnel through Purchase Knob on field trips and internships every year, contributing in real ways to scientific research. The researchers themselves often don’t have the financial staying power to gather data year after year.

“A lot only have funding for only one season,” said Park Ranger Susan Sachs, the education coordinator for Purchase Knob.

But sixth-graders visiting Purchase Knob for science fieldtrips have been testing the acidity of soil for seven years now. When they started, the soil averaged a pH of 5.5. Today it hovers between 5 and 4.5 — a trend likely due to acid rain from air pollution.

“We have seen a steady slow decline in our soil pH,” Sachs said.

Students also probe the decomposing leaf litter for insects in the woods surrounding Purchase Knob, counting their finds, examining them under a microscope and then releasing them unharmed back into the forest. With several dozen classes conducting the hunt year in and year out, the data piling up could be a harbinger of environmental changes.

“Over time, especially with climate change, some of these things are going to start changing. We might realize one day ‘When’s the last time you saw a wood roach?’” Sachs said. “We are kind of like a watchdog.”


Not to mention the free labor.

“Sometimes we might have a request from a researcher that says ‘Can you take a group out and do this?’” Sachs said.

Such was the case when scientists were looking for a new species of springtail, a type of insect with a spring board jumping mechanism in its tail. Students working with Sachs found a specimen that appeared to be a new species, but scientists never found another, leaving them to wonder if it was truly a new species or a genetic mutation.

“It was considered a discovered but lost species,” Sachs said. At the request of researchers, Sachs unleashed students to search the woods where the lone specimen had been found and told them to hit up all the springtails they could find.

“They found several to the delight of the researcher,” Sachs said. “It turns out the springtail was a ‘lost’ species that had only been found once before in 1954 in New York state. It’s rediscovery allowed it to finally become a legitimate species.”

High school interns play a vital role in air pollution research at Purchase Knob that measures the impact of ozone on vegetation. The students make daily forays into rows and rows of cut-leaf coneflower and crownbeard — dubbed the ozone garden — to chart the appearance of leaves. As the summer progresses, the sensitive leaves develop purplish spots, wither and die prematurely.

“The researchers are only here one to two weeks during the summer but they want to know ‘When did you first start to see the spots, and once you saw them how quickly did they progress,’” Sachs said. The students record their scientific observations.

Several teachers in the region have jumped on board, planting ozone gardens at their schools. At these lower elevations where ozone pollution is not as bad, the plants don’t suffer the same ailments. Students log their observations into an on-line database, allowing them to compare their gardens to those at Purchase Knob and of those at other schools.

The students learn the scientific method while doing research, as well as gain an appreciation for the ecosystem and its vulnerabilities.

“It gives what they have to learn in the classroom a real world application, a picture in their mind they can refer back to,” Sachs said. “It will answer the ‘so why should I care about this?’ question. They have a connection to something they really do care about.”


The gift of a lifetime

The reality of a research outpost like Purchase Knob could never have been realized without the initial benefactors, Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore.

The two first came into the property by sheer happenstance back in 1964. Gilmore, a prominent businessman and statesman from Southern Pines, N.C., was hunting for commercial property to start an RV park in Maggie Valley when his real estate agent insisted on showing him the Purchase. Gilmore humored the agent and ventured up the mountain for a gander, but was hardly in the market for 500-some acres. He was so taken by the beauty and views, he immediately flew back to Southern Pines to fetch McNeil, who had just given birth to their fifth child. McNeil, too, fell in love.

“We both agreed we had to buy it,” McNeil said.

They built a vacation house on it the following year and it became a family retreat. As the children grew up, however, family visits became less frequent. McNeil summered there, but by the 1990s had tired of spending long weeks alone on the top of a mountain.

“I really thought it was time to give it away,” said McNeil, who’s now 88. “My husband and I knew what would happen if we sold it. It would become a country club or something and we didn’t want that to happen. It was too special.”

Since the property abutted the national park, McNeil called the superintendent of the Smokies at the time, Randy Pope, and invited him for a visit.

“He came and looked at it and said ‘We’ll take it.’ There was no doubt,” McNeil said. “They were so thrilled. They really didn’t know what they were going to do with it, but they knew they needed it. It was just a matter of details.”

Those details took another eight years to accomplish, however. Despite best intentions, the park service — like any federal agency — can become ensnared in its own unwieldy bureaucracy.

And there was still the looming question of what to do with the magnificent property. Along the way, a new superintendent, Karen Wade, arrived in the Smokies. Wade is credited with the idea of a research station where scientists and school children could converge. She developed a brochure outlining the vision, primarily to garner support in surrounding communities.

By happenstance, park officials visiting from Washington, D.C., saw the brochure. They liked the idea so much they began laying plans for a network of research and education centers in national parks across the country. The Smokies suddenly found itself competing against other parks for money to implement its vision at Purchase Knob, but was ultimately chosen as one of five pilot parks to test the idea.

“The Smokies has always had strong connections with research. It is typically the park that has the most research permits in the entire country. We are always in the top three,” Sachs said. The Smokies was also surrounded by public schools, unlike parks out West where neighboring communities are few and far between.

Sachs came on board with the Smokies in 1999 to help develop the education programming for the new Purchase Knob. Sachs tailored programs at the Purchase for middle and high school students and assembled a task force of teachers from the region to help develop a program that would meet their curriculum mandates.

The Purchase continues to be heralded throughout the park service as a model to replicate. Sometimes it seems Sachs spends more time on the speaking circuit than at her own park, leading seminars on how to integrate research and education. There are now 17 research learning centers across the national park system, from Acadia National Park to Point Reyes National Seashore.

Purchase Knob encompasses 530 acres of high-elevation rolling meadows and woodlands, surprisingly gentle terrain for its 4,900-foot altitude. The home built by McNeil and her husband serves as quarters for visiting researchers. When scientists lining up their visit hear the words “park quarters,” they expect little more than a bunk house or cabin, but instead find a mountain top lodge with wrap around decks, sweeping vistas, expansive windows, a giant dining room table and elegant living room.

“It is a beautiful place and inspirational setting coupled with comfortable meeting space and great natural resources,” Sachs said.

The allure of the Purchase could be the tipping point for scientists deciding where to do their research, which in turn benefits understanding of the park over time. “The park has tremendous natural resources they don’t always understand because natural systems are complicated,” said George Ivey, a grant writer for Friends of the Smokies.

One such experiment is a joint venture between NASA and Duke University that required launching weather balloons every three hours around the clock from the meadows at Purchase Knob. The goal: to better understand the microstructure of rainfall in the upper atmosphere and ultimately improve storm predictions.

“It was a very intensive experiment,” said Olivier Prat, one of nine researchers who descended on the Purchase for the project for a week last summer. “It’s important to have a facility like this where we could rest and work.”

As for McNeil, she lives in her hometown of San Francisco now, but flies back to Haywood County every year to visit the Purchase.

“I always have a little picnic lunch with the rangers and see what’s new and different that they’ve added,” McNeil said. “The Purchase is really still part of me. It has had a tremendous effect on my life like nothing else has.

Smokies relies on outside support to maintain what makes it special

When Steve Woody and Barney Coulter got a mysterious call from Smokies Superintendent Randall Pope in the early 1990s asking to see them in his office, they dutifully, albeit curiously, complied.

Neither were used to taking orders — Coulter as the former chancellor of Western Carolina University nor Woody as the manager of an Asheville-based defense contractor. But they went along out of affinity and respect for the park, and as a good excuse to make the scenic sojourn from their homes in Western North Carolina to park headquarters on the other side of the Smokies.

When they arrived, they assembled around a table with others who had apparently received similar calls. Among them was Judge Gary Wade of Tennessee, who recently hiked to Mount Cammerer only to find the once-glorious Civilian Conservation Corps fire tower crowning the peak on the verge of collapse.

An upset Wade had come to Pope and demanded he fix it, only to learn the park was hamstrung due to a lack of funding. The upshot: the Smokies needed a Friends group.

Hundreds of Friends groups exist today — not just for parks but any special place, be it a historic lighthouse, library, museum or city park. But the concept of dispatching supporters to raise money for an entity supposedly funded by tax dollars was new at the time.

“You drive though and it looks good. What could it possibly need?” Coulter asked.

But in fact, trails were eroding, historic cabins rotting, visitor brochures outdated, ranger programs lacking, campsites growing shabby, environmental threats mounting and the list goes on. With a bare bones budget, the park would diminish in quality over time unless something was done.

“It would not be the great place to visit that it is,” Coulter said. “We could not afford to let the park suffer.”

As they hashed out the idea, Coulter was filled with excitement, yet overwhelmed.

“It sounded like a monumental idea, larger than life. The needs were so great and we thought ‘How do we do this?’” Coulter said.

Pope wanted to lock in commitment on the spot and made a bold pitch to those in the room.

“He said ‘We need some money to get this thing started. Why don’t you each write a check for $1,000,’” Woody recalled. And so they did.

Since that day, Friends of the Smokies has raised $26.3 million for the national park. It is considered one of the most successful Friends organizations in the nation. Their strategy: raise friends, and funds will follow. But it took time to build the critical mass they enjoy today.

“We were pretty much lone rangers out there for a while,” Coulter said. “First we had to develop the story we wanted to tell — why the park is important to all of us, why it is important to the arts and the economy and to nature, why it is important to our collective history.”

In a few short years, the Friends caught on, growing to 4,500 members. Those who depend on the park for tourism, claim it as their heritage or simply relish wilderness all found a reason to support the organization.

“The Friends serve a tremendous purpose in underwriting the goals and aspirations of the park,” said Ken Wilson, a former board member of Friends of the Smokies.

As a newspaper publisher in Waynesville for 20 years, Wilson witnessed the national park’s huge but sometimes subtle footprint. Wilson believes the park defines the community’s collective consciousness.

“I think people who live here, move here and call this place home have a connection with nature in a way that those who live in other parts of the state do not,” said Wilson, who is also a nature photographer. “I think they are here because of that. They are here because that means something to them.”

The Smokies has a disadvantage compared to other major parks. It doesn’t charge an entrance fee, upholding a promise made by park founders when raising money and carving out land for its creation more than 75 years ago. Free entry is surely a Godsend for families or budget backpackers. But the Smokies has less money to work with as a result.

“This park has a bigger hill to climb than the other major national parks,” said Jim Hart, the executive director of Friends of the Smokies.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the Friends is what to fund every year. Brook trout restoration or elk reintroduction? A crumbling fire tower or new roof for Mingus Mill? School fieldtrips or guided hikes for the public?

Park rangers put their heads together once a year to come up with a wish list that’s presented to the Friends — both of imminent needs and long-range wants. Friends takes the list to heart, but sometimes inserts projects of their own if near and dear to a particular donor.

For example, Toyota donated $1 million over five years to spark students’ interest in science and environmental fields, using the Smokies as a backdrop.

“Parks provide a great place to teach children those building blocks of science,” said George Ivey, a grant writer with Friends of the Smokies. It wasn’t on the park’s list, but was gladly accepted.

And the Aslan Foundation donated $2 million for Trails Forever, an endowment that would permanently fund a third trail crew for the park.

“There was only one trail crew on each side of the park for 800 miles of trails,” Hart said. Crews couldn’t keep up, and the quality of the park’s trails were backsliding.

The National Park Service often gets mired in its own bureaucracy. It takes years for a funding request to lumber its way through the federal budget process. The park can’t react fast when hemlocks come under attack or a windstorm blows shingles off a cabin.

“They have a long and complicated budget process. But we can give money to the park with a quick turnaround,” said Woody, who serves as vice president of the board.

Woody’s role with the Friends is ironic in a way. His grandfather was the last person still living in the park on the North Carolina side, remaining in Cataloochee until 1942 when old age, the war and isolation finally drove him out.

While Woody’s grandfather never forgave the park for taking his farm and homeplace, Woody believes it was the best thing that could have happened to the region and sees the greater good served by his ancestors’ sacrifice.

“It’s an island of peace and serenity where people can go and get away from the frantic lifestyle we’ve developed,” Woody said of the Smokies.

Kephart proved to be a key figure in shepherding idea of a national park

With massive logging operations running full tilt in the Smokies in the 1920s, the sanctity of what once seemed like a vast and untouchable forest was being rapidly reduced to a desert of stumps.

While most locals welcomed the money brought in by timber barons, the famed writer Horace Kephart saw the crash waiting on the other side of the short-lived boom, the day when the trees would be gone and the timber companies would move out, leaving the locals not only without jobs once more, but without the forests their subsistence depended on.

Kephart moved to the region in the early 1900s and immersed himself in the culture of backwoods mountaineers, who he later immortalized in his famed Our Southern Highlanders. It was natural that Kephart recoiled to see his old stomping grounds of Hazel Creek in Swain County ripped to shreds and the landscape denuded.

“He was heartbroken about it. He thought it was a rape. It was going on right where he had lived,” said George Ellison, a leading Kephart scholar in Bryson City.

The contempt came out in Kephart’s writing.

“He wrote that their machinery frightened him, it seemed almost animate and alive as it crawled up the mountain destroying everything in its way with grease and smoke and fire,” said Gary Carden, a writer and historian well versed on Kephart. “He said ‘We have to stop it or it is all going to be gone. People I am living with don’t realize that this country is limited and they are using it up and nobody is stopping them.’ So he took on the job of making the world aware of what was happening in Appalachia.”

The idea for a national park had been percolating quietly for more than a decade, but now Kephart seized on it.

“Every moment of his waking life from the mid-1920s to his death (in 1931) was devoted to that cause,” Ellison said. “He had a public persona and he used that to save what he was devoted to.”

Kephart propelled the idea of a national park like no one else could have. He cranked out magazine articles and newspaper columns across the nation. He penned personal letters to politicians and philanthropists. He joined the national park committee and wrote the text of brochures to promote the idea locally.

His writing was eloquent and his pitch was heartfelt, witnessed in this passage from a column that appeared in the Asheville Times.

“When I first came into the Smokies the whole region was one of superb primeval forest. My sylvan studio spread over mountain after mountain, seemingly without end, and it was always clean and fragrant, always vital, growing new shapes of beauty from day to day. The vast trees met overhead like cathedral roofs. I am not a very religious man, but often when standing alone before my Maker in this house not made with hands I bowed my head with reverence and thanked God for His gift of the greatest forest to one who loved it,” Kephart wrote. “Not long ago, I went to that same place again. It was wrecked, ruined, desecrated, turned into a thousand rubbish heaps, utterly vile and mean.”

Kephart likely would have preferred the job of writing behind the scenes, but he was pressed into service to go on the stump as well. Kelly Bennett, whose drug store in Bryson City served as makeshift headquarters for the pro-park movement, bought Kephart a proper suit to wear on a trip to Washington, D.C.

A Kephart critic on other fronts, outdoor writer and Bryson City native Jim Casada finds redemption in Kephart’s role as a “progenitor of the park.”

“His writings carried the concept to the nation. He was doing that in a sense even before the idea of the park’s creation was being bandied about,” Casada said.

Kephart unknowingly laid the groundwork for the park’s creation with Our Southern Highlanders. The book romanticized the region and captured the country’s imagination with a primitive “world apart” within the borders of their own continent.

The national park wouldn’t just preserve the wilderness, but the lifestyle borne from it.


Shaping a strategy

Kephart motivated the nation under the banner of environmental preservation, but his pitch to locals took a different tack: economic prosperity.

“There is a tourist industry coming. Help us save this and you will be the Gateway of the Smokies,” was Kephart’s pitch, says Carden. “Everybody thought they would be the Gateway to the Smokies.”

Carden doesn’t think the tourist industry blossomed as people were promised, at least not in Bryson City, and some held that against Kephart.

It’s impossible to know whether the Smokies would be here today if not for Kephart. Ellison thinks so, but it would have been far more difficult without the famed author as a spokesman.

There are hints that Kephart grew weary of the fight. In a letter to his son before he died, he described the undertaking as “beset with discouragements of all sorts.” The park’s creation was a certainty by then, and Kephart declared victory in the letter. He added that he would “get out” when the work was done.

Exactly what he meant is a mystery to this day, but Ellison believes Kephart wanted to return to a reclusive life filled with camping and woodcraft.

“It must have been exhausting to him to get involved in a project of that sort,” Ellison said.

Kephart had a secret weapon that kept him going, a friend by the name of George Masa, a nature photographer. Together, they fought for the Smokies: Masa through his stunning photos and Kephart through his writing. They went on long camping adventures through the mountains, mapping peaks and valleys as they went.

“Having somebody to work with, it gave him focus,” Ellison said.

Kephart died in 1931 in an automobile accident outside Bryson City. Kephart hired a taxi driver to take him and a visiting novelist, author of Bloody Ground Fiswoode Tarlton, to the home of a moonshiner. The driver, who likely partook in the goods himself, wrecked the car coming home, killing both Kephart and Tarlton.

A peak in the Smokies was named after Kephart, as was a creek at its base called Kephart Prong.

“He died knowing the park would be a reality,” Ellison said.

While the debate over Kephart’s depiction of the mountaineers will never be settled, he’s been forgiven for his role in creating the park.

“Very gradually, what you do have among a certain number of people in Bryson City is a grudging acknowledgement that Horace had done a good thing, that the creation of the park was a good thing, that it was trading a minor tragedy for a greater good,” Carden said. “They lost their land, but Kephart created a park that was there for all posterity. It’s hard to say when it happened to you, but finally a lot would say he was right. He did a good thing.”

Paying homage to the early park supporters

“When I first came into the Smokies the whole region was one of superb primeval forest. My sylvan studio spread over mountain after mountain, seemingly without end, and it was always clean and fragrant, always vital, growing new shapes of beauty from day to day. The vast trees met overhead like cathedral roofs. I am not a very religious man, but often when standing alone before my Maker in this house not made with hands I bowed my head with reverence and thanked God for His gift of the greatest forest to one who loved it. Not long ago, I went to that same place again. It was wrecked, ruined, desecrated, turned into a thousand rubbish heaps, utterly vile and mean.”

— Horace Kephart


As people throughout the mountains and around the country mark the celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary, Horace Kephart’s role in this park’s creation is once again being thrust into the limelight. While his depiction of “southern highlanders” in his famous book may still be open for debate, two things about Kephart are certain: he was, as the passage above shows, a superb writer; two, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park might not exist had it not been for his advocacy.

Kephart was an outlander, a man who came to the Smokies in his middle age and found people and a place that would consume him for the rest of his life. He cherished his time in the Smokies, and his skills as a chronicler of the ways of the rural mountaineer have earned him a lasting place in Appalachian history.

But it was how he used that fame that is most noteworthy. As he witnessed the sudden change wrought by large-scale logging upon mountain communities and mountain landscapes — again, see the passage above — he began to see the necessity of preserving what at one time had seemed an endless forest.

Kephart began writing articles and advocating to whomever would listen about the need to create a national park in the Smokies. The idea riled many of the mountaineers who had become his friend, for many at that time did not see the benefit of locking away land that had for generations been hunted, fished and used for its bounty to house and feed entire communities. There was also the unheard of controversy of creating a park — in essence, taking the land — of hundreds of families whose farms and homes were in the area being considered for the national park.

As we realize now, Kephart and others who fought relentlessly for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were visionaries. They carved a jewel out of the remaining mountain wilderness, creating what has become one of the most bio-diverse habitats left in North America and the entire planet.

Early park supporters also gave this region another important legacy — an economy based on tourism rather than taking from the land. Although the logging and timber industry are still important and still a vital part of the mountain heritage, the preserved forests and wilderness also have fed generations of mountain families. People come here to connect with the mountains, to get that same feeling Horace Kephart describes in the above passage.

As we mark the creation of this great park, it’s a proper time to pay homage to those like Kephart who made it possible. This would be a vastly different place had they not prevailed.

Celebrating 75 years

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.”


Hard-fought battle

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.

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