Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the crown jewels of the national park system, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park–the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River–covers over 500,000 acres of scenic beauty. The area includes highland meadows, waterfalls, clear mountain streams, several of the highest mountains and largest stands of old-growth forest in the eastern United States, and encompasses one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America. Because of its beauty and its proximity to the nation’s population centers, the park consistently ranks first among national parks in the number of annual visitors. In 1994, for example, 8.7 million visitors to the Smokies generated approximately $689 million in consumer spending in East Tennessee and western North Carolina, making the park a key economic resource.

The exceedingly difficult and complex process of establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park took place from 1923 to 1940. When a group of Knoxville boosters began active promotion of a park in 1923, most thought the odds insurmountable. Unlike most western parks, where land already in the federal domain simply reverted to the National Park Service for administration and development, land for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had to be purchased by the states and turned over to the National Park Service. Boosters not only faced a daunting task in raising the estimated $10 million needed to buy the necessary land, but six thousand landowners, especially the large timber companies that owned most of the land, resisted acquisition.

In the early 1920s boosters such as pharmacist David Chapman and steel executive W. P. Davis of Knoxville and North Carolina author and outdoorsman Horace Kephart began educating residents on the value of a national park. Led by the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association in East Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains, Inc., in western North Carolina and with the cooperation and support of the major Asheville and Knoxville newspapers, boosters launched a massive campaign to publicize the potential value of a national park and raise private funds to buy land. Most boosters had little interest in conservation or modern notions of environmentalism, but they were interested in regional economic development. As Knoxville booster Cowan Rodgers argued: “When the park becomes a reality millions will annually come through our gates and scatter the golden shekels in our midst.” (1) In 1926 residents pledged over one million dollars toward the purchase of park land. Donations came from every strata of society and included the pennies of school children, the dollar bills of hotel bellhops, and the hundreds and thousands of dollars pledged by regional elites.

Politicians on both the national and state level soon responded to the popularity of the park movement. On May 22, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill committing the federal government to administer the land for a national park in the Great Smokies as soon as Tennessee and North Carolina donated 150,000 acres and to begin park development when the states donated 423,000 acres. In 1927 the North Carolina and Tennessee state legislatures each committed two million dollars in bond funds to purchase land for the park. In 1928 John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the final five million dollars needed for land purchases in memory of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

With the money in hand, the state-appointed commissions faced the daunting task of buying land from people who did not want to sell. The large lumber companies pulled out all stops, first to derail the project and, when that failed, to get the best possible price for their land. The Champion Fibre Company, owners of the largest land holdings in the proposed park, hired famed attorney Charles Evans Hughes to represent them–it lost his services when he was named chief justice of the Supreme Court–and even bribed a lawyer hired by the Tennessee Park Commission to influence jury selection in a condemnation hearing. The process of taking all five of the major timber companies to court–in the case of the Suncrest Lumber Company to the U.S. Supreme Court–delayed the purchase of land until the late 1930s. Litigation costs and loss of pledge money due to the Great Depression quickly used up the available funds for land purchases.

With land purchasing bogged down in the courts and insufficient funds to complete the project, the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the rescue. Although the original park bill declared that no federal funds would be used to purchase park lands, the Department of the Interior and its head, Harold Ickes, found ways to circumvent this proviso. In 1933 President Roosevelt issued an executive order to allocate $1,550,000 to complete land purchases in the park, justifying the expenditure as a means to “enhance the effectiveness and enlarge the opportunity” for Civilian Conservation Corps work in East Tennessee and western North Carolina. (2) When this proved insufficient, Congress reversed its position and appropriated an additional $743,265.29 to secure the required 423,000 acres. Roosevelt dedicated the park on September 2, 1940. In 1943 the Tennessee Valley Authority transferred 45,920 acres from the Fontana Dam project in North Carolina to the Park Service.

The removal of over four thousand residents from the site was difficult and controversial. To forestall a potentially explosive issue, the National Park Service allowed people who lived in areas not designated for immediate development to sell their land and lease it back from the government. Many older people considered this to be a satisfactory arrangement. The five elderly Walker sisters lived in their cabin in the Little Greenbriar area well into the 1950s and became quite a curiosity for park visitors. For most families, however, long-term leasing was not a viable alternative. As one resident put it: “They tell me I can’t break a twig, nor pull a flower, after there’s a park. Nor can I fish with bait, nor kill a boomer, nor bear on land owned by my pap, and grandpap and his pap before him.” (3) One by one, families left their homes, businesses, schools, churches, and cemeteries behind. The Park Service preserved some structures–most notably in Cades Cove and Cataloochee–but most were either dismantled and sold for scrap lumber or burned. The vestiges of this human habitation still abound in the park, providing a sometimes ghostly reminder of the history of the Great Smoky Mountains before the coming of the national park.

No one individual, group or governmental agency could have overcome all of the obstacles that park supporters faced in the seventeen-year struggle to bring a national park to the Smokies. The successful establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park serves as a testament to what can be accomplished through the combined and cooperative efforts of private citizens and local, state, and federal government.

Suggested Reading

Margaret Lynn Brown, The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (2000); Dan Pierce, The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park (2000)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 7, 2018