The story of the Smoky Mountains began in primordial times when clashing supersized continents created a chain of mountains that are today among the oldest on the planet. Humans have also left their mark on these ancient Appalachian landscapes. Nomadic tribes were the first to the area, followed by early settlers. In the 1900s lumber companies arrived, nearly wiping out the forests. Luckily, in the 1920s a few visionary locals fought for the park’s creation, which finally became a reality in 1934.
Some 500 million years ago, before the peaks of the Smokies rose into the sky, this area was little more than a shallow marine region along the continental edge. Fossilized remains of burrows and the shells of ancient sea creatures can be found on bedding surfaces of rocks along the Foothills Pkwy in the northwestern reaches of the park. Ancient fossils have also been found in the limestone of Cades Cove, including trilobites (an extinct marine arthropod) and the teeth of 500-million-year-old conodonts (akin to small eels). Some rock formations are even older, dating back more than a billion years, created by the melding of marine deposits and igneous rock in a primordial ocean.
Things started to get interesting around 300 million years ago when two massive landmasses collided. Present-day North America, part of the larger landmass of Laurasia (which also included Eurasia), crashed into Gondwana (comprising present-day Africa and South America), becoming part of the single supercontinent of Pangaea. The collision of tectonic plates over millions of years placed tremendous pressure and heat and caused horizontal layers of rock to be thrust upward, thus creating the massive Central Pangaean mountain chain – of which the Appalachian (and Smokies) were a part.
Around 200 million years ago, the supercontinent began to break apart, with massive landmasses peeling off, and the North American and African tectonic plates slowly moved to their current position. After their formation, the Appalachian Mountains were much higher than they are today. Some geologists believe these mountains were once as high as, or even higher than, the Himalayas. The forces of erosion, caused by wind, water and ice, wore down these soaring peaks over millions of years, with vast quantities of sediment carried toward the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico – even forming some of the beaches on America’s southern shores. The erosion process continues even today at the rate of around 2in every 1000 years.
Fast forward a few hundred million years to around 20,000 BC, when vast swaths of North America were covered by glaciers during the ice age. Ice sheets advanced as far south as the Ohio River, but never reached as far as the Smokies. The mountains, however, become a refuge for many species of plants and animals that retreated south from the colder northern climes. This contributed to the great diversity of its forests: there are more tree species in the Smoky Mountains than in all of Europe. The ice age also left its mark in other ways. As the mountains froze and thawed, rocks of all sizes sheered off and tumbled down the slopes and into the valleys below, creating curious boulder fields amid the forests that stand today.
Native American people lived in the region of the Smoky Mountains since prehistoric times, leaving behind traces of their presence that are still being discovered by archaeologists. Among the finds are 10,000-year-old hunting projectiles used along likely animal migration paths. Ceramics from these early people date back to 700 BC, with primitive agricultural sites dating as far back as 1000 years ago.
When European settlers arrived in the 17th century, they encountered the Cherokee, who lived in settlements along the river valleys. The Smokies lay at the center of their vast territory, and they established seasonal hunting camps, as well as trails through the mountains that connected various settlements. Cades Cove likely once housed a permanent Cherokee village, called Tsiyahi or ‘Place of the Otters,’ which was located along the banks of Abrams Creek. The other permanent Cherokee settlement within today’s park boundaries was Oconaluftee village, set along the river near the present-day Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was probably the first European to reach the Smokies, when he arrived in the southern Appalachian mountains in 1540. De Soto, who had earned notoriety for his successful invasion of present-day Peru and plunder of Incan riches, launched an expedition from the western panhandle of Florida in hopes of discovering gold in lands to the northeast. De Soto led an expedition of 600 men on a long, wandering journey from which only half of them would return. On their march west along the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains, the Spaniards stopped to camp alongside the Oconaluftee River. There they encountered Cherokee who were collecting mulberries – a delicacy the Spanish would write of extensively during their travels through the region. Although de Soto charted many lands never visited by Europeans, he never did find gold, and he died of a fever along the banks of the Mississippi River two years after setting out.
Perhaps owing to de Soto’s failed venture, the wilderness region remained largely unexplored by Europeans for the next two centuries. Then in 1775 the American naturalist and Quaker William Bartram spent several months in southern Appalachia during his four-year journey through the southeast. He became one of the first to accurately write about the region – both about its wildlife and its native people.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the first settlers began to appear in the region. The German immigrant John Jacob Mingus and his family were among the first Europeans to set up homesteads in the Oconaluftee River Valley when they arrived in 1798 (their descendants would remain in the region, and later set up the Mingus Mill). Over the next few decades, other homesteaders put down roots in Cades Cove and the Cataloochee Valley.
Life on the Appalachian frontier was a constant struggle for survival in the wilderness. Settlers cut down trees to build log cabins and fences (as well as provide much-needed heat for the bitterly cold winters). They toiled to clear land for farming (not an easy task with boulders often buried in the soil) and built farmhouses, corncribs and smokehouses. The land had rich soil and proved ideal for growing important crops such as corn, wheat, rye, oats, flax and sorghum. In the summer, farmers would hike their sheep or cattle up to the grassy mountain balds where the animals could freely graze. Hogs were left to forage in the thick forests of oak, hickory and chestnut trees surrounding their homes. Homesteaders had to be entirely self-sufficient, although hunting, fishing and trapping supplemented their income and provided goods for bartering, bringing in the likes of coffee, sugar and salt, which the settlers couldn’t produce themselves.
Aside from the daily struggles of putting food on the table, there were also the ever-present threats around them: panthers and bears prowled in the forests, and packs of wolves sometimes devastated the pioneers' small herds. Although the settlers were generally on good terms with the Cherokee, renegade bands sometimes raided settlements, carrying off livestock and other goods. By 1819, however, the Cherokee largely disappeared from the area, having been forced to cede all of their lands in the Smoky Mountains in the 1819 Treaty of Calhoun. This formally opened up more areas to settlers.
As more settlers arrived, the growing collection of farmsteads turned into tiny villages, with the addition of blacksmith shops, gristmills, churches and later schoolhouses, post offices and dry-goods stores. Communities were tightly knit. Villagers knew each other well, and made a social event out of corn husking, preparing molasses and gathering chestnuts in autumn. They also helped out in times of need. When one settler died, the men would build a coffin, dig a grave and assist with the burial, while the women helped prepare the body. Everyone helped the family of the deceased, assisting around the farm, preparing meals and taking care of the small children. The men were also recruited to help build roads in the area, some of which followed old trails first created by Native Americans.
The population of Cades Cove peaked in the 1850s, when it had 685 residents, with farm sizes averaging between 150 and 300 acres. Cataloochee, however, remained a tiny outpost and wouldn’t grow in size or importance for another 50 years.
The Logging Industry
In the decades following the Civil War, a new industry began to emerge: logging. At first, it started out small, with selective timber cutting carried out by local landowners throughout the Smokies. Trees such as ash, poplar and cherry were cut down and sold to lumber mills in towns outside the Smokies. By 1900, however, industrialists saw enormous financial opportunities in the large stands of old-growth forest in the mountains and began buying up properties and commencing large-scale operations.
Companies laid down railroad tracks to transport timber, built large mills and created lumber towns that grew into sizable villages. Hundreds of miles of logging roads were blazed through the mountains. Logging boom towns arrived overnight, and the park still bears their place names: Smokemont, Proctor and Tremont. One of the biggest operations was headquartered near present-day Elkmont.
Creation of the National Park
While huge swaths of the forest were being felled by lumber companies, more and more locals were beginning to notice the devastation left by clear-cutting. In the early 1920s a few key figures from Knoxville, TN, and Asheville, NC, began to advocate for the conservation of the Smokies.
Ann Davis was one of the first to put forth the idea of creating a national park in the Smokies. After visiting several national parks out west in 1923, she and her husband, Willis Davis, worked tirelessly to recruit allies towards the goal of creating the park. She even entered politics, and in 1924 became the first woman elected in Knox County to serve in the Tennessee State House of Representatives.
David Carpenter Chapman, the president of a Knoxville drug company, was another outspoken early booster of the park’s creation, and is credited with helping to make the park a reality. With his connections in business and politics, he was able to help secure funding for the park and overcome challenges along the way. One of the biggest obstacles was negotiating with timber companies and private property owners to sell their land to the national park. This made the creation of the national park a unique challenge that boosters of western national parks never had to face – since out west, little of the land was privately owned, it was simply a matter of declaring the park’s boundaries.
Negotiations began in 1925 and were complex – given there were more than 6000 property owners involved. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation creating Great Smoky Mountains National Park (along with two other national parks). Once signed it was up to the park boosters to secure the funds to purchase the 150,000 acres before the Department of the Interior would assume responsibility.
Then in 1927 the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina proffered $2 million each. This fell short of the estimated $10 million required, so park supporters campaigned for funds and received another $1 million from private individuals, groups, and even schoolchildren who sent in spare change they had collected going door to door. The funding still wasn’t enough (the price of land had, not surprisingly, risen in the interim). That’s when Arno Cammerer, acting director of the National Park Service, and David Carpenter Chapman approached the American financier John D Rockefeller Jr and secured a promise of $5 million in funding, which helped bring the final pieces of the puzzle together for the park’s creation.
Even with cash in hand, purchases of the small farms and miscellaneous parcels (some of which had yet to be surveyed and appraised) was a cumbersome and lengthy process. Many landowners were reluctant to leave the only home they’d ever known, and some people – such as John Oliver of the Cades Cove community – fought the park commission through the Tennessee court system. But ultimately, he and others would lose their claim to the land. Some people, especially those who were elderly or too sick to move, were granted lifetime leases.
One group of sisters remained on their 1880s-era homestead well into the second half of the 20th century. Those who stayed had to give up traditional practices, such as hunting, trapping and cutting down timber, but they were allowed to farm and graze their sheep and cattle with special permits. The park viewed this relationship as beneficial, as farmers using the historic fields as pasture prevented reforestation and maintained their scenic, open views.
In 1930 the first superintendent of the park arrived, and he formally oversaw the first transfer of land – 158,876 acres deeded to the US government. At long last the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a reality, though it wasn’t until 1934 that the park was officially established. A few years later, in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the national park for the ‘permanent enjoyment of the people’ at the newly created Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap.
The Great Depression & WWII
As the Great Depression swept across the nation in the early 1930s, President Roosevelt came up with an innovative solution to put people back to work. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, which would serve two purposes: it would create jobs and it would help in the nation’s reforestation. CCC camps were set up across the country, with 22 created inside the national park. Around 4000 men, mostly aged 18 to 20, would work for the corps, which ran from 1933 to 1942. The men worked a variety of jobs: planting trees, building bridges and footpaths, erecting fire towers and clearing fire roads. Several groups were also charged with raising trout to replenish fish-depleted streams.
The arrival of WWII brought an end to the CCC camps. Most were closed down and became abandoned ghost towns amid the quickly encroaching forest. One former CCC camp in the park, however, was transformed into a camp for conscientious objectors during the war. Conchies, as they were called, were draftees who objected to the war out of religious, moral or philosophical grounds. They were sent to special Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps around the country.
At CPS 108, located off the present-day Kephart Prong Trail, men lived in military-style barracks and worked nine-hour days, six days a week, undertaking a range of activities. They repaired roads, planted nurseries and continued the world of the CCC, clearing trails and helping to maintain the national park. A few men also volunteered for duty in ‘the pest house’, an isolated locale in Pinehurst, NC. There the men were infected with pneumonia and influenza as human guinea pigs for research on respiratory diseases. For their labors, none of the men in CPS 108 received any pay, and they were generally looked down on by locals who called them cowards for avoiding combat service. Yet with the park understaffed as rangers went off to war, the volunteers proved invaluable in keeping things running, and even assisted in the park's administrative duties.
The 2016 Great Smoky Mountain Wildfires
On November 23, 2016 tragedy stuck Great Smoky Mountains National Park when fire was reported on Chimney Tops, one of the park's most popular trails. The combination of exceptional drought conditions, low humidity and wind gusts that topped 80 miles an hour caused the fire to spread quickly in what would soon become the the deadliest wildfire in the eastern USA since the Great Fires of 1947.
Dubbed 'Chimney Tops 2' by firefighters (a smaller fire had burned on Chimney Tops a week earlier), fire suppression was not as speedy as it should have been (several days went by before action was taken). By November 28 a massive firewall was heading toward Gatlinburg with shocking speed. By December 5 a full-on firefighting onslaught was unleashed: 25 hand crews, 61 engines, six helicopters and 780 personnel. But it wouldn't be until late January before containment of the fire reached more than 90%. The town of Gatlinburg was spared due to some heroic firefighting efforts – the only true in-town casualty was the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, which suffered serious damage to its upper section and upper terminal – but the toll otherwise was dreadful: 14 deaths, 175 injuries, more than 2400 structures damaged or destroyed, and the forced evacuation of 14,000 residents. The cost in dollars topped $500 million.
Inside the park, more than 15 sq miles were scorched, with Chimney Tops taking the brunt of the blow, forcing the closure of one of the park's most beloved trails. It has since reopened, though the final section to the peaks remains closed for the long-term owing to loose rocks and the extreme instability of the rocky soil.
Two Tennessee juveniles were arrested and initially charged with aggravated arson in the starting of the fire. However, the charges were later dropped when reports surfaced of downed power lines in the area, and other small fires that might have contributed to the destruction.