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The National Park Service established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. But the park’s rich history and culture have been brewing in the hills for decades before that. You can still experience the past for yourself. The park’s largest campground, Elkmont, is mere steps away from a ghost town in the Smokies. You can explore the remains of a logging community and two turn-of-the-century-era resorts. The story of how Elkmont went from small logging town to world-famous resort to ghost town in the Smokies is a rollercoaster of a tale, but one worth riding.
Elkmont’s early days
The first settlers arrived in Elkmont in the mid-1800s. They were homesteaders, hunters, and small-scale loggers, and they formed a community along the Little River. Logging would eventually grow to be a huge industry in town. Lumber from ash, poplar, cherry, and hemlock trees was sent down the river to Knoxville to be processed. Elkmont proper was formally established in 1907.
Before that, in 1905, a local named Levi Trentham (you can still see his 1845-era cabin today) started selling tracts of land to a businessman named W. B. Townsend. Townsend established the Little River Lumber Company, which took the local logging industry to a massive new level. The nearby settlement of Townsend is named for W.B. He established the town when he built his band sawmill there. Eventually, the Little River Lumber Company built a railroad to transport logs along the rough, 18-mile route between Elkmont and Townsend. Its tracks were soon extended to reach Knoxville.
By 1907, Elkmont was a full-blown town with a post office, a schoolhouse, a hotel, a general goods store, a Baptist church, and a number of homes. The homes were called “set-off houses”. They were cheap, pre-made buildings that could roll right off the train and be moved from time to time to follow the logging areas. Soon, Elkmont was the second-largest town in the whole county. Residents worked for the Little River Lumber Company six days a week, and spent their Sundays at church. Popular pastimes included fishing, visiting Townsend, or taking in a game from the local baseball team, organized by W.B. Townsend.
Tourism in Elkmont
The tourism industry in Elkmont started small, with an open-air observation car on the back of the logging train. In 1909, tourists could take the two-and-a-half-hour ride from Knoxville to Elkmont for $1.95 each way. Even a gruesome 1909 train accident on the route from Elkmont to Townsend attracted tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the wreckage.
In 1910, the Little River Lumber Company sold 50 acres of land to the Appalachian Club. This was a social club of businessmen from Knoxville, and Townsend was a member and investor. The Club built a hotel and sold cottages and cabins to members.
The Appalachian Club wasn’t the only exclusive resort to open in the area; by 1912, a man named Charles B. Carter bought 65 acres from the lumber company to build the Wonderland Club. The 1910s and 1920s were the golden years for the clubs. The Appalachian Club hosted parties, weekly dances with live music, and even dammed the river to make a swimming hole. Guests loved to play horseshoes as well.
As tourism took off, the logging industry started to wind down. By 1920, the logging company picked over the forests around Elkmont. In 1925, the company dismantled the railroad, and in 1926, they ceased logging in Elkmont, looking for lumber in other parts of what is know the park. This is the beginning of Elkmont becoming a ghost town in the Smokies.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the pioneers dedicated to establishing the Smokies as a National Park was a founder of the Appalachian Club, Colonel David Chapman. He summered in the Chapman-Byers Cabin. Chapman was a leader in the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, established in 1923 by the Knoxville Automobile Club and the local chamber of commerce. In fact, Chapmas hosted legislators at Elkmont to sell them on the park. The Association set to work acquiring land to donate for the park. The NPS declared the Smokies a National Park in 1934.
The Park is made up mostly of what were once individual properties. The states of North Carolina and Tennessee acquired them. These included cabins owned by Appalachian and Wonderland Club members, along with locals. Some outright sold their cabins and moved. The bill establishing the park actually exemped Elkmont from eminent domain. That is how some residents negotiated leases, which could last anywhere from a few years to a lifetime.
Throughout the 1930s, the Wonderland and Appalachian Clubs continued to operate. In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) moved into Elkmont, now a shadow of its former self. 200 members of the New Deal organization worked to develop infrastructure and facilities in the new park. The CCC camp closed in 1936.
The ghost town in the Smokies
The clubs stayed open, even after WWII. The Appalachian Club slowly died off, and by 1950, no events were being held in the clubhouse. In the 1930s, the Wonderland Club turned into a more traditional hotel rather than a club. It continued to host lively parties, but also kept a retro, rustic vibe. Even when it closed in 1992, it didn’t have TVs or telephones in the rooms.
The NPS developed the Elkmont Campground, the largest in the park, in the late 50s and early 60s. While most ELkmont residents’ leases expired in 1992, the last resident didn’t leave Elkmont until 2001. In 1994, the National Register of Historic places added Elkmont to its list, and the NPS started to develop a plan to preserve the remains that were in good condition. In all, the NPS will preserve 19 buildings, including all 17 cabins and the lodge from the Appalachian club, as the Elkmont Historic District. The Wonderland Hotel’s main building collapsed in 2005.
The structurally unsound, demolished buildings haven’t been entirely erased from memory. You can still see stone chimneys, walls, fences, foundations and other remains along the Little River Trail and Jakes Creek Trail. Even though Elkmont is now a ghost town in the Smokies, you can still feel the almost summer camp-esque vibes at the campground today. And you can enjoy an even more modern take on Smokies tourism at Elkmont’s predecessors: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Shout out to this awesome, interactive map and timeline from the NPS!
More tales from America’s National Parks…