The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Written By Jonathan Martin

At the end of the nineteenth century, several years after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the idea to found a western state park surfaced in North Carolina. However, numerous interests, such as the lumber industry and western mountain farmers, prevented any efforts from producing a park. It was not until the 1920s when supporters finally succeeded in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In 1924, seventeen national parks had been created in the United States, and a federal committee had been formed to inspect areas for a park area. Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, organized a committee and one of the areas the group recommended to become a park was the Great Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

The Congress, with the approval of President Coolidge, passed a bill in 1926 that allowed surveyors to establish the border lines of both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah Park in Virginia. In addition, the new law allowed Secretary Work to accept donations and funds for the two future parks. According to historian William S. Powell, even though earlier national parks were created from federally owned land, “these two new ones were to be formed by purchasing lands from private owners” (p. 533) and the 700,000 acre Great Smoky Mountains Park was owned by more than 6,600 owners.

In response to the federal government’s move to establish a national park, the Tennessee legislature and the North Carolina General Assembly provided $2 million in the late 1920s. Additional funds were raised by citizens and private organizations. David C. Chapman and Willis P. Davis of Tennessee and Horace Kephart, a popular North Carolina author, organized an effort that produced $1 million in fundraising. The largest donation was given by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, providing $5 million for the purchase of park land.

Even though the funds were raised, the harder part proved to be the persuading of landowners to sell their plots to the park committee. Some landowners were happy to give away their property provided compensation but some residents along with the 18 timber and logging companies proved difficult to bargain with. William S. Powell writes that both Tennessee and North Carolina had to use the “right of condemnation” and “many landowners, especially the logging companies, fought condemnation in the courts” prolonging the founding of the park.

By the mid-1930s, the Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures procured enough land to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a highway was built through the park and once 300,000 acres had been transferred to the federal government, Congress authorized the development of the new national park. From 1933 until 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an agency created by President Roosevelt’s New Deal, did most of the early restoration and building of the park. Atop of the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the official dedication ceremony of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940.

Today, nine million tourists visit the 521,000 acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park annually. The park’s temperate deciduous forest environment remains one of the most ornate examples of this type of ecosystem in the world. Like Mount Mitchell, the park is also an International Biosphere Reserve, and more than 1,500 plant species exist throughout the national reserve.