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How Gatlinburg, Tennessee became the city that it is today | Opinion

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 9/27/2021 Bill Carey
Gatlinburg, Tennessee © Gatlinburg CVB Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Hindsight is always 20/20, and humans have never been able to predict the future.

Today, we associate Gatlinburg with hotel rooms, kid-friendly museums, rides, tourist traps, hiking and mountain scenery. A century ago, practically no one foresaw this.

Gatlinburg and the forests and mountains surrounding it were just another place for heavy industry. Long before there was a paved road to Gatlinburg, there was the Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad (KS&E).

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The KS&E connected Knoxville to Sevierville by 1909. Seven years later it was announced that it would be extended to Gatlinburg.

You're probably wondering if that would have been great for tourism. Not exactly.

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Tennessee tourism took time to develop

This was long before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Space Needle. If you read newspapers of that era, you will find that the railroad had a different purpose altogether.

The Knoxville Journal Tribune reported: “It is the belief of many, who have been in the country between Sevierville and Gatlinburg, that the line will result in great development of the timber resources of that section,” on Sept. 30, 1916.

On Feb. 7, 1917, the Knoxville Sentinel reported: “As soon as the road is completed, the iron ore land and the timber land will be worked, and that section of the country will be alive industrially as it has never been before. Knoxville manufacturers will be given access to some high-grade magnesium iron ore.”

A few months later, the Journal Tribune published a long article about Sevier County’s business potential. It mentioned lumber, limestone quarries, the Walker Milling and Produce Company, the Sevierville Mills and the Dixie Canning Company.

a person wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Bill Carey © Submitted Bill Carey

There was no mention of day hikers, T-shirt shops, and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum because back then no one could foresee a time when ordinary people owned cars and took family vacations to the mountains.

By 1920, there were indications that the railroad was paying dividends in the development of Gatlinburg and the area around it— to the delight of business leaders in Knoxville.

In 1920s, the LeConte Hardwood company began clear-cutting a 20,000 acre tract of virgin forest between Elkmont and Gatlinburg. Two years later, a school desk factory called Sevier County Manufacturing was organized in Gatlinburg.

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Also, to put this in context: heavy logging was also taking place on the other side of the Tennessee Smokies—in the area between Townsend and Elkmont.

Family vacations to Tennessee came much later 

However, it was in the midst of all this development that people did vacation in Gatlinburg, staying at places such as the Mountain View Hotel— which opened in 1916. Many of them fished, hiked and contemplated whether it made more sense to preserve the scenery rather than tear it down.

According to Birth of a National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains by Carlos Campbell, the people most responsible for getting the ball rolling on the idea of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were Anne and Willis Davis of Knoxville.

In 1923, the couple vacationed out west and saw some of the early national parks. On the way back, they talked about the idea of a national park in the Smoky Mountains, an idea that they soon began introducing to civic organizations in Knoxville.

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The story of how their idea grew; how Anne Davis got elected to the Tennessee General Assembly; how she helped convince Governor Austin Peay and the U.S. Department of the Interior that the Smoky Mountains would make a great national park is another column.

I just want us to remember that, for a time, Gatlinburg and the area around it were viewed as place to be mined and clear cut.

Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. He's also the author of several history books and a former Capitol Hill reporter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How Gatlinburg, Tennessee became the city that it is today | Opinion

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