Gatlinburg is obviously one of the most beautiful places to visit in the fall. I happened to be able to take my In-Laws on a trip down there, to enjoy the fall foliage and the town. None of us had ever been to Gatlinburg, and quite frankly I was not exactly “looking forward” to going there. I thought it would be boring and ho hum. It was not. It is a beautiful place, yes it is full of tourist traps, but the people and the scenery are just fantastic. We took a couple of driving tours as well, out to Clingman’s dome and Cades Cove, as well as the Roaring Forks Motorway tour through the mountains west of Gatlinburg.
Some history of Gatlinburg:
In the 1880s, the invention of the band saw and the logging railroad led to a boom in the lumber industry. As forests throughout the Southeastern United States were harvested, lumber companies pushed deeper into the mountain areas of the Appalachian highlands. In 1901, Colonel W.B. Townsend established the Little River Lumber Company in Tuckaleechee Cove to the west, and lumber interests began buying up logging rights to vast tracts of forest in the Smokies.
Andrew Jackson Huff (1878–1949), originally of Greene County, was a pivotal figure in Gatlinburg at this time. Huff erected a sawmill in Gatlinburg in 1900, and local residents began supplementing their income by providing lodging to loggers and other lumber company officials. Tourists also began to trickle into the area, drawn to the Smokies by the writings of authors such as Mary Noailles Murfree and Horace Kephart, who wrote extensively about the region’s natural wonders.
In 1912, the Pi Beta Phi women’s fraternity established a settlement school (now Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts) in Gatlinburg after a survey of the region found the town to be most in need of educational facilities in the area. Although skeptical locals were initially worried that the fraternity might be religious propagandists or opportunists, the school’s enrollment grew from 33 to 134 in its first year of operation. Along with providing basic education to children in the area, the school’s staff created a small market for local crafts.
The journals and letters of the Pi Beta Phi settlement school’s staff are a valuable source of information about daily life in Gatlinburg in the early 1900s. Phyllis Higinbotham, a nurse from Toronto who worked at the school for six years, wrote of the mountain peoples’ confusion over the role of a nurse, their penchant for calling on her for minute issues, and her difficulties with Appalachian customs:
I soon found that people weren’t used to hurrying, and that it takes a long time of patient waiting and general conversation to find out what they have really come for, or to get a history of the cases when making a visit. I have had to get used to getting most of a woman’s symptoms from her husband, and not having heart failure when a messenger comes with the news that so and so is “bad off”, “about to die”, or “got the fever.”
Higinbotham complained that there was an unhealthy “lack of variety” in the mountain peoples’ diet and that they weren’t open to new suggestions. Food was often “too starchy”, “not well cooked”, and supplemented with certain excesses:
One of the doctors was called to several cases of honey poisoning. The men had robbed some bee gums, eaten a pound or two of each and been knocked unconscious where they stood.
Evelyn Bishop, a Pi Beta Phi who arrived at the school in 1913, reported that the mountain peoples’ relative isolation from American society allowed them to retain folklore that reflected their English and Scots-Irish ancestries, such as Elizabethan Era ballads:
Many times it is the ballad that the child learns first, no Mother Goose melodies are as familiar, and it is strange indeed to listen to a little tot singing of the courtly days of old, the knights and ‘ladyes’ and probably the tragic death of the lover.
Such isolation attracted folklorists such as Cecil Sharp of London to the area in the years following World War I. Sharp’s collection of Appalachian ballads was published in 1932.
Gatlinburg Trail entering Gatlinburg from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Extensive logging in the early 1900s led to increased calls by conservationists for federal action, and in 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act to allow for the purchase of land for national forests. Authors such as Horace Kephart and Knoxville-area businesses began advocating for the creation of a national park in the Smokies that would be similar to Yellowstone or Yosemite in the Western United States. With the purchase of 76,000 acres (310 km2) in the Little River Lumber Company tract in 1926, the movement quickly became a reality.
Andrew Huff spearheaded the movement in the Gatlinburg area, and he opened the first hotel in Gatlinburg – the Mountain View Hotel – in 1916. His son, Jack, established LeConte Lodge atop Mount Le Conte in 1926. In spite of resistance from lumberers at Elkmont and difficulties with the Tennessee legislature, Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened in 1934.
The park radically changed Gatlinburg. When the Pi Beta Phis arrived in 1912, Gatlinburg was a small hamlet with six houses, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a Baptist church, and a greater community of 600 individuals, most of whom lived in log cabins. In 1934, the first year the park was open, an estimated 40,000 visitors passed through the city. Within a year, this number had increased over twelve-fold to 500,000. From 1940 to 1950, the cost per acre of land in Gatlinburg increased from $50 (equivalent to $1,000 in 2021) to $8,000 (equivalent to $90,000 in 2021).
While the park’s arrival benefited Gatlinburg and made many of the town’s residents wealthy, the tourism explosion led to problems with air quality and urban sprawl. Even in modern times, the town’s infrastructure is often pushed to the limit on peak vacation days and must consistently adapt to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
Fire of 1992
On the night of July 14, 1992, Gatlinburg gained national attention when an entire city block burned to the ground due to faulty wiring in a light fixture. The Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum was consumed by the fire, along with an arcade, haunted house, and souvenir shop. The blaze was stopped before it could consume the adjacent 32-story Gatlinburg Space Needle. Known to locals as “Rebel Corner,” the block was completely rebuilt and reopened to visitors in 1995. Few artifacts from the Ripley’s Museum were salvaged, and those that survived are clearly marked with that designation in the new museum. The fire prompted new downtown building codes and a new downtown fire station. Ripley’s has caught fire twice since it reopened, once in 2000 and again in 2003. Both of those fires, coincidentally, were caused by faulty light fixtures. The 2000 fire caused no damage, and the 2003 fire was contained to the building’s exterior, with the museum suffering minimal damage, primarily cosmetic.
Fire of 2016
Starting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Chimney Tops, a moderately contained wildfire was compounded by very strong winds – with gusts recorded up to 87 miles per hour (140 km/h) – and extremely dry conditions due to drought, causing it to spread down into Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Pittman Center, and other nearby areas. It forced mass evacuations, and Governor Bill Haslam ordered the National Guard to the area. The center of Gatlinburg’s tourist district escaped heavy damage, but the surrounding wooded region was called “the apocalypse” by a fire department lieutenant. Approximately 14,000 people were evacuated that evening, more than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed, and damages totaled more than $500 million. Fourteen lives were lost in the fires – some local citizens and some visiting tourists.
Following the fires, the town of Gatlinburg was shut down and considered a crime scene. The city reopened to residents only after a few days but maintained a strict curfew for more than a week, only reopening to the public after the curfew was lifted. In June 2017, the Sevier County district attorney dropped the charges against the two juveniles due to an inability to prove their actions led to the devastation that occurred in Gatlinburg five days later. According to D.A. James Dunn in an official statement, other factors played a key role, particularly the wind:
But for the winds that reached speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour [130 km/h], it is highly unlikely and improbable that the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and reached Gatlinburg.
In May 2018, two Gatlinburg residents filed a $14.8 million lawsuit against the federal government for personal losses suffered in the fire.