The cultural history of the mountains can be found just about anywhere in the park. Usually the sign is subtle — a pile of stones, pieces of metal rusting half-hidden in leaf litter, clumps of daffodils or daylilies, a worn path to a small cemetery. There is nothing subtle about Elkmont, however. Few places have retained the ‘hand of man’ quite like this area, though that is now changing. The establishment of the park created much heartache and strife among the many families living year-round within its boundaries who had to relocate in the 1920s and 1930s. That angst was delayed a few generations for the summer residents of Elkmont.
In 1901, Col. W.B. Townsend bought 86,000 acres of land in the Little River area and established a lumber and railroad company by the same name. The community that sprang up around logging operations was initially called Tarpaper Camp, little more than shanties erected for employees and the necessary commerce to supply them. As work moved further up the valleys, Townsend marketed the cleared land to folks looking for a “mountain getaway.” He knew the interest was there. From the beginning, he had allowed well-heeled hunters and fishermen to ride in the caboose of his trains from Walland to the camp, permitting them weekend access to game and streams.
Many of these outdoorsmen were members of the Elks Club in Knoxville, a philanthropic and social fraternity. Their destination became known as Elk Mountain, later Elkmont. Within a few years, their wives wanted to visit too. Townsend was happy to sell them logged property. The men formed a private club in 1907 and built a lodging and meeting facility – the Appalachian Clubhouse – in 1908. These weekend families began to build small cabins or renovate set houses left behind by Little River Company. The regular train trip from Knoxville to Walland followed by the logging train ride up to Elkmont could take as long as four hours. Townsend upgraded the accommodations on his leg of the trip from a caboose to an observation car and, finally, passenger coach.
Looking to expand the possibilities, Townsend offered land overlooking Elkmont for the construction of a hotel. Wonderland Hotel opened in 1912 for public use. The Appalachian Club was very exclusive, and some spurned would-be members bought the hotel in 1919 establishing the Wonderland Club. A few private cabins were built behind the hotel. In the meantime, members of the Appalachian Club were spreading up Jakes Creek and along Little River. Three distinct areas emerged. Those cabins on either side of the loop road (about 16 of them) adjacent to the clubhouse were known collectively as Daisy Town. The stretch of cabins rising up between Jakes Creek and Jakes Creek Road was referred to as Society Hill. Those built along Little River were dubbed Millionaire’s Row.
In the 1920s, the push to establish a national park in the Smoky Mountains gained momentum thanks to the work of Knoxvillians like Willis P. Davis and his wife Ann and Col. David C. Chapman. Chapman loved the idea of a park where anyone could come enjoy the mountains. Others were less enthused. Attorney James B. Wright was one of the cabin owners in Elkmont who preferred a national forest designation to keep the masses out in favor of strict conservation, which would also keep his land safe from condemnation and eminent domain. He represented some of the Appalachian Club members who opposed the park idea. Wright lost his argument and promptly sold his cabin to another family.
The property of original mountain landowners throughout the proposed park’s footprint was typically bought outright, and the farm families had to move. In Elkmont, though, Col. Townsend agreed to sell his lumber acreage with the provision that he could continue logging it for several more years. Summer cabin owners obtained lifetime leases in exchange for lower purchase prices. Farm families were offered the same deal, but under the agreement, they were not allowed to use the land’s resources, affectively denying them any means of self support. Selling and moving became the only viable option for most.
In 1952, Elkmont owners, who could make money renting out their cabins, made a deal with the National Park Service. If they could get electricity from Sevier County, they would exchange their life leases for a 20-year agreement. As 1972 approached, they began lobbying heavily for another 20-year extension, which they won over the objections of park officials and environmentalists. As 1992 approached, they again tried for extensions, this time without success. The leases expired on all but a few who had refused to cooperate in earlier negotiations. The last of those expired in 2001. The Wonderland Hotel closed its doors in 1992.
The park’s General Management Plan called for the removal of all structures and restoration of natural areas in Elkmont. Cabin owners, many of whom had hoped the buildings would be preserved and rented to the public, sought to thwart this in 1994 by nominating several structures to the National Register of Historic Places. They argued that the resort community was a viable part of the park’s history that should be preserved.
The rancor that ensued over the next 15 years has left many people bitter for a variety of reasons. As the debate dragged on, former “Elkmonters” saw NPS’s actions as “demolition by neglect.” All of the structures have suffered varying degrees of degradation from the elements. The Wonderland Hotel, one of the National Register sites, collapsed from structural failure in 2005. Some components were salvaged, but the main hotel building had to be razed.
Others felt little sympathy for these well-to-do Elkmont residents, who enjoyed a national park as their private summer vacation retreat for 60 years, then didn’t want to honor their agreements. Their actions were viewed as elitist and self-serving. Some park visitors referred to them as “squatters.”
In the late 1990s, park officials twice proposed plans for the area that were rejected by state (Tennessee) and national preservation groups. In the first decade of the 21st century, the park undertook an impact study that evaluated seven alternatives for the area including total removal on one end of the spectrum and total preservation on the other, with costs ranging from $1.3 to $30 million. In 2006, they put forth the selected option at $6 million, and in 2009, began implementing that plan.
It calls for the preservation of 19 structures. All buildings on the Wonderland Hotel site are to be removed and the natural area restored. The Spence Cabin on Millionaire’s Row is currently undergoing restoration. All others will be removed. In the Daisy Town area, the Appalachian Clubhouse’s restoration is complete with adjacent parking and restroom facilities added. The 16 houses along the loop road have been stabilized and will be restored as funding permits. Three buildings have been removed for Jakes Creek Trailhead and Daisy Town parking. On Society Hill, one cabin – #38 Byers/Chapman (the man who tirelessly promoted the park idea) – will be restored and the rest removed. The Spence Cabin and Appalachian Clubhouse may be rented by the public for day use. There will be no overnight accommodations. Interpretive signs and kiosks will tell the story of Elkmont.
The cabins, those that have been saved and those awaiting demolition, are an interesting assemblage of cute, spare, welcoming, ugly, graceful, sprawling, tiny testaments to an undeniable part of the park’s history. Many sport a hodgepodge of additions, little rooms and porches tacked on and strung out over the years like a rabbit warren. Those in Daisy Town are easier to view since vegetation is managed there. Up Society Hill and Millionaire’s Row, nature is aggressively pushing back. Some are nearly obscured from view. Others are virtually falling in on themselves – collapsed porches, leaning chimneys, yawning doorways. It is a sad sight to see, but I support the park’s plan. And yet I can’t help but envy those “Elkmonters” who got to spend all summer playing in the Great Smoky Mountains year after year. Higdon relative Cindy Hill Springs described it as “a magical place for a child to grow up.” No doubt.
If you wish to read more about the area, try these links:
Restoration Plan: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/upload/Elkmont-Restoration-Jan-2010.pdf
Knoxville News Sentinel article: http://m.knoxnews.com/news/2009/jul/26/idyllic-elkmont-passing-into-the-shadows/
Janice Henderson, photos of cabins: http://home.earthlink.net/~firepink/id27.html
Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elkmont,_Tennessee
Google Books - Great Smoky Mountain Folklifeby Michael Ann Williams, Chapter 8, Summer Visitation & Community: Elkmont, pgs 160-165