The Founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
To many a modern visitor, unfamiliar with the long history of Southern Appalachia, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park appears to be a pristine wilderness -- the last untouched bastion of the once-great eastern forests, which are said to have stretched unbroken from Maine to the Mississippi River. And yet, as historian Margaret Lynn Brown points out, this perception is quite inaccurate. For approximately one thousand years prior to the arrival of European settlers in North America, the Cherokee cleared fields, built homes and villages, and otherwise altered the landscape and ecology of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After partially displacing the Cherokee in the aftermath of the American Revolution, European settlers continued shaping and reshaping the local environment, such that by the early twentieth century, the Great Smoky Mountains were less a wilderness than they were a “pastoral landscape” of farms, small towns, mines, and timber-cutting operations. Knowing this, one can hardly label the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a true “wilderness,” despite the fact that it bears all the hallmarks normally associated with wilderness, such as rugged terrain, significant animal populations, and a lack of human habitation. If anything, it is a created wilderness; one built, and still shaped, by the hands and cultural perceptions of human beings.
In order to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park government authorities had to first convince or compel thousands of mountain denizens -- along with numerous logging interests -- to cede their lands to the National Park Service, and then devise a means to prevent them from returning.
The first and most significant obstacle to land acquisition came in the form of lumber companies; not necessarily because the companies’ owners opposed selling their lands to the United States Government, but because they wanted the lands held as a National Forest -- and thus open to logging -- rather than as a National Park. Furthermore, the “timber barons” were economically and politically powerful, and as such were more than capable of mounting significant legal challenges to Park purchasing agents. Ultimately, a gift of $5,000,000 from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the late 1920s on behalf of the proposed National Park did much to strengthen the land agents’ bargaining position, primarily because it convinced W. B. Townsend of the Little River Logging Company, Reuben Roberson of Champion Fibre Company, and others like them that the National Park project was an inevitability, and that it would serve them well to sell their lands before condemnation suits were brought by the government. Significant logging operations had ceased in the Smokies by the early 1930s, but not before some 300,000 acres had been denuded of trees.Acquiring the lands held by Southern Appalachian farmers and their tenants was much easier, for they were less economically and politically powerful than the timber companies. Essentially, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased what they could from willing sellers, and then relied on the power of eminent domain -- that is, the power of government to condemn and seize lands for use in public projects -- to take control of the rest. The land was then donated to the Federal Government for use in the Park. Perhaps the most notable of these eminent domain suits occurred in 1929, when the State of Tennessee moved to condemn lands owned by prominent Cades Cove resident John Oliver. According to Brown, Oliver refused to take the $20 per acre -- less than half of its market value -- offered by Tennessee purchasing agents for his property, with the result being that the agents took him to court. As it happened, Oliver convinced the Blount County, Tennessee Circuit Court that the State had no right to condemn his land on behalf of the Federal Government; but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against him, thereby forcing him to give up his farm. Given the notoriety of the case, not to mention Oliver’s rather substantial social/economic standing (he was well-known among Knoxville’s business class), the ruling created something of a panic among Southern Appalachian landowners. Many of his neighbors scrambled to sell their farms to purchasing agents, lest they succumb to a similar fate.