The Founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park : Page 2

“All in all,” Brown writes, “it took more than twelve years to buy the 1,132 small farms and 18 large tracts [mostly lumber company lands] in the Great Smoky Mountains.” The Federal Government took over management of the area in 1931, and the Park was formally dedicated nine years later in 1940.

The Park Service soon discovered, however, that founding the Park, and then keeping its former inhabitants out, were two different matters altogether. Destitute families, driven to desperation by the hardships of the Great Depression (the worst years of which just so happened to correspond to the founding of the Park), routinely made their way into the Park and squatted in abandoned cabins. To make matters worse, bootleggers -- or those who produced illegal alcohol -- used the rugged depopulated Park as a hideout, from which point they were able to ply their trade and eluded authorities. Beginning in 1934 with J. Ross Eakin, a series of Park Superintendents fought to clear “unwelcome guests” from Park lands, be it by tracking down and evicting squatters, razing abandoned cabins, or arresting bootleggers. It would take several decades for the Park Service to prevail, but in the end, prevail it did. There were, of course, considerable hard feelings generated between Park officials and local residents during this period, but in the end most mountaineers grew to accept, and even develop a genuine affection for, the Park and its preservationist mission.

And yet, even before the mountaineers were fully removed from the Smokies, the Park Service set about transforming abandoned farms and towns into the “wilderness” of preservationists’ dreams. In many cases, this was accomplished by doing nothing, other than allowing a succession of plant and animal species to reclaim the land; but where manmade ecological destruction was deemed too significant for a speedy recovery, human beings aided the process along. The weight of this restoration effort was borne, primarily, by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (or CCC), who were housed by the Federal Government inside the Park boundary and who spent their days planting trees, cutting trails, clearing deadfalls, putting out forest fires, and collecting rare plant species. The landscape that they fashioned was, according to Brown, somewhat less than “naturalistic,” for the United States Department of the Interior insisted that they adhere to popular landscape architecture principles when “creat[ing] scenic views . . . and restor[ing] the land to a natural appearance using native plants.” Still, the end result was deemed a success, for the new Park was not only aesthetically pleasing to visit, but represented, and continues to represent, one of the richest biospheres in terms of plant and animal species on the planet.

In recent decades, preserving the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a “wilderness” area has become increasingly more difficult. The Park boundaries have not changed appreciably since 1935, and are in no peril of being changed in the foreseeable future; but the outside world continues to encroach upon those boundaries, rendering the Smokies an increasingly small island of green amid a sea of commercial, industrial, and residential development. Of particular concern to Park officials is pollution arising from this development, for it poses a serious threat to the Park’s rich -- and yet extremely delicate -- ecosystem. According to the National Park Service, air pollution arising from coal-fired power plants, automobiles, and other sources has caused significant (and in some cases, permanent) damage to plant and animal species residing in the Smokies, and continues to do so at an alarming rate. Less dire, and yet no less vexing, is the impact pollution has had on the Park’s aesthetics. Hikers, backpackers and other tourists could once expect to see as far as 100 miles from the Park’s highest peaks; now, thanks to ozone and suspended particulate matter, visibility is often reduced to twenty-five miles or less.

Resolving these issues will take time; but until then, the Great Smoky Mountains will stand as a testament to Americans’ desire, for better or worse, to set aside wilderness areas for public enjoyment.

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Carrying a calf in a wagon, circa 1925

Gatlinburg from the south, the Six-Room Schoolhouse and Teachers Cottage are on the right, circa 1920

A corn mill on Roaring Fork Creek, circa 1920

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