Becoming a national park was not easy for the Smokies. Joining
the National Park System took a lot of money and a lot of work by
thousands of people. Establishing most of the older parks located in
the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was fairly easy.
Congress merely carved them out of lands already owned by the
government-often places where no one wanted to live anyway. Getting
park land in this area was a different story. The Great Smokies were
owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and
paper companies. The farmers did not want to leave their family
homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge
forests of timber, many miles of railroad track, extensive systems
of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing.
The idea started in the late 1890s. A few farsighted people began to
talk about a public land preserve in the cool, healthful air of the
southern Appalachians. A bill even entered the North Carolina
Legislature to this effect, but failed. By the
early 20th century, many more people in the North and South were
pressuring Washington for some kind of public preserve, but they
were in disagreement on whether it should be a national park or a
There are important differences between national parks and national
forests, and each concept had its cheering section. In a national
forest, consumptive use of renewable resources is permitted under
the multiple use management concept. Because the forests were
initially set aside for timber harvesting and grazing, the national
forests were made a bureau in the Department of Agriculture.
In a national park, however, the scenery and resources are
protected, and nature is allowed to run its course. The ultimate
decision to establish a national park meant that the scenery,
resources, and some of the native architecture would be protected
for all people to enjoy into the infinite future.
The drive to create a national park became successful in the
mid-1920s, with most of the hard working supporters based in
Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. The two groups
had long been competitors over the location of the national park,
but they finally began pulling together for a park in the heart of
the Smokies, halfway between the two cities.
As a matter of past history and present interest,
the park movement was directed not by the hardcore
conservationists, backpackers, and trout fishermen, but motorists.
The newly formed auto clubs, mostly branches of the AAA, were
interested in good roads through beautiful scenery on which they
could drive their shiny new cars.
In May, 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that
provided for the establishment of
Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National
Park. This allowed the Department of the Interior to assume
responsibility for administration and protection of a park in the
Smokies as soon as 150,000 acres of land had been purchased. Since
the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use,
the former political boosters had to become fund raisers.
In the late 1920s, the Legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina
appropriated $2 million each for land purchases. Additional money
was raised by individuals, private groups, and even school children
who pledged their pennies. By 1928, a total of $5 million had been
raised. Trouble was, the cost of the land had now doubled, so the
campaign ground to a halt. The day was saved when the
Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated $5 million,
assuring the purchase of the remaining land.
But buying the land was difficult, even with the money in hand.
There were 6,000 small farms, large tracts, and other miscellaneous
parcels that had to be surveyed, appraised, dickered over, and
sometimes condemned in court. The timber and paper companies had
valuable equipment and standing inventory which required
Worse, in some ways, were the emotional losses to people who had to
walk away from their homes. A later survey of the displaced people
showed that about half took the money and ran and were glad to have
it; while the other half expressed feelings from mild inconvenience
to outright hostility. Some people were allowed to stay under
lifetime leases, particularly if they were too old or too sick to
move. Younger ones were granted leases on a short-term basis, if
they wanted to try to stick it out. However, they could not cut
timber, hunt and trap at will, or otherwise live as they always had.
The first Superintendent of the new park arrived in 1931,
Major J. Ross Eakin. By 1934, the states of Tennessee and North
Carolina had transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal
government. Congress thus authorized full development of public
Much of the early development of facilities and restoration of early
settlers' buildings was done by the
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an agency created during the
Depression to provide work and wages for unemployed young men. The
CCC worked from 1933 to 1942 when World War II finally shut the
Many of the trails, campgrounds, and the beautiful stone bridges and
buildings are examples of their work.
The final touch in the creation of
the Park was its formal dedication by
President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940. He stood on and
spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap astride the
Tennessee - North Carolina state line. That ceremony dedicated a
sanctuary that is not a local park, a county park, or even a state
park, but a national park for all the people of the country and the
rest of the world to enjoy.
Great Smoky Mountains
National Park is one
of the largest protected
land areas east of the
Rocky Mountains. With
over 500,000 acres of
forest, the Smokies
contain an enormous
variety of plants and
animals. In terms of
a walk from mountain
base to peak is often
compared to the 2,000
mile hike on the
from Georgia to Maine.
The Smokies also have a rich cultural
Cherokee Indians moved into the area
about 1,000 years ago, and permanent white
settlement began around 1800. Most families
depended on farming for their livelihood.
Life for many of these families changed with
the coming of commercial logging operations
around 1900 that stripped trees from
three-quarters of what is now park land.
Established in 1934,
the park was created from more than
6,000 tracts of private and commercial land
that were bought with money raised by public
and private donations.
The park is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. The international system contains 324 reserves in 82 countries with the primary objectives of conserving genetic diversity and coordinating environmental education, research, and monitoring. The park is also a unit of the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Reserve cluster. This membership enhances the park's commitment to cooperative efforts in environmental education, research, resource management, and public involvement. The park's designation as a World Heritage Site and a State Natural Heritage Area by Tennessee and North Carolina reinforces the value of its natural and cultural resources.
Located within a two-day drive for half of the nation's population, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the highest visitation of all the national parks in the country. There are between eight and ten million visits to the park annually. Educational programs offered by rangers, interpretive displays located at the visitor centers, and roadside exhibits explain the unique aspects of the park so that visitors may better understand the area. More importantly, these programs stress why it is crucial to preserve environments such as the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Park's wide recognition as a unique sanctuary is well deserved when one considers just a few of its features:
During the Ice Age, the Smokies were a refuge for hundreds of plant and animal species retreating before the glaciers. These species found suitable living conditions in the upper elevations of the Smokies. Because the park contains a variety of habitats, it is now home for some 1,500 species of vascular plants, 10% of which are considered rare, and well over 4,000 non-flowering plant species.
The park has more tree species than northern Europe and contains one of the largest blocks of virgin temperate deciduous forest in North America. Almost 95% of the park is forested, and about 25% of that area has not been disturbed. Some trees attain record size in the Smokies and are over 20 feet in circumference.
Because of the elevation and orientation of the Great Smoky Mountains, there is a wide variety of plant and animal communities. In a small distance, changes in altitude, temperature, and moisture create entirely different ecosystems.
The Smokies provide the only habitat in the world for several plant and animal species, including Cain's reed-bent grass, Rugel's ragwort, and Jordan's (red-cheeked) salamander. Species new to the scientific community are found nearly every year, especially in the lesser-studied groups, such as the invertebrates.
To better manage its unique flora and fauna, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, became the first national park in the country to set up a Natural Heritage Data Center. The Natural Heritage Program gives the park the ability to inventory and monitor its rare plants, animals, and ecosystems.
At least 60 native mammals live in the Smokies, along with over 200 species of birds, many of which are here on a seasonal basis. There are 38 reptilian species, which include turtles, lizards, and snakes. Amphibian species number 40, and of that figure 27 are salamanders. This gives the Smokies the distinction of having the most diverse salamander population anywhere in the world. The park has about 58 species of fish, including several species of game fish. Numerous species of land snails, insects, and spiders are also found in the park.