History of Elkmont, Tennessee
Elkmont is a story of dreams, hope, hard work, disappointments, fortunes made, and fortunes lost. One can hardly tell the story of Great Smoky Mountains National Park without recalling the rich history of Elkmont, Tennessee.
For further reading on the fascinating history of Elkmont, we recommend the following book by Daniel L. Paulin: Lost Elkmont (Images of America) at Amazon.com
The U.S. government passed the Removal Act of 1830, forcing Indian populations westward. As they moved out, European-Americans increasingly replaced them, and the landscape of America began to change.
The crowded cities on the eastern seaboard, contrasted with the wide-open west, presented opportunities for many who dreamed of starting over on their own land.
The mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee offered magnificent old growth forests, rivers teaming with freshwater fish, whitetail deer, an abundance of other wildlife, and the most beautiful views one could imagine.
Many families looking to settle on affordable land never made it beyond these mountains. They stopped here and made it their home.
Hundreds of people cleared land, farmed, built homes, barns and mills, and opened general stores. These pioneering families worked hard and created a good life for themselves.
Little River at Elkmont | Photo: © John Parker
In the beginning, Elkmont was not Elkmont; the locals called it “Little River”. The setting was a small collection of farms along the Little River. It was secluded, beautiful, and had abundant natural resources.
By the mid 1800’s, Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley, Roaring Fork, and Little River (Elkmont) were four of the most successful farming communities in the region.
By 1865, the Civil War had come and gone and the landscape of America began to change again. The expansion of railroads contributed to economic growth by allowing quick movement of products and materials.
As the American economy grew, builders needed lumber for new housing and commercial buildings. The mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina were a natural treasure trove of old growth timber.
Little River Lumber Company
In 1901, Colonel W. B. Townsend and his associates formed the Little River Lumber Company in the nearby community that eventually became Townsend, Tennessee.
Little River Lumber Company and Railroad Museum | Photo: Marc Bowman
Townsend and his partners purchased approximately 75,000 acres of land in the Smoky Mountains and built more than 150 miles of railway to access it.
Townsend’s railroad came to Little River in 1908, along with a logging camp. Little River Lumber Company built housing for their workers, a trading post, a commissary, a machine shop, and a post office. They named it Elkmont.
Elkmont boomed, and for the next 18 years Townsend’s company harvested nearly all the trees in the area. Townsend and his partners made a fortune exporting millions of board feet of timber.
Elkmont Logging Town in 1915 | Photo: Public Domain
In 1926, Colonel Townsend relocated his operations to the Tremont area, leaving behind a clear-cut, virtually bare mountain.
While local farmers made a small profit selling their land to Colonel Townsend, they lost the beautiful mountain environment that had brought them here in the first place.
Elkmont Resort Community
In 1910, shortly after the Little River Lumber Company arrived in Elkmont, a private resort community named “The Appalachian Club” was established.
Appalachian Clubhouse | Elkmont | Photo: Marc Bowman
Wealthy businessmen, primarily from Knoxville, purchased land and built a clubhouse and a row of cabins. Eventually, several dozen cabins sprang up around the area.
Two years later, C.B. Carter and his brothers purchased land in Elkmont and built “The Wonderland Hotel” to provide additional housing to the nearby club.
Later, they added a restaurant and opened their facilities to the public. Colonel Townsend saw an opportunity and began transporting passengers to the ever-popular vacation spot on his railway.
Vacationers fished and swam but did little else as they unwound from the fast paced life in Knoxville and other large cities.
Spence Cabin | Elkmont | Great Smoky Mountains National Park
River Lodge, owned by Alice Morier Townsend, Colonel W.B. Townsend’s third wife, is probably the most famous of all the remaining buildings. In its day, it was the most opulent of all the cabins in Elkmont.
The Spence family from Knoxville held the final lease on River Lodge, and today it is commonly known as Spence Cabin.
NOTE: Spence Cabin “River Lodge” may be reserved for day use only and is open from April 1 – October 31, 2022. For information, or to make reservations, please visit Recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Arrives
Horace Kephart, a librarian and camping/hunting author, found his way to North Carolina around 1904. Although they never divorced, Kephart left his wife and six children behind in Ithaca, New York, to explore the mountains.
Horace Kephart | circa 1906
His wanderlust led him to remote areas of the Smoky Mountains. He wrote of his experiences in a series of articles for Field and Stream magazine. In 1908, he turned these stories into a popular book titled, Camping and Woodcraft, which is still in print today.
Horace Kephart saw with his own eyes the devastation left behind after years of unfettered logging. Vast old-growth forests were virtually gone.
Only a small number of farmers in Cataloochee Valley resisted selling their timber. As a result, the oldest and largest trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are near the Cataloochee Valley.
Kephart’s passion for preserving the mountains led him to work with David Chapman and Ann Davis of Knoxville, among others, to lobby the US Congress to create a national park.
In 1926, Congress passed a law authorizing the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a victory for Kephart and his friends. Sadly, Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, never seeing the park come to fruition.
Horace Kephart arguably became the most well known promoter of Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a trail, river, and shelter were named after him.
RELATED: Kephart Prong Trail
More than 75 years after the founding of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the forest has reclaimed Elkmont. While the trees are not what they would have been if the loggers had stayed out, without the logging, it is doubtful the park would even exist at all.
Elkmont and the National Park
With the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, private landowners had to leave. This included farmers, millers, logging personnel, hoteliers, and anyone else living and working within the park’s boundaries.
The National Park Service granted long-term leases to property owners in Elkmont after the state of Tennessee purchased their land for half the appraised value and donated it to the federal government.
However, in 1952, the US government renegotiated the long-term leases and converted them into 20-year renewable leases.
They promised to provide access to electricity if the leasers would agree to the new terms. The government renewed the leases only once, in 1972.
After these leases expired in 1992, the government granted extensions for just two leasers and refused to renew the others. They then scheduled the buildings for demolition. They canceled the two remaining lease extensions in 2001.
In the meantime, the National Register of Historic Places added Elkmont’s buildings to their registry, making them protected properties. They named the area the “Elkmont Historic District” in 1994. As a result, the National Park Service could not demolish the buildings.
Elkmont Historic District | Elkmont, Tennessee | Photo: Marc Bowman
While waiting for a decision about what to do with these historic buildings, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed in 2008. Weather and neglect had taken its toll. The hotel could not be saved and would have to be demolished.
In April 2016, while awaiting demolition, the Wonderland Hotel annex burned to the ground. The only thing remaining is the chimney. The National Park Service has not determined the cause.
Wonderland Hotel | Elkmont, Tennessee
Years of neglect have rendered most of the properties uninhabitable. In fact, it is illegal to enter any of the structures in Elkmont. The only exceptions are Spence Cabin and the Appalachian Club, and you must have a reservation.
In addition, vandalism is a problem. Defacement of the buildings, arson, and theft are a problem. The law protects these buildings, but the law by itself does not stop vandals. It is sad to see these historic structures deteriorating.
Cabin in Disrepair | Elkmont, TN | Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Recently, a restoration project for the remaining properties was authorized. The National Park Service hopes to preserve and return the buildings to their original condition using materials of the time. This is a massive undertaking and will take years to complete.
Once it is finished, visitors to Elkmont will once again be able to enjoy it the way the vacationers of the early 1900’s did.
Annual Synchronous Fireflies Event at Elkmont
Fireflies are not unique to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a child, we used to watch the “lightning bugs” in the woods behind our house in LA (lower Alabama); Mobile to be specific.
However, the fireflies at Elkmont are a bit different than those I enjoyed back then. These fireflies synchronize their lights in a mating ritual, thus the name Synchronous Fireflies.
Synchronous Firefly Event | Elkmont, TN | Photo: © John Parker
In May or June each year, for about a week, the synchronous fireflies light up the forest surrounding Elkmont in a beautiful display. Thousands of people show up each year to sit along a trail and view this display of nature.
In fact, so many people were showing up, the National Park Service implemented a lottery to control the size of the crowds. We entered the lottery and won a place on our first attempt.
RELATED: Enter the Synchronous Fireflies Lottery at Recreation.gov.
While the synchronous fireflies event was a fun experience for us (in spite of sitting in the rain for hours and dealing with a copperhead snake), the fireflies were not the highlight. Hanging out in the forest with people from all over the world was the high point for me.
Waiting for the Synchronous Fireflies | Elkmont, Tennessee | Photo: Marc Bowman
Since we waited several hours for the fireflies to begin their show, there was plenty of opportunity to walk around, take pictures, or just hang out.
If you have never seen fireflies, this is a great place to see them. Elkmont is not the only place to see synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains, however, it is the best place. The event is well organized by the National Park Service.