The idea of incorporating the towering peaks and scenic valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains into a national park first took hold in the 1890s, but it took three-plus decades for that vision to become reality.
Talk of establishing a public land preserve in the southern Appalachians began before the turn of the 20th Century. Even though the first bill to do so failed to clear the North Carolina legislature, the idea continued to gain steam. By the early 1900s, more people were pressuring Washington, but park advocates couldn’t agree on whether they wanted a national park or a national forest.
Most who supported a national park came from Asheville and Knoxville, Tenn. The two groups competed before joining forces and agreeing to position the park in such a way that its area was divided between the two states. Early park-backers weren’t outdoor enthusiasts, but motorists. By the 1920s, the automobile was gaining prominence, and drivers who had formed motor clubs wanted more good roads through scenic locations.
President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation in 1926 (the same year this newspaper was founded) authorizing Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. The federal government was not allowed to purchase land for such parks, which meant local supporters had to become fund-raisers.
The N.C. and Tennessee legislatures in 1927 appropriated $2 million each for land purchases, with additional money raised by individuals and private groups. Though some $5 million had been raised by 1928, the cost of land had almost doubled. The park’s rescue came in the form of a $5 million donation from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.
Buying the necessary land proved difficult even after funds were secured. There were some 6,000 small farms, large tracts and other parcels that had to be surveyed, appraised, haggled over and sometimes condemned in court. Timber companies had to be compensated for inventory and equipment. Emotions ran high among those who had to walk away from homes where their families had lived for generations.
One outspoken critic of the proposed Smokies Park was C.J. Harris, the Sylva industrialist who built Jackson County’s historic Courthouse (now part of the Jackson County Library) and lent his name to the local hospital. According to the Feb. 14, 1944, Sylva Herald report that announced his death, Harris at one time owned 76,000 acres that is now part of the national park.
He voiced his displeasure with the planned park in a Jan. 3, 1931, letter to the Asheville Citizen.
“Now that Asheville has gotten rid of the rainbow chasers and is getting down to sober facts, I wish to call attention to the Smoky Mountain Park proposition, which I have always considered a calamity to Western North Carolina,” reads Harris’ opening sentence. He goes on to say that the Cherokee had been removed to Oklahoma to open up their lands for settlement. “If it was a good thing to do then, why deed it back to the government now?” Harris asks.
He also dismisses the Smokies as a potential park, saying “there is nothing in the Smoky park that is of any particular interest,” and lists sites he considered scenic, including Mt. Mitchell, Linville Falls, Blowing Rock and “a hundred others far more attractive to the tourist.”
He closed with an economic argument that still dominates debate when conservation measures are on the table: “It looks to me that it is time our people looked to how they are going to live and how they are going to pay their taxes and stop rainbow chasing.”
In spite of Harris and other park naysayers, North Carolina and Tennessee by 1934 had succeeded in obtaining title to more than the 300,000 acres stipulated by the congressional authorizing act and transferred those deeds to the federal government. Congress then authorized the development of public facilities, with much of the early construction coming from the Civilian Conservation Corps, an agency that grew out of the Great Depression.
President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park during a September 1940 ceremony at Newfound Gap.
How the park came to exist is the subject of the Jackson County Genealogical Society’s next program, presented by Anna Fariello and titled “Great Smoky Mountains National Park: North Carolina’s Best Idea,” which is set for 6:30 p.m. tonight (Thursday) in the Jackson County Library’s Community Room.
Fariello’s presentation is made possible through funding from the N.C. Humanities Council. The Humanities Council is a nonprofit foundation and a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.