Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Glimpse Of The Past: The Elkmont Area Inside The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

My family and I have vacationed in the Smoky Mountains area all my life; but I never knew about this little area of the national park until right before we visited this past spring, 2013. There is a little slice of the past, frozen in time, in the area known as Elkmont campground. This is a very short summary of the history of the area.

 The village of Elkmont began as a home base of logging operations for the Little River Timber Company. A few years later the company began selling plots of land to wealthy businessmen from Knoxville, who established the "Appalachian Club". These men used the area primarily for hunting and fishing. In 1912, a resort hotel, the Wonderland Hotel, was constructed on a hill overlooking Elkmont. A group of Knoxville businessmen purchased the Wonderland in 1919 and turned it into an exclusive private club, called "The Wonderland Club."

Over the next two decades, the Appalachian Club and Wonderland Club evolved into elite vacation areas for wealthy families living in the Knoxville area. When the national park was created in the 1930s, most of Elkmont's cottage owners were given lifetime leases. These were converted to 20-year leases in 1952, and renewed in 1972. The National Park Service wouldn't renew the leases in 1992, and made plans to remove the hotel and cottages. In 1994, however, the Wonderland Hotel and several dozen of the Elkmont cottages were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Elkmont Historic District, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This sparked a 15-year debate over what should happen to the historic structures.

In 2009, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area, and remove all other buildings, including the Wonderland Annex (the main hotel collapsed in 2005).

When we visited, a park ranger told us some interesting stories about the area. He said when the owners of the homes were preparing to move, they went to great pains to spruce up their homes for the future visitors that they had been led to believe would be renting the homes from the park service. They waxed the floors, hung new curtains, and some even left letters hanging on the walls addressed to their future guests, welcoming them. It's a shame that these homes sat empty and deteriorating for over twenty years, while a huge debate dragged on over what to do with them.

 I'm glad the decision was finally made to restore some of these sites, but many more are being allowed to be reclaimed by nature. These photos were taken by my son. Many of them are of homes along the Jakes Creek area, which will not be restored. If you want to see it, I suggest that you do it soon.

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