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NPS Centennial: How the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Started


With endless opportunities for hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor activities, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park consistently attracts enough visitors to be the most visited in the country.

But do you know how this special place became part of the National Park System, the governing body of all the parks in the United States?

The Great Smoky Mountains NP is a relatively new addition to the system, with its initial establishment occurring in 1926.  But it took nearly 14 years for it to become a full-fledged park because 150,000 acres of mostly privately owned land needed to be acquired first.

Now that the NPS is celebrating its centennial year on August 25th, it’s a good time to look back on how this environmental treasure evolved into a designated and protected area for everyone to enjoy.

The park’s beginnings
Two factors acted as the driving forces of the Great Smoky Mountains’ founding: as a place to regain health and to conserve the environment.

Cherokee tribes first populated the region that is now the present-day National Park. Plentiful game and temperate climate likely drew them to settle here. The first European settlers also appreciated the Smoky Mountains for those same reasons, but they also began farming and lumberjacking to make a living. In time, the land started to become stripped of its once-abundant trees

Around the late 1890s, the Smokies had gained an early reputation as a clean and cool mountain air refuge for those with respiratory ailments like tuberculosis.  An attempt to preserve the land came and went through the North Carolina state legislature, but it remained a persistent attempt with those who believed the community at large would benefit from this movement.

Securing the land
Unlike many of the other National Parks that came before it, and especially those in the West, the Great Smoky Mountains had a tough start.  While the government-owned large tracts of land that could easily become part of the park system, farmers and timber companies owned much of the acreage in the Smokies. That was especially true in Cades Cove, where a few dozen homesteaders remained, even when the area was already established park land.

People outside the areas worked diligently to raise money to purchase the land, parcel by parcel.  The largest single contributor was financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose $5 million matched the amount raised by the state governments of Tennessee and North Carolina, private citizen groups, and even schoolchildren.  The downside of this, of course, was longtime residents were evicted from their homes.  Even when the government allowed some of them to stay, they were not able to farm, mine, or work in lumbering.

With the necessary 150,000 acres in place by 1934, Congress finally chartered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and six years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated it.  Today, the park boundaries include 522,419 acres – more than three times its original size.

Some fun facts about the Park

  1. Writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa helped to popularize the idea of environmental conservation with their collaborations.
  1. The Smoky Mountains served as a location setting for the popular 1950s Disney television show, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
  1. While the rest of Tennessee and North Carolina may swelter under summer heat, the temperatures in the Smokies never get above 80 degrees.
  1. Sevierville native, actress, and country music superstar Dolly Parton was the official park ambassador for its 75th anniversary in 2009.
  1. Formed by glaciers from the last Ice Age, the Smoky Mountains are some of the oldest mountains on the planet, having existed for at least 200 million years old.

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