Have you been to Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park lately?
A couple of days ago, Haley, Outreach & Marketing Coordinator for Friends of the Smokies, and I scouted our first hike in the Classic Hikes series 2022 – a loop in Elkmont outside Elkmont campground. The hiking itself was easy, peasy but the sights on the way were amazing. I have been to Elkmont so many times and each time something new pops up.
There is evidence of settlements everywhere in the Smokies.
But what makes Elkmont fascinating is that this settlement is not about people moving down from the Great Wagon Road and scratching out a living. This was a second home community or actually three communities – Millionaires Row, Society Hill and Daisytown. These homes or really cabins were built after the Little River Railroad Company, owned by Col. Townsend, cut down all the trees from here to the town of Townsend. Families from Knoxville bought a lot by the river and built a summer home. The mom and children spent the summer here while dad came on weekends. All together, there must have been over 70 cabins. They built the Appalachian Club, a place to eat and socialize.
We drive toward the campground, make a hard left and park in what I call the upper lot. First we find Little River Trail headed by the pink Spence Cabin. See the picture on top. The house was owned by Alice Townsend, third wife of Col. Townsend; she was 33 years younger than him. She outlived him by that many years and died in 1969.
Once the park came in, officially in 1934, the government offered a partial payment for their property in exchange for a lifetime lease. And this is the crucial thing: partial payment. Most part-time owners took this deal as this was not their primary home. The leases were renewed several times for various reasons but the bottom line was that the last family left June 30, 2001.
And then. What to do with the cabins? You can’t just leave them since the wood will rot and become a safety hazard.
We turn right on Cucumber Gap Trail in the woods – no houses here. But another right takes us to Jakes Creek Trail and Society Hill with more signs of houses. And back to Daisytown and our cars. But Daisytown is the best part. After a tortuous public decision making process, the park decided to stabilize 19 cabins (from one credible source) and tear down the rest.
Craftspeople have been working for several years and now some houses are open to the public.
Most of the refurbished houses are in Daisytown. The houses may have been in better shape. Also the street is driveable – no hiking needed to see these houses. This is the first time since the park starting working on the houses that you can go in a few of them. They are not furnished; this isn’t Disneyland or Sturbridge.
But the people living around the Appalachian Club thought of themselves as very “exclusive”. Not everyone could join. So a second group built the Wonderland Hotel in another part of Elkmont. You need to climb for about 10 minutes to see the remains of this club. Other than the chimney, nothing was saved from this hotel.
This just skims the surface of history of the Elkmont Community. This is all in your national park – no entrance fee, no guide needed, just time and curiosity.