Knoxville’s Best Idea

Fall at Mingus Mill in Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina

The birth of our treasured sanctuary

During the next calendar year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, far and away the nation’s most visited of the “crown jewels,” will celebrate its 90th birthday. Most of us take for granted our Smokies because, well, during our lifetimes they have always been there. The truth is that without the leadership of the people in Knoxville, Tennessee and North Carolina would not have the most visited national park in the country, a park having an annual economic benefit of $2.4 billion.

In the summer of 1923, Ann Davis and her husband, Willis Davis, the general manager of Knoxville Iron Company, toured the national parks in the West. Upon their return, Mrs. Davis contended that as grand as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite were for a visit, the green peaks and ridges of the Smokies were of equal stature. Mr. Davis began to urge his circle of friends to support the notion of our part of the Appalachians as a national park. Despite overwhelming skepticism, the Davises persuaded the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, the Knoxville Automobile Club, and later, the Knoxville Rotary Club to lend a hand. Carlos Campbell, the Chamber manager at the time, wrote in Birth of a National Park to an organizational meeting of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association held at the law office of Judge H. B. Lindsay. Willis Davis was elected chairman. Others present included Wylie Brownlee and Cowan Rodgers as officers, and possibly Colonel David Chapman, who did not embrace the idea of a national park until he read a report by Teddy Roosevelt on the importance of the Southern Appalachians. Chapman’s level of enthusiasm convinced Davis to yield the chairmanship to his young colleague.

Meanwhile, Hubert Work, the Secretary of Interior at the time, had appointed a committee to study the prospect of a national park in the eastern part of the United States. At a hearing in Asheville, a city more interested in a Grandfather Mountain-Linville Gorge site than the Smokies, photographs taken by Jim Thompson persuaded two on the Interior Committee to hike the Rainbow Falls trail to Mt. LeConte, the Alum Cave Bluff, Gregory Bald, and, of course, Cades Cove. Ultimately, the Committee recommended the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains (Shenandoah National Park) and, for later, the Smokies. Colonel Chapman was disappointed with the second-place finish. North Carolinian Horace Kephart, the author of Our Southern Highlanders, was thrilled even though many in his state preferred the Grandfather Mountain area.

Austin Peay, who had some familiarity with the Elkmont area and was later elected Tennessee governor, decided that he would support the quest for a national park and entered an option agreement with Colonel W. B. Townsend for the state to purchase 76,507 acres for the sum of $273,557 — or $3.57 per acre. Mrs. Davis, elected to the House of Representatives after the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, introduced the bill to purchase.

Strong opposition developed in the legislature. The Knoxville Chamber raised $5,000 to charter a train trip for the 99 in the House and the 33 in the Senate. With their expenses paid, the crowd swelled to some 200. Private automobiles transported the visitors to Cades Cove. Although supporters of the bill were optimistic when the bill passed in the Senate, attorney James Wright, a supporter of a national forest rather than a park, used his influence to defeat the bill in the House. Not backing down, Chapman enlisted the help of Knoxville Mayor Ben Morton who, in turn, persuaded City Council to offer one-third of the Townsend purchase price if the members of the House voted “yes.” When the vote was affirmative, Governor Peay signed the legislation with a quill pen, which he gave to Mrs. Davis.

While the state support for the purchase had solidified, there remained the matter of a vote by the Knoxville City Council to appropriate the funds. Opponents accused some on the Council of being overly extravagant, questioned the legality of city funds for such a purpose, and demanded a recall election for four of the 11 on the board. Three were defeated. Afterward, when the $90,000 appropriation came to a vote, Mayor Morton allocated much of the debate time to Chapman and then read a supportive letter from Governor Peay. The funds were narrowly approved — by a six to five vote. Recognizing that their efforts had failed, the five in opposition changed their votes to “yes” in order to make the resolution unanimous.

Raising dollars from the private sector in order to buy the land and help build the infrastructure was a struggle. Honoring a fundamental principle for fundraisers to give first and then ask others, Chapman, in 1925, donated $5,000 to the campaign. Recognizing the potential for economic impact, some corporations pledged as much as $10,000. When four thousand or so schoolchildren from Knox, Blount, Sevier, and Cocke counties gave pennies and nickels to the cause, totaling $1,391.72, their generosity influenced even more donations, swelling the total in excess of $600,000. A few months later, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce pledged $35,000 in order to meet their private sector goal of $500,000.

North Carolina, influenced by Charles Webb, the publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times, was instrumental in the next steps essential to the creation of our park. When our sister state appropriated $2,000,000 from their government, the Tennessee General Assembly matched, but not without another boost from Knoxville. During the legislative session in 1927, the Conservation Association invited legislators back to their city. Legislators took a special train from Nashville, enjoyed breakfast at the Cherokee Country Club, toured Cades Cove for a picnic lunch, and were then escorted to the Mountain View in Gatlinburg for a banquet in their honor. The Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission, chaired by Chapman, which included Ben Morton and former governor Ben Hooper of Newport, was authorized to acquire the lands necessary for the park, the vast majority of which was owned by lumber companies.

If all of those hurdles were not enough challenges, the $5 million raised by then proved to be woefully inadequate. To develop the park, experts indicated that another $5 million would be required. In the depths of the Great Depression, the United States Congress was not an alternative, but Arno Cammerer, who would be later named as the Director of the National Park Service, capitalized on his long-term relationship with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a major philanthropist for parks throughout the country. On March 6, 1928, he announced that the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund would make a gift of $5 million, conditioned only upon his “mother’s name… be memorialized in a way that would be pleasing to her.” Today, the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap serves as an iconic place in our treasured sanctuary.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was opened to the public on June 15, 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only United States president to have visited the Smokies, first traveled through in 1936 for an inspection, and then returned on September 2, 1941, for the official dedication. Three months later, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this country entered World War ll.

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