Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are the highest mountains in the Eastern United States with sixteen peaks rising more than 6,000 feet. Part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the Smokeys are an ancient treasure over 300 million years old. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park. Today we’ll visit Elkmont Ghost Town, the remnants of a recreational community of the east Tennessee wealthy in early 20th century.
If you’ve ever been to the Elkmont campground in the Great Smoky Mountains or hiked on the Little River Trail, then you’ve seen the remnants of the Elkmont “ghost town,” the area where numerous old homes stand in various states of disrepair.
Located next to the former logging town of Elkmont (where the Elkmont Campground now stands), this old “ghost town” had its start as the” Appalachian Club” vacation community. The land was then owned by the Little River Lumber Company. Around 1910, the company began selling the land to individuals, mainly hunting and fishing enthusiasts, for the purpose of creating a private social club. The Appalachian clubhouse itself was used as a lodge but within a few years many members began building their own vacation cottages. In 1912, the Wonderland Park Hotel, a 50-room resort lodge was also constructed nearby.
In 1919, a group of Knoxville businessmen purchased the Wonderland Hotel and created the “Wonderland Club”. Around 10 or more cottages were also constructed on the hill near the hotel. The Appalachian Club and the Wonderland Club became favorite vacation spots for wealthy east Tennessee families to come and socialize and escape the summer heat.
In 1920, soon after a visit to Yellowstone, Willis P. Davis, a cottage owner at Elkmont, began to suggest the idea of a national park in the Smokeys. Another Elkmont land owner, David C. Chapman, soon took up the cause and helped advance it. Realizing the benefits of a national park, several influential Knoxville businessmen began lobbying federal and state governments.
The U.S. government eventually agreed to establish the national park if the states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land. Once again, the Knoxville businessmen strongly lobbied the Tennessee State legislature and in 1925, Chapman hosted a group of the legislators at Elkmont in order to help convince them of the plan. The following year Colonel Wilson B. Townsend, the founder of the Little River Lumber Company, made the initial sale of 76,000 acres. While most everyone else within the park boundaries were forced to sell their properties and relocate, the Elkmont cottage owners were able to sell their cottages at half price in exchange for lifetime leases.
Most of the leases for the cottages and the Wonderland Hotel expired in 1992, with two more expiring in 2001. Upon expiration ownership of the properties reverted back to the National Park Service. In 1982, the park called for all structures to be removed and to allow the area to return to its natural state. In 1994, however, the Wonderland Hotel and many of the cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places which protected them from being destroyed, so a debate raged on what to do with the structures.
In 2005, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed and in 2009 the National Park Service announced the intention of restoring the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages in the Appalachian Club section. All other buildings are to be documented and removed. From the photos you can see little has been done to “restore” any of the buildings. They have started working on one now, but I believe the attitude for decades was to let it fall down and disappear. The men who built these cottages wanted to save the great mountains for future generations. They worked hard to convince two state governments and the federal government to make a national park here. I don’t think their presence on the mountains should be forgotten.
The Old Elkmont Cemetery is in this area in the park. This is the cemetery for the former Elkmont community. Grave markers range from unmarked sandstone stones to modern marble markers. Most of the graves seem to be those of children and the burial dates are in the late 1800s to 1920s range though there are a couple with a recent date. It has about a hundred graves
Next time you’re in the Smoky Mountains be sure to check out the Elkmont Ghost Town and the Abandoned Wonderland before most of the buildings are gone. Directions : Drive from Sugarland’s Visitors Center toward Cades Cove. After about 7 miles, there is a sign for Elkmont Campground. Turn and follow the road for 4 miles until you see the ranger station at Elkmont Campground. Take a left at the sign for Elkmont Nature trail. There is a parking lot within walking distance of many of the old cottages.
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