December 7, 2023 in Tennessee

Moonshine and Mountain Music: The Rugged Roots of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

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Early Exploration and Settlement

The history of Gatlinburg begins long before European settlers arrived in what is now East Tennessee. Archaeological evidence shows that Native Americans inhabited the Great Smoky Mountains area for thousands of years prior to the 18th century.

The indigenous people living in the region were Cherokee. They called the area near present-day Gatlinburg “Gadugi,” meaning a place where murmuring water flows. This name referred to the many mountain streams and rivers that flowed through the valley.

The Cherokee used the bountiful natural resources of the Smoky Mountains for hunting, fishing, and gathering edible and medicinal plants. They had a rich culture and tradition tied to the landscape.

In the early 1700s, European explorers and settlers began pushing into Cherokee territory. Long hunters ventured into the mountains in search of deer and other game. Eventually they were followed by pioneers looking to establish homesteads and farms.

One of the first permanent white settlers in the Gatlinburg area was Martha Jane Huskey Burgess. Around 1807, she moved to White Oak Flats along the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River with her husband.

White Oak Flats was named after the groves of impressive white oak trees that grew in the valley. It formed the beginnings of what would later become the town of Gatlinburg.

Founding of Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg was officially founded in 1857, although the area had been settled since the early 1800s. The town was formally established and incorporated in 1857 by Radford C. Gatlin, who had purchased land in the area a decade earlier.

The town was named after its founder, Radford C. Gatlin, who was instrumental in laying out the town’s first streets and promoting its early infrastructure and economy. Radford had purchased approximately 1,000 acres of land along the Oconaluftee River valley in 1845 with the intent to start his own town.

In the 1850s, Radford established a general store, post office, and registered the town with the county as Gatlinburg. This officially transformed the rural Appalachian settlement into an incorporated town bearing his last name. Radford continued selling parcels of his land to draw more settlers and businesses to the fledgling town.

Gatlinburg’s early economy centered around subsistence farming, timber logging, and small-scale tourism from adventurers seeking to explore the Great Smoky Mountains. The forests were logged for timber and land was cleared by settlers for subsistence farms and orchards. In the late 1800s, Gatlinburg began drawing regional tourists with the beautiful mountain vistas and opportunities for hiking, fishing, and camping in the Smokies. These early roots of tourism would expand greatly in the coming decades.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Gatlinburg’s prospects changed forever with the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Although the idea of a national park in the Smokies had been discussed for decades prior, it was finally authorized by Congress in 1926. However, it took several more years of land acquisition and development before the park was ready to open.

On June 15, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With over half a million acres of rugged, unspoiled wilderness located just a few miles from Gatlinburg’s doorstep, the new national park instantly transformed the tourism prospects of the small mountain town.

Whereas Gatlinburg had previously drawn a modest number of mountain vacationers, hunters, and fishermen, the stunning beauty and recreation opportunities of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park put the town on the map as a premier tourist destination. As visitation to the national park exploded in the coming decades, so did the crowds flocking to Gatlinburg to enjoy the scenery, outdoor adventures, and mountain hospitality.

The influx of automobile tourists in particular helped grow Gatlinburg into a major gateway community for the national park. New motels, restaurants, gift shops, and attractions sprang up to cater to these visitors. By drawing over 10 million annual visitors to the region, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became a catalyst for Gatlinburg’s rapid development into a top vacation destination. The economic impact on the town was substantial, creating decades of prosperity.

Gatlinburg’s Tourism Boom

Gatlinburg experienced a major boom in tourism starting in the 1950s and 1960s. This was fueled by the rise of new attractions like Ober Gatlinburg, the opening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Gatlinburg’s growing reputation as a premier destination for weddings and honeymoons.

Ober Gatlinburg, which opened in the 1960s, was one of the key drivers of Gatlinburg’s tourism growth. It offered new ski slopes and an aerial tramway that provided spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains. For many visitors, Ober Gatlinburg put Gatlinburg on the map as a year-round vacation destination.

As Gatlinburg grew into a tourism hotspot, the wedding and honeymoon business exploded. The beautiful mountain setting provided a scenic backdrop for weddings. New chapels and venues opened to host weddings and receptions. Gatlinburg marketed itself as a romantic getaway, and soon became one of the top honeymoon destinations in the country.

Gatlinburg also started gaining more national recognition and publicity during this era. Travel magazines, newspapers, and TV shows highlighted Gatlinburg as a can’t-miss stop in the Smokies. Major hospitality brands like Hilton and Holiday Inn opened new hotels to accommodate the surging visitor numbers. By the 1970s, Gatlinburg was welcoming over 5 million tourists a year, cementing its status as a leading mountain resort town.

The boom transformed Gatlinburg from a sleepy mountain hamlet into a bustling tourism center. But it also brought challenges like traffic congestion that the town still grapples with today. Overall, this period marked Gatlinburg’s evolution into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Appalachian Mountains.

Historic Downtown Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg’s downtown area has seen tremendous growth and change over the past century, but still retains much of its historic charm. The heart of downtown centers around the crossroads of Parkway and Traffic Way, which forms a central hub of restaurants, shops, attractions and lodging.

One of the most iconic attractions in downtown Gatlinburg is Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Founded by Robert Ripley, the museum contains over 400 exhibits related to the weird, wacky and unbelievable. Ripley’s original “Odditorium” opened along Gatlinburg’s main strip in 1978 and continues to entertain visitors today with its unique and eccentric collection.

Other historic downtown buildings include the Gatlinburg Inn, which first opened in 1937 and hosted prominent figures like Elvis Presley and Bob Hope. The inn still operates today as one of Gatlinburg’s oldest hospitality establishments.

Over the decades, downtown Gatlinburg has expanded beyond its early frontiersman roots into a bustling tourist destination while retaining its mountain town charm. Historic buildings remain in use while new attractions emerge. The city has worked to strike a balance between preserving its past and making way for future growth. Downtown continues to serve as the vibrant heart of Gatlinburg, connecting its founding history with its status as a top Smoky Mountain vacation destination.

Notable Events

Gatlinburg has weathered its share of difficulties over the years, proving its resilience time and again. Some of the most impactful events include:

The Great Smoky Mountains Fires of 1925 – A devastating series of wildfires burned over 100,000 acres of the Great Smoky Mountains in 1925, including large sections of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The little community of Gatlinburg was especially hard hit, with over 60 homes and businesses destroyed. Yet the people persevered and rebuilt.

The Gatlinburg Fires of 1992 – In 1992 another major fire scorched Gatlinburg, fueled by drought conditions and high winds. Over 160 structures burned and thousands of residents were evacuated. The blaze also impacted the national park. But again, Gatlinburg rebuilt and moved forward stronger.

The Floods of 1939 and 2004 – Extreme flooding has impacted Gatlinburg, cutting off roads and bridges and damaging property. Significant floods occurred in 1939 and 2004. Each time, the community worked together to recover and prepare for future floods.

The Economic Impact of Covid-19 – Like many tourism-dependent towns, Gatlinburg suffered economically due to the coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions and closures in 2020-2021. Vacation rentals, shops, restaurants, and attractions saw steep declines. But resilient locals found ways to adapt and overcome.

Gatlinburg has seen its share of fires, floods, economic troubles, and other challenges. But it has always persevered and rebuilt, keeping its pioneering mountain spirit alive. The people, the stunning natural surroundings, and the Smoky Mountain hospitality continue to draw visitors back year after year.

Prominent Figures

Some of the most important figures in Gatlinburg’s history include:

Martha Jane Huskey Ogle – Known as the “Mother of Gatlinburg”, Martha Jane Huskey arrived in the area in 1802 as a young girl. In 1807, she married William Ogle and the couple established the first permanent home in Gatlinburg, building a cabin along the East Fork of the Little Pigeon River. Martha gave birth to 9 children and together with her husband pioneered the settlement of Gatlinburg. Her determination and fortitude in carving out a life in the wilderness made her a respected community leader.

Anderson Maples – A circuit-riding Methodist minister, Anderson Maples played a key role in establishing the town’s first school and church. He helped choose the name “Gatlinburg” when the town was formally established in 1856, inspired by his friend and congregant Radford Gatlin. Reverend Maples was a much beloved community leader.

William Church – William Church moved to Gatlinburg in the 1880s and established the area’s first general store and post office. This became an important gathering place for locals and tourists. Church was appointed Gatlinburg’s first postmaster in 1891. His business savvy and hospitality were important to the town’s early growth and appeal as a mountain vacation destination.

Jack Huff – Entrepreneur Jack Huff partnered with local businessman C.L. Maples to build the first hotel in Gatlinburg in 1937, the Gatlinburg Inn. Huff was one of the early champions of tourism in Gatlinburg. He also built and managed other popular hotels including Huff’s Court and Twin Islands Motel.

Gatlinburg Today

Gatlinburg today is a booming tourist destination that balances growth and preservation. As the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg welcomes over 10 million visitors per year. The city has over 4,000 hotel rooms, more than 100 restaurants, dozens of shops, attractions, and entertainment venues. Yet amidst the growth, Gatlinburg retains its historic small-town charm.

The downtown area still feels quaint, with its Victorian-style buildings and local businesses. Historic structures like the Gatlinburg Inn, the Margaritaville Hotel, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies have all been preserved. The city honors its heritage through museums like the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum and the Gatlinburg Heritage Museum. Festivals like the 4th of July Midnight Parade and Fantasy of Lights Christmas are beloved annual traditions.

Gatlinburg continues to develop in ways that support the local economy. Recent additions include Anakeesta, a new mountain theme park, and the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park. Investments have been made in infrastructure, parking garages, and road improvements. Care is taken to build and renovate in the rustic style of traditional mountain architecture. As Gatlinburg evolves, protecting its natural setting and cherished way of life remains a priority. The goal is to uphold Gatlinburg’s unique culture while providing new and exciting experiences for visitors.

Looking to the Future

Gatlinburg continues to evolve while staying rooted in its history. As the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the city has exciting plans to enhance the visitor experience and preserve its heritage.

Downtown Revitalization

Following the devastating wildfires of 2016, Gatlinburg is undertaking an ambitious 10-year Downtown Strategic Plan to revitalize its main street area. The plan calls for infrastructure improvements, traffic calming measures, better parking options, and pedestrian-friendly walkways to create a more vibrant downtown. Historic buildings will be preserved while integrating seamless modern amenities.

New Attractions and Resorts

Several new attractions are slated to open in the coming years. Anakista Ridge, a thrilling new zipline, will offer panoramic views of downtown and the national park. A luxury treehouse resort is being constructed to provide an immersive natural retreat. Plans are also underway for an interactive moonshine distillery experience. These new developments will complement Gatlinburg’s existing attractions.

Celebrating History and Heritage

Even with growth, Gatlinburg remains deeply connected to its past. The city is expanding its historical sites and exhibits to share the stories of old Gatlinburg. Festivals and parades that celebrate Appalachian culture, like the GatlinBURG Craftsmen’s Fair, continue each year. And historic buildings, like the Gatlinburg Inn and the Buckhorn Inn, have endured for generations as cherished landmarks. The pioneer spirit lives on in Gatlinburg.

Though the city evolves, its spectacular mountain setting and rich history endure. Gatlinburg’s future looks bright while honoring its storied past.

Why Gatlinburg’s History Matters

Gatlinburg has a long and storied past that has shaped it into the bustling tourist destination it is today. Understanding and appreciating this unique history is important for several reasons:

  • It allows us to understand how Gatlinburg came to be the place it is today. From its early frontier settlements to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, each part of Gatlinburg’s past led to its current status as a gateway to the national park and popular vacation spot. Tracing this progression gives insight into the forces and people that made the city what it is.
  • Appreciating the efforts of past residents and pioneers helps us recognize our debt to them. The early settlers who carved out an existence in the mountains, the conservationists who helped establish the national park, the business owners who turned the town into a tourism hub – their vision and hard work laid the foundation for the Gatlinburg we know today. Valuing their contributions is an important part of honoring our past.
  • Examining the past helps us draw lessons for the future. As Gatlinburg continues to evolve, its leaders can look to what worked and what didn’t in previous eras. The city can also strive to preserve what’s best about its history and character, while continuing to improve. The past provides a roadmap that can guide future directions.

In essence, Gatlinburg’s history is a captivating story that reveals much about the city’s spirit and regional culture. Taking time to study it allows for a richer understanding and appreciation of this special place. By valuing where it’s been, Gatlinburg can have an even brighter future.

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