Elkmont, Tennessee

Elkmont, Tennessee

Infobox nrhp
name =Elkmont Historic District, Great Smoky Mountains NP
nrhp_type = hd

caption = Elkmont, Tennessee
location = Off TN 72 SW of Gatlinburg
nearest_city = Gatlinburg, Tennessee
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long_degrees =
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added = March 22, 1994
visitation_num =
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refnum =94000166
mpsub =
governing_body = National Park Service

Elkmont was a former community in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, located in the southeastern United States. It was named for the numerous elk which once inhabited the area.

Elkmont began as a logging town in 1908 but transitioned into a mountain resort community after its trees were harvested. The town was home to the Wonderland Hotel and approximately 50 rustic cottages used as summer homes by affluent people from nearby Knoxville.

Now within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elkmont is home to a ranger station and campground. In 1994, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wonderland Hotel collapsed in 2006. The fate of the resort cottages, which are scheduled for demolition, is currently being debated. July 2008 Update-> The Park Service has been slowly restoring a small handful of homes along Jakes Creek nearest the Elkmont Campground. 4 or 5 homes have been roped off and new porches have been installed.


Elkmont is situated in a narrow but relatively flat valley created by the junction of Little River and Jakes Creek. Steep ridges surround the valley on all sides, with Meigs Mountain rising to the west, Sugarland Mountain rising to the east, and Cove Mountain rising to the north. To the south is Blanket Mountain, with the slopes of Clingmans Dome and Mount Collins beyond.

The source of Little River is approximately five miles above Elkmont along the slopes of Clingmans Dome, where it begins as a small trickle before its confluence with several smaller streams at an area known as Three Forks. In just over a mile, the river gains strength as it absorbs Meigs Post Prong, Rough Creek, and Fish Camp Prong before its junction with Jakes Creek at Elkmont. Just beyond Elkmont, the river turns sharply to the west toward its junction with Middle Prong at a popular swimming area known as the "Y".


Early pioneers

The first known permanent residents in what is now Elkmont settled along Jakes Creek in the 1840s. The creek's namesake, Jacob Hauser (c. 1791-1870), was probably the first to arrive. He was followed shortly thereafter by the family of David Ownby (1816-1889), who came to the area to search for gold. [National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Mayna Treanor Avent Studio, Section 8: 6.] The small community that developed in the valley was known simply as "Little River". [Weals, p.24.]

Like most Appalachian communities, the residents of Little River developed a subsistence agricultural economy. Most residents grew corn and apples and kept bees for honey. Several gristmills arose along Jakes Creek. [National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Mayna Treanor Avent Studio, Section 8: 6.]

The only remaining structure from the pioneer period in Elkmont is the Avent cabin, which was built in 1845 or so by the Ownby family. Around 1915, David Ownby's great-grandson, Stephen, received the cabin as a wedding gift from his father-in-law, Sam Cook (1873-1950). In 1919, Stephen Ownby sold the cabin to Frank and Mayna Avent of Nashville. Mayna Avent used the cabin as an art studio until 1940. Avent's son, Jim, made several modifications to allow more sunlight to enter. [National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Mayna Treanor Avent Studio, Section 7:2]

Lem Ownby, David Ownby's legendary grandson, was born near Jakes Creek in 1889. In 1908, Ownby and his father built a cabin about a mile or so above the confluence of Jakes Creek and Little River where Ownby lived for the rest of his life. Ownby obtained a lifetime lease when the national park was established, and for several decades afterward sold honey to hikers. Among those who paid Ownby a visit were Tennessee governor (and later U.S. senator) Lamar Alexander and U.S. Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun and Potter Stewart. [Strutin, p.236.] Ownby died in 1984, the last of the park's lifetime lessees outside of Cades Cove. [Brewer]

Logging era

In the 1880s, Knoxville businessman John L. English began a small-scale logging project along Jakes Creek. To transport the logs to a sawmill on the outskirts of Knoxville, English constructed a series of splash dams along Little River. When the logs were ready to be moved, the floodgates of these dams were opened and the rushing torrent carried the logs downstream. While English managed a moderate profit, his venture had folded by 1900, possibly because of a disastrous flood along Little River in 1899. [Weals, pp.1-3.]

In 1901, Pennsylvania entrepreneur Colonel Wilson B. Townsend purchased convert|86000|acre|km2|0 of land along Little River and established the Little River Lumber Company. Townsend set up a band saw mill in Tuckaleechee Cove, laying the foundation for the town that would later bear his name. Rather than splash dams, which are at the mercy of the volatile mountain streams, Townsend constructed a logging railroad between the company's sawmill in Tuckaleechee and the river's upper reaches. [Weals, pp.v, 27-28.] The railroad was later extended to Walland, connecting it to Maryville and Knoxville. The railroad employed 10 Shay engines to move the log-filled flatcars along the river valley. [Weals, p.28.] Logging skidders were used to pull trees from the steeper slopes.

In 1908, Little River Lumber set in motion an enormous logging project along Little River's headwaters, namely Jakes Creek and the Three Forks area (where the river absorbs Fish Camp Prong and Rough Creek). The Little River Railroad was extended all the way up the valley, with a logging camp and station set up at the confluence of Jakes Creek and Little River. The company named the town "Elkmont". [Weals, p.24.]

Early Elkmont was a typical temporary logging camp. These camps bore a resemblance to later Depression-era shanty towns. Shanty houses, a post office, a transient hotel, a commissary, and sheds critical to railroad maintenance were the town's only buildings. Many loggers lived in boarding houses, and some crossed Sugarland Mountain via a trail connecting Elkmont to the Sugarlands. [Weals, pp.v, 24-26.] The average pay for a lumberjack was $82 per month. [Weals, p.77.]

As logging operations progressed, it became necessary to move the camp higher up the mountain slopes to the south. The company managed this by loading the shanties onto railroad flatcars and moving them to pre-constructed foundations using a logging crane. Although the logging camps moved, Elkmont was still used as a base of operations in the area. [Weals, pp.59, 75.]

On June 30, 1909, a train wreck occurred near the junction of Newt Prong and Jakes Creek, killing engineer Gordon Bryson and brakeman Charles Jenkins. While the company claimed the train was overloaded, some believed it to be a clogged sand reservoir (sand was used to give the trains traction on steep slopes). Locals sang ballads of the train wreck for years afterward. [Weals, pp.44-50.]

In 1926, Townsend sold most of his Little River Lumber tract to the newly-created Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission, although he had been given permission to continue logging for most of the next decade. By the time the company ceased operations in 1939, it had produced 750 million board feet (1.8 million m³) of lumber. [Strutin, p.207.]

Resort town

In his company's early days, Townsend allowed hunters and fishermen to use Little River Railroad to access the deep, game-rich forests of the Smokies. As the Elkmont valley was slowly stripped of its valuable timber, Townsend began to advertise the area as a mountain getaway. In 1909, Little River Railroad began offering the Sunday "Elkmont Special"— non-stop train service from Knoxville to Elkmont. Tickets to Elkmont sold out quickly, and the service was eventually extended to several days per week. Little River Railroad's Shay engines proved too slow for passenger service, so the company employed a 90-ton Mallet and a Pacific engine to pull the passenger cars. [Weals, p.27.]

In 1911, Townsend gave Charles Carter several acres of land on a hill overlooking Elkmont with the stipulation that Carter build on it within one year. In 1912, Carter made good on the promise when he opened the Wonderland Hotel. Billed as a resort lodge, the hotel contained 50 rooms with an extensive balcony looking out over the valley and Meigs Mountain. The Wonderland was open from June 1 through October 10 of every year and was constantly booked in its early years of operation. [McCoy] [Weals, p.iv.]

Difficulties in getting a room in the Wonderland led a group of affluent Knoxvillians to form the Appalachian Club in 1914. The group purchased several acres of land just above the confluence of Jakes Creek and Little River, where they built a lodge and approximately 40 rustic cottages for use as summer residences. [McCoy]

Membership in the Appalachian Club proved remarkably difficult to obtain, and several rejected Knoxvillians purchased the Wonderland Hotel site and formed the Wonderland Club in 1919. Along with the hotel, 10 or so cottages were erected on the hill. Since the hotel was no longer open to the public, the old transient hotel used by loggers was refurnished for tourist use and was renamed "The Tavern", which was open year-round. [McCoy]

In 1925, Little River Lumber Company concluded its logging operations in the Three Forks area and sought to move the Elkmont tracks to the recently-acquired Walker Valley (now Tremont). Fearing a lawsuit from cottage owners, Townsend ordered the tracks to be pulled up and moved in secret. Elkmont residents were outraged. Fortunately, however, the railroad grades were perfect for road construction. In 1926, thanks largely to Tennessee Governor Austin Peay (who owned a cottage at Elkmont), a road was constructed connecting Townsend with both the Wonderland Club and Appalachian Club areas. During its construction, members of the Metcalf family, who owned a farm just west of Elkmont, supplied the workers with drinking water. In appreciation, a large picnic area between Elkmont and Wears Valley was named Metcalf Bottoms. [Weals, pp.85-88.]

National park movement

In 1920, Willis P. Davis and his wife Anne, who owned a summer cottage at Elkmont, began to suggest an idea for a national park in the Smokies after a visit to Yellowstone. While the Davises merely suggested the idea to influential friends in Knoxville, it was another Elkmont cottage-owner, David C. Chapman, who took the initiative. [Campbell, pp.13-18.] Business owners in Knoxville quickly saw the benefits of a national park and began lobbying federal and state governments.

After the U.S. government agreed to establish the national park if the states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land, Knoxville began an intensive lobbying campaign aimed at the Tennessee legislature. In 1925, Chapman hosted a group of legislators at Elkmont to sell the park idea. [Campbell, p.32.] The following year, Colonel Townsend made the initial convert|76000|acre|km2|sing=on sale.

While Elkmont was the birth of the park movement, it was also home to one of the strongest anti-park movements. Shortly after the Townsend purchase, an attorney for Little River Lumber Company named Jim Wright rallied a hodge-podge group of attorneys, businessmen, and mountaineers at Elkmont to propose the establishment of a national forest rather than a national park. [Pierce, p.111.] Wright also proposed a massive road-building campaign across the crest of the Smokies in hopes of increasing the land's value. [Pierce, p.120.] Largely because of Wright's efforts, the initial bill allowing for the purchase of land in the Smokies exempted Elkmont from eminent domain. Cottage owners managed to gain a provision that allowed them to sell their cottages at half-price in exchange for lifetime leases. [Pierce, pp.167-168.]

Present day

Most of the lifetime leases on the Wonderland Hotel and the 50 or so rustic cottages at Elkmont expired in 1992 (two expired in 2001), and ownership reverted to the national park service. The park's 1982 General Management Plan calls for all structures to be removed to allow nature to reclaim the affected areas. However, in 1994, Elkmont was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving it a special status. [Obtained from park information signs at Elkmont, GSMNP, in 2007.] A debate immediately ensued over the fate of these structures. [Michael Frome,"Strangers In High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains" (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), xlv.]

In 2005, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed from a structural failure. Parts of the hotel deemed to have historical value were removed and the rest cleared, leaving only the annex and a chimney fall. Most of Elkmont's cottages are still standing, but are in disrepair, and are off limits to the public. [Obtained from park information signs at Elkmont, GSMNP, 2007.] Construction materials and new porches have been spotted among a few of the homes along Jakes Creek, and according to locals, the Park Service is going to rehabilitate a number of cottages for use as nightly rentals. Homes along Little River do not appear to be part of the current rehab project.Fact|date=August 2008



*Brewer, Carson, "Great Smoky Mountains National Park" Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Publishing Company, 1993, p.32
*Campbell, Carlos, "Birth of a National Park In the Great Smoky Mountains" Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969
*McCoy, George, "Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park", Asheville: The Inland Press, 1935, p.140
*Pierce, Daniel, "The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park" Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000
*Strutin, Michal, "History Hikes of the Smokies", Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2003
*Weals, Vic, "The Last Train to Elkmont" Knoxville: Olden Press, 1993

External links

* [http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?parkId=382&projectId=15794 Elkmont Historic District] - Addresses the issue over conservation of the historic cottages
* [http://youtube.com/watch?v=7x4bmksLuBs&feature=dir Ghost Town; Elkmont Houses]
* [http://home.earthlink.net/~tnhiker/lifeafter50onemansperspective/id43.html Endangered Species - Elkmont Cabins] - Contains a map of the historic district

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