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A History of Tourism in Gatlinburg

Blog Home : Category Posts : A History of Tourism in Gatlinburg

When Did Gatlinburg Become a Tourist Attraction?

Most people know that Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains have a rich cultural history that stretches back centuries to the first occupants of the region, the Cherokee, whose language resonates in places names and legends echo through the valleys between the peaks of the mountains. Similarly, early settlers instilled a sense of rugged self-reliance synonymous with the region. But when did Gatlinburg and Smoky Mountains come to be known as great destination for vacation? 

While the creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was instrumental to tourism in the area, this history goes back, surprisingly, a lot longer than you think with the seeds of the now thriving tourism industry stretching back to the turn of the century with a tiny logging town in the Mountains. 

1880’s to 1920’s – Elkmont: From Logging Town to Resort Community

The Elkmont area was originally settled by Robert Trentham in 1845, but his cabin is better known as the Levi Trentham cabin after his son, who would leave his mark on the area’s history even more than his father. 

The logging industry was started in the 1880’s when a Knoxville man by the name of John English began a small logging project. This project soon collapsed after a flood along the Little River in 1899 ruined the splash dams used to transport the wood to the sawmill, but other entrepreneurs took note of the wealth of resources in the area. 

In 1901 Colonel Wilson B. Townsend purchased 86,000 acres from Levi Trenham along the Little River and founded the Little River Lumber Company. Instead of using the splash dams, which are subject to the wrath of nature, Townsend constructed a railroad that made its way to the sawmill and later to Walland, Maryville, and Knoxville.

It was this railroad that was the first source of tourism in the Smoky Mountains. In the early days of the company, hunters and fishermen were allowed to use the railroad to access the wild game abundant in the Smokies. As the years progressed and the valley’s valuable timber was gradually removed, Townsend shifted tactics and began to advertise the area as a mountain getaway. In 1909, the Little River Railroad began offering the “Elkmont Special” on Sunday where guests could sit in an open-air car and take in the beautiful scenery on a direct train ride from Knoxville to Elkmont. You can learn more about the early history with this great interactive module from the National Park Service:

The word about this beautiful area quickly spread and soon a group of wealthy Knoxville business owners established “The Appalachian Club.” Here, the Knoxville elite built cottages and began establishing the area a mountain resort area. In 1911, Townsend gave Charles Carter 50 acres with the condition he build on the land with a year with the intention of attracting tourists to the area. By June 1912, the Wonderland Hotel had opened and a new era in Smoky Mountain history had truly begun. 

The Wonderland Hotel featured 50 rooms with a balcony overlooking the valley and was open to the general public for seven years. During that that time, many of the men who sought entrance to the elite Appalachian Club were denied entry. In 1919 a group of these men banded together and formed their own association which bought out the hotel and established the Wonderland Club. 

It’s not hard to imagine how idyllic life in this elite resort community might have been like in its hayday with just a few buildings nestled in the hills of East Tennessee. This gem of footage from the National Archives shows members of the Appalachian Club enjoying mountain streams and dining at the club:

Also during this time, the Arrowmont School was starting build the legacy of arts and crafts that we still see in the area. Established in 1912 and originally known as the Pi Beta Phi Settlement school, Arrowmont was the first formal school in the area and a large emphasis was placed on Appalachia craft work. The establishment of the school coupled with the creation of the Elkmont resort town created a new means of drawing people to the region—tourism.  

Vacationers continued to enjoy the scenic beauty of Elkmont but the direction of the area would soon see a shift in focus with resort goers and locals soon uniting to create what’s now the most visited National Park in the United States. 

1920’s to 1940s – Establishment of the Great Smokies National Park

In the mid-20’s, the atmosphere in the Elkmont area was changing. The Little River Lumbar Company had ceased operations in Elkmont and moved to the nearby Tremont area, but the national opinion of the logging industry was shifting. 

People desired to keep the pristine beauty they’d experienced on hikes in Elkmont. The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club (still in existence today) wrote in their 1926 handbook that the organization was formed “…to aquaint the members with these facts – to have them know: that the Great Smokies are the most spectacular mountains in eastern America…” (Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Handbook, 1926, p. 2) This sentiment surmises what many began to see in the area, and what many visitors to Smoky Mountains would still attest to today. 

National parks in the West had existed since the inception of Yellowstone in 1872. In 1911, the Weeks Act was passed to allow the federal government to purchase private lands for the protection of rivers and watersheds, which was aimed at buying lands in the East for federal parks. The National Park Service Organic Act was then created in 1916, establishing the National Park Service. While the National Park Service wanted to establish a park in the Eastern United State, it had little money to do so. 

The Great Smoky Mountains park was officially authorized in 1926, but the lands of the park would be assembled piece meal over the next 14 years until its dedication in 1940. Because of how it was created, there are many interesting characters and stories to be found surrounding the parks inception. 

Following a vacation to Yellowstone, Anne Davis (who would later become the first female from Knox County elected to the Tennessee House) suggested a National Park in the Smoky Mountains to her influential friends who vacationed to the Elkmont area. One such gentleman was David Chapman who would serve as a figurehead of the elite Appalachian Club and work on negotiations to create the park in his role as the chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association.

The creation of the park saw donations from individual that number only pennies to large contributions by prominent figures such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who donated 5 million ($73 million in 2019), with many of the high donations being negotiated by Chapman. One notable contribution, which Anne Davis sponsored while in office, purchased the 78,000 acres owned by the Little River Lumbar Company in 1924– the very company responsible for the initial surge of interest in the area. 

But it wasn’t only prominent business men who helped create at the park, there were many extraordinary ordinary folk involved as well. Many writers and journalists helped build the reputation of the area, most notably Horace Kephart, who wrote a book on the people of Appalachia titled Our Southern Highlanders and helped plot the route of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies. A close friend of Kephart, George Masa, a Japanese immigrant with a stunning photographic eye, provided many of the accompanying photographs for literature supporting the creating the park. Both Kephart and Masa have peaks named in their honor in the park.

There were also local folk who helped promote the park, most famously the poet-philospher of the Smokies, Wiley Oakley. Oakley lost his mother as a small boy and said that he spent his childhood days exploring the Smoky Mountains and climbing the tallest peaks because he believed, from these precipices, he could spy a glimpse of his mother as an angel in the sky. A great storyteller and an avid hiker, Oakley, known as the Roamin’ Man of the Smokies, was the premier guide of the Smokies entertaining Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and, another crucial figure in the formation of the park, Franklin D. Roosevelt. You can listen to Oakley spin a yarn about his honeymoon in this video:

It is impossible to talk about the formation of the Great Smokies National Park without talking about FDR, the New Deal, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Open to men ages 18-25, the members of one of the most popular branches of the New Deal project helped form the trails, roads, and structures of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from 1933 to 1942.

So, the park began to form, but what did this mean for the early settlers and the Elkmont community? Most owners in Elkmont opted for lifetime leases – the last of which expired in 2001. For only a $1 a year, the NPS provided a water system, sanitation system, road upkeep, police coverage, etc. Not all settlers fared as well, with many local homesteaders evicted from the land during the formation of the park. However, many mountain folk were characteristically stubborn. Famously the Walker Sisters received a lifetime lease on their cabin, where the resided until 1964. 

The Arrowmont Community continued to prosper and many of the craftsman who had learned at the school established the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community in 1937. You can still enjoy some of the original shops in the area including The Cliffdwellers Gallery. 

The combination of beautiful natural scenery and mountain craftsmenship was what the NPS used to promote the fledging Great Smoky National Park in this promotional video from 1936:


On September 2, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In attendance at the ceremony were both David Chapman and Roamin’ Wiley Oakley, a fitting representation of the variety of people who helped found the park. 

1950’s Onward – Gatlinburg Tourism Shifts Towards Attractions

Following WWII, tourism surged along with the general economic expansion of the post war era. The National Park continued to serve as a draw for tourist, and neighboring Gatlinburg benefited and expanded from this influx of people. The beginnings of the Downtown Gatlinburg everyone is familiar started to appears. Restaurants and hotels began to pop up as well as miniature golf and attractions. One of the most iconic attractions, The Gatlinburg Sky Lift, opened its doors and 1954.

The tourism industry continued to boom in the 60’s and the area began to see some of its iconic restaurants and attractions arrive – many that you can still enjoy today. From the 60’s onward, Gatlinburg began to step away from the National Park being the sole draw of tourists to an increase in the creation of tourists attractions in the city.

 The first pancake house, The Pancake Pantry, opened its door in 1960 offer a taste of Europe in the Smokies with Continental-inspired breakfast delicacies. Ober Gatlinburg opened a few years later in 1962 and offered a Bavarian style ski-retreat that visitors still enjoy today. 

One of the most iconic attractions of the Gatlinburg skyline, The Space Needle, opened in 1968. Guests have been enjoying a stunning view of the mountains from the top ever since. While everyone knows about Dolly Parton making her mark on Pigeon Forge’s tourist industry, another East TN celebrity, Archie Campbell – star of the popular 60’s and 70’s show Hee Haw, brought a show to Gatlinburg in 1968 showcasing Stars of the Grand Ole Opry. The legacy of Nashville stars bringing entertainment to Gatlinburg continues today with Blake Shelton’s Old Red. 

The 70’s saw Gatlinburg continue to prosper. Area favorites such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre, and Fannie Farkles opened in this decade. Guests can still enjoy Fannie Farkle’s Ogle Dogs, a vaudeville-style comedy show at Sweet Fanny Adams, or explore Ripley’s new museum when they visit. 

Tourism continued to increase into the 1980s with area attractions such as the Mysterious Mansion and the Gatlinburg Winery opening in this decade. The 90’s were a prosperous time as well, despite a fire that burned down the original Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1992, and attractions like the Hollywood Star Cars Museum arrived on the scene.

With the new millennium came, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in 2000. While development of tourist attractions began to shift at the dawn of the 21st century began to shift toward the neighboring city of Gatlinburg, a steady stream of new restaurants and shopping continued into the city.

Today, there are even more reasons to visit Gatlinburg as well as the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Outdoor adventure centers such as Anakeesta and Nantahala are seeing a swing away from tourist attractions in the city and focus back towards the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is particularly true after a devastating wildfire hit the town in 2016. However, tourism continues to flourish with millions returning to help the city recuperate in the two years after the fire. 

Even the little town that started it all in Gatlinburg, Elkmont, has been undergoing preservation work so that the history of the early tourism boom in the area will be preserved for the future. 

Be a Part of Gatlinburg Tourist History – Book your Cabin Today

Come experience what visitors have enjoyed for over a century in Gatlinburg today when you book a cabin rental in Gatlinburg with Cabins USA Gatlinburg. Whether you looking to recreate the early days of tourism in a secluded retreat or enjoy the convenience of a cabin resort, we have lodgings to fit your needs for your memorable vacation in Gatlinburg. 

All pictures courtesy of Post Cards from the Great Smoky Mountains, a digital collection of The University of Tennessee Libraries. This collection is accessible to the public and contains much more than what you see here.

Videos sourced from the National Archives. Wiley Oakley recording source unknown. 

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