Before the national park, large parts of the Smokies were clear cut
Published 11:31 am Monday, September 12, 2022
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By Bill Carey
Millions of Americans have followed in the steps of the Little River Lumber Company without realizing it.
Before the national park, a large part of the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains was owned by the Little River Lumber Company. Between 1901 and 1939, this company cut down hundreds of thousands of trees, turning a forest full of massive trees into a barren landscape.
In the 80 years since, the trees have grown back and wildlife has returned. But we cannot know what this part of the Smokies looked like when it was a “virgin” forest.
To tell this remarkable story, we have to explain a few things about the history of the logging industry.
In 1900, the England-Walton Company of Philadelphia built a tannery in a remote part of Blount County called Walland. The company invited W.B. Townsend, who was already in the lumber business, to explore the land for timber possibilities.
As he explored the area, Townsend realized that there was a lot of money to be made harvesting trees in the nearby Smoky Mountains, and he organized the Little River Lumber Company. Before long, it had purchased 80,000 acres of land, was building a sawmill, and was working on plans for a railroad to deliver logs from the mountains to the mill.
In 1900, there were thousands of enormous trees in the Great Smoky Mountains; there were poplar, ash, chestnut, oak and maple trees in the Smokies as much as 10 feet or more in diameter. The reason that most of the trees in the Great Smoky Mountains had not been cut down and used prior to this time was because the land was so steep and the rivers weren’t big enough to float huge tree trunks downstream.
Starting about 1900, the Little River Lumber Company began creating a railroad which started in Walland and headed into the mountains, following the course of the Little River and its tributaries. The harvesting of trees began as the railroad was still being created.
Most of the trees were cut down the old-fashioned way — by two men (called sawyers) working together with a hand saw. This process was physically demanding as well as dangerous, as one can never tell for certain in what direction a tree will fall.
Once the tree had been cut down, and the branches cut off, the tree trunk had to be dragged to the nearest rail line. To do this, workers would create a so-called “skid road” — a long wooden path along the West Prong of the Little River on which a log would be slid down the mountainside with the help of a mule.
These workers lived with their families in company owned communities such as Elkmont and Tremont. They worked six days a week, usually taking Sunday off, when they would go to church in the morning and take a free train ride to Townsend in the afternoon.
Always on the lookout for a new way to make money, in 1911 the Little River Lumber Company built a hotel in Elkmont known as the Wonderland Hotel. They used their railroad to take tourists, hunters and fishermen from Knoxville and other locations to the hotel.
These day-long and weekend-long excursions gave many people their first experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Little River Lumber Company clear cut almost all the land drained by the Little River, which is most of the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains. W.B. Townsend’s company laid 150 miles of train track, cleared about 75,000 acres of land, and cut 560 million board feet of lumber.
In 1924, the Little River Lumber Company agreed to sell its 75,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains to the state of Tennessee as part of the process under which the national park was formed. By the time the Little River Lumber Company and other logging businesses were moved out, about two-thirds of what is now the national park had been clear cut.
During the Great Depression, thousands of workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built roads on the railroad beds created by the Little River Lumber Company. Once that job was completed, CCC workers created new trails in the Smokies — many of them also on former railroad beds.
The Wonderland Hotel remained at Elkmont until the 1990s, when the national park service closed it. Today, Elkmont is the largest campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while Tremont is now an educational institute.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.