Mapping Plans in Elkmont
In 2017, crews are tearing down 34 buildings and restoring four others in the Elkmont Historic District in the Great Smoky Mountains.
This round of work marks a milestone for a longtime project filled with controversy, conflict, and compromise at a historic resort community that helped create the national park.
In this five-part series, WBIR 10News reporter Jim Matheny examines Elkmont's past and future with rare film, photographs, and documents many have never seen in decades of heated debate over the fate of the historic logging and vacation community. The series name "Elkmont Will Shine" is taken from a song people in the community would boisterously sing at parties.
Before delving into the history and various arguments about why certain decisions at Elkmont were made, this introductory section provides a recap of what decisions were made and when.
The leases for most tenants in Elkmont expired at the end of 1992. There were 70 leased structures and the National Park Service planned to tear all of them down. The embedded video above shows how the plans changed from razing everything to the current prolonged project that eventually preserves 19 cabins and demolishes the rest.
The 70 buildings standing 1992 were located in four main areas of Elkmont:
- Daisy Town: 22 buildings, including the Appalachian Clubhouse.
- Society Hill: 26 buildings along Jakes Creek.
- Millionaire's Row: 10 buildings along Little River Trail.
- Wonderland Club: 12 buildings, including the Wonderland Hotel.
The overwhelming majority of Elkmont leaseholders were forced to leave by March 1, 1993, two months after the leases officially expired. There were a small number of exceptions. Four families still had lifetime leases and were allowed to remain through 2002, a decision explained more in depth in the sections that follow.
Since 1993, the Elkmont community has been a ghost town and slowly eroded into a scene more reminiscent of a war zone than a vacation destination. There was a definite battle here over the historical significance of the 70 buildings.
The prolonged and polarized argument centered on whether the cabins should be razed to allow the forest to reclaim the space as a natural area, partially preserved, or completely preserved with the public able to rent the rustic structures overnight.
The fight essentially ended in 2006 when the National Park Service announced it would pursue a plan to preserve 19 buildings and make none of them available for lodging. The rest of the buildings would be razed. Of the 19 cabins spared, two would be made available to rent for events during the day. The remaining 17 will be empty shells visitors can walk inside, much like the cabins in Cades Cove that serve as museum exhibits.
The plan was made official in 2009 and the park slowly chipped away at the project as funding became available. The lack of funding has allowed the project to linger, but 2017 brought an injection of cash to begin the most significant demolition and preservation efforts to date.
EMOTIONS REMAIN RAW FOR LEASEHOLDERS
For Lynn Faust, the fight may be over, but the emotional wounds have not healed.
"I look at these pictures and I see the cabins now and it kind of hurts my heart to see what they look like," said Faust, who led the effort to preserve Elkmont for overnight rustic cabin rentals.
Faust grew up coming to Elkmont as a young child. So did her own children at their family cabin along Little River Trail in the area called Millionaire's Row. Faust is quick to point out nobody in the community really called any of the areas by their nicknames.
"Those names like Millionaire's Row and Society Hill were only used when there was some kind of work that needed to be done, like something with the water system. It was a way for them to differentiate the areas, but those names were tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating. The names were twisted to make it sound like people here were all rich snobs. Elkmont was one community and there were all types of people here, just like any other town."
Faust is recognized as the world's leading expert on lightning bugs. Her scientific journey started on the back porch of their family cabin at Elkmont. It was there she discovered the insects flashing in Elkmont were a rare species of synchronous firefly that now attract sold-out crowds to the area annually.
For decades, the lightning bugs were just a family tradition her mother-in-law called "the light show."
"In those days it was not well-known. In fact, we all just watched it and didn't really realize they were doing anything much special. But we knew it was beautiful, what we were watching," said Faust.
The private light shows ended when the Fausts' lease expired on the last day of 1992. Even if Faust and her family could no longer have the cabin to themselves, they did not want to see it demolished.
"Once history is torn down, it's gone forever. There was a battle to save Elkmont and the story it has to tell. These cabins and this community played a big part in creating the national park."