(Originally published April 2017) If your device/app does not display the videos and links embedded in this article, go to tinyurl.com/ElkmontWillShine with your main browser. You can also see the full Elkmont Will Shine series on YouTube. The photo albums of every Elkmont building are in the Neighborhood Photo Galleries chapter of this article. If your device displays a Chapters button on the right side of your screen, it can be used to easily navigate each section below.
Introduction: Lay of the Land:
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."
Part One: Logging & Leisure Origins:
Start of Elkmont and National Park
Elkmont's name comes from the Knoxville Elks Club members who ventured into the isolated nook of the Smokies for a fisherman's paradise on the Little River.
The true birth of a logging boomtown began in 1901 when the Little River Lumber Company formed a plan to lay tracks across the mountain to harvest a treasure of tall timber.
"By 1910, Elkmont was the second largest town in Sevier County," said Faust. "Colonel W.B. Townsend was president of the lumber company and was a really sharp business man. He figured out a way to maximize the train by not only hauling out timber, but also carrying people in and out of Elkmont. They added observation and passenger cars to the train and built platforms for passengers to get on and off the train."
The railroad opened a direct line of access to Elkmont. Knoxville's elite took the train for weekend getaways, picnics, and other events amid the splendor of the Smokies. The visitors soon bought land from the lumber company, formed the private Appalachian Club, built a clubhouse, and built vacation cottages.
"So people would get on the logging train and ride up and get in the cool mountain air," said Faust. "Polio and Malaria were still problems down in the valley. In the summers, anyone that could tried to get somewhere away from the cities and the hot valleys."
"We used to call it 'hillbilly air conditioning.' You go to the mountains for the summer to cool off," said Don Barger, the Southeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
While cabins were built by members of the exclusive Appalachian Club, a hotel was created for the rest of the public to enjoy the rarefied air of Elkmont. Construction on the Wonderland Club Hotel began in 1911. Brochures in 1915 touted "The Beautiful Elkmont Country" as a splendid Smoky Mountains destination.
"So at that time, you saw the first glimmer of early tourism," said Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The hotel and the community dammed a portion of the Little River to create a small lake for swimming. The dam also provided small amounts of hydroelectric power.
As the logging company clear-cut the trees and started to clear out of the area, the people of Elkmont began a conservation effort to preserve the scenery of the Smokies. This idea really picked up steam when the departing lumber company started pulling up its train tracks. Suddenly, access to Elkmont was a problem. Leaders in Elkmont began the push for a national park to save the forests and provide roads for themselves and tourists.
"There was a movement in this country to say we are going to preserve the places that are the most special," said Barger.
"Many of the people that were a part of the Elkmont resort community were some of the first park advocates," said Soehn.
"There are fascinating stories of the fights that took place at the Appalachian Club. They argued about where to put the park, what would be the boundaries, and whether it would be a national park or a national forest. All of that was hammered out in Elkmont by people who loved Elkmont," said Faust.
In 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains officially became a National Park. Colonel David Chapman, the president of a Knoxville drug company, is credited with playing one of the largest parts in making the park a reality. The Department of the Interior showed its appreciation for Chapman's efforts by giving him one of the cabins at Elkmont.
Ironically, creating national park meant the people at Elkmont would eventually lose their cabins. However, that day was considered a lifetime away.
The government gave almost all residents of the park a choice when obtaining property. To put it simply, they could sell their property for the full value and vacate the premises immediately. Or they could accept a discounted price and be given a lifetime lease. The lifetime lease allowed people to remain at their homes until death. At that point, the property would be taken over by the park and the homes removed.
It was not much of a choice for farmers and many of the people of modest means in the mountains. A lifetime lease may allow them to have a small sum of money, but when they died the surviving family members would have no home or land. The national park also prohibited hunting and other types of commercial agriculture activities, so remaining in the park to farm was futile. Nearly everyone had to take the money and find a new place to call home.
In Elkmont, the lifetime lease was far more attractive and logical.
"Most people in Elkmont had a home somewhere else. To get to use it longer was much more valuable to somebody where it was their summer cabin, whereas a farmer could not just sit on his land unable to farm and make a living," said Faust.
Over time, resentment grew among people who left the park while the well-to-do could afford to remain in Elkmont.
"There were some who thought the people here had a financial advantage, so there were hard feelings," said Soehn. "One man was quoted as saying his father told them the government would be able to move out the poor, but the rich would find a way to stay. So that was characteristic of some of the feelings from descendants who had to leave the park."
"The thing that bothers me is they started saying the people in Elkmont had some kind of special deal because they were rich. It was the same offer made to everyone. And there were people in Elkmont who were mountaineers and kept a lifetime lease. Lem Ownby, who everybody called 'Uncle Lem,' had his cabin just up Jakes Creek with his bee hives to sell honey. He was by no means a rich man given a special deal," said Faust.
Hard feelings or not, in the 1930s the people of Elkmont were allowed to stay for life. Most of the leases were placed in the names of children, meaning it could realistically be 80 years or more before the cabins and Wonderland Hotel would be vacated.
In 1961, the national park opened the Elkmont Campground and even more people were allowed to enjoy the area. For decades, Elkmont was full of happy campers, guests at the Wonderland Hotel, and a tight-knit group in their family cabins who would sing "Elkmont Will Shine."
"It was just a fun little song we sang at parties. Some of my fondest memories are of the caretaker J.T. Higdon, who lived here his whole life and I just adored, leading the whole group in singing 'Elkmont Will Shine' down at the clubhouse at the end of parties," said Faust.
While the lifetime leases were relatively cut-and-dry, the deal became much more complicated in the early 1950s. A powerful phenomenon convinced most people to change the terms of their lifetime leases, ultimately creating a firm deadline that would loom over their time in Elkmont.
Part Two: Last Days of Leases:
Agreements Change and Deadlines Loom
In the early 1950s, the uncertain duration of a lifetime lease became an obstacle when the community wanted electricity. The utility company said it would need to know the cabins would remain at least 20 years for power line installation to be profitable.
"Instead of being based on any particular person's life, [the utility] said this term-lease will give us time to amortize the investment of running electricity in there," said Barger.
In 1952, many people in Elkmont changed their leases to expire 20 years later in 1972. A handful kept their lifetime leases.
"People wanted electricity, but there were some other factors that made people more willing to change their lease that were extended to them and their children. A lot of those children went off to fight in World War 2. There was another war in Korea. Some of those children died. So the community was split between some families that were willing to do a 20 year lease and others who held onto their lifetime lease," said Faust.
In the 1970s, the leases were renegotiated and extended an additional 20 years through the end of 1992. The government also placed a time limit on families with a lifetime lease, giving them an additional 10 years to remain through 2002. If they died before 2002, the park still received their cabins as stated in the original lifetime lease agreement.
With the leases now based on specified years instead of the life of a certain person, leases could be bought and sold. It allowed new families to move into the community and fall in love with the traditions of Elkmont.
The installation of power lines also created new opportunities for visitors from around the country to utilize Elkmont. In 1961, the park opened the new Elkmont Campground. The park repeatedly expanded the campground from its original configuration of 150 campsites to 220 sites.
Life went on as usual in Elkmont with decades to go until the deadline would force people to vacate. New generations of children learned to love their family cabins. Guests at the Wonderland Hotel relaxed in the mountain air, quiet accommodations, and savored the country cooking.
"We all used to eat at the Wonderland," said Faust. "You'd go in there and they had wonderful hot chocolate and biscuits. You could take your hot chocolate out on that porch, rock in the chairs, and look at Blanket Mountain. The hotel was on the top of a hill, so you had a really clear view through the trees of the top of Blanket Mountain from the porch."
Not everyone at Elkmont was a seasonal resident or weekend visitor. Some old-timers lived at Elkmont year-round. One of the most famous residents was the aforementioned "Uncle Lem" Ownby on Jakes Creek.
J.T. Higdon and his sister, Midge, both lived at a cabin in Daisy Town year-round. Hidgon made a living fixing the cabins as the caretaker of the Appalachian Club. A real mountain man, Higdon lived in Elkmont nearly his entire life. His father worked on the logging trains in Elkmont at the turn of the 20th century.
Even in old age with failing eyesight, Higdon handled chores ranging from carpentry, plumbing, to getting rid of snakes. Higdon was an extended family member to the people of Elkmont. He'd share stories about the place to anyone who came by, including Bill Landry of WBIR's Heartland Series in 1984. Higdon was also the life of the parties at the Appalachian Clubhouse with his rousing renditions of the song "Elkmont Will Shine."
The introduction of electricity, water, sewer, and other accommodation at the cabins also meant more maintenance was needed. Elkmont was all one community, but Faust says nicknames were used for different areas for the purposes of planning work and maintenance. Those names included Daisy Town, Millionaire's Row, Society Hill, and the Wonderland Club.
In 1980, the Great Smoky Mountains began adopting a new management plan. The new plan was created with public input and participation from several parties, including people in Elkmont. The plan made it clear there would be no more extensions to leases in Elkmont and the buildings would be removed when the current lease expired.
As 1992 approached, some leaseholders once again attempted to convince the National Park Service to provide another extension. Other Elkmont tenants were resigned to leave, but wanted the park to keep the historic structures and open them up for public use rather than tear them down.
There were strong opponents to keeping any cabins at Elkmont. Members of various environmental groups wanted the cabins removed and the land returned to nature, as outlined in the park's management plan. There were also those whose families left the park decades earlier who resented the private enclave that remained at Elkmont.
"It was a totally polarized situation," said Barger. "When the leases expired in 1992 and there were attempts to extend those leases, create new leases, or even create an adaptive use for those structures, the people who had been involved in the process years ago [with the management plan in the early 1980s] said, 'Wait a minute. We've settled this issue. This was decided.' That was the agreement."
The leases expired at midnight of December 31, 1992. With the New Year, the people of Elkmont were leaving the community forever. The park said everyone had to be moved out by March 1, 1993.
Many community members tried to convince the National Park Service to allow J.T. Higdon to stay. He was a 78-year-old man who was nearly blind, but knew his lifelong home and neighborhood like the back of his hand.
"We offered to pay whatever it took, so it wouldn't cost the park anything if they would just let J.T. stay. There were also some people with lifetime leases who would not have to leave until 2002, so we tried to convince the park it would not be a problem to let one more man stay. They would not make an exception. It was just so sad to see J.T. and his sister Midge have to leave."
In late-February 1993, movers loaded up J.T. Higdon's belongings. Friends walked him and his sister to a car that had a bright yellow "Elkmont Will Shine" sticker on the bumper. Higdon was driven out and away from his home and way of life forever.
The Higdons moved to Kodak. J.T. Higdon died in October 1997 at the age of 82.
The end of Elkmont seemed certain in early 1993. Soon, a surprise twist would create another long and bitter round of bickering over the historical significance of Elkmont and the fate of its buildings.
Part Three: Negotiations and Neglect:
Offers ignored; Elkmont Decays In Flux
In early-1993, the Wonderland Hotel and almost every cabin was empty. The national park was ready to move forward with its plan to eventually raze all 70 structures.
Some of the former leaseholders forced the park to reconsider by listing the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
"These cabins were built in the 1910s. At the time of the park's establishment in 1934, these would not have been considered historic," said Dana Soehn. "The other argument at the time was these buildings were temporary by nature. They were not built to stand the test of time. Many of them had very simple rock foundations. Even the Wonderland Hotel was built on stacked stone."
The superintendent of the park announced it would study the historical significance of the community and explore options ranging from doing nothing, making use of the cabins, or tearing them down.
"We had already left and it was a painful thing. In 1992, we were told the cabins would come down in six weeks. Then the park announced it was not going to bulldoze everything and we were like, 'You're kidding!' We really made our best case to keep the cabins for the public," said Lynn Faust.
In the mid-1990s, the Great Smoky Mountains superintendent said a study by TVA estimated the necessary repairs to the cabins and hotel would cost $12 million. The area would also need a new water and sewer system.
While the future of the cabins was up in the air, Faust and other former leaseholders offered to continue to maintain the structures. The park said no.
"Demolition by neglect was allowed to occur. If a tree falls and makes a hole in the roof, no one does anything. The water got into the cabins and they just started to dissolve. I have heard an expert with the National Park Service say there are three keys to maintaining historic structures. First, you keep the water out. Second, you keep the water out. Third, and most important, you keep the water out. The park was not following what its own experts knew was needed to save the buildings," said Faust.
The condition of the buildings deteriorated as years went by with no decision on their future. Some accused the park of intentionally stalling until the cabins were in such bad shape, the only choice would be to demolish them as originally planned.
"It was just heartbreaking to see the buildings rotting away and being vandalized. People had ripped off doors, broken all the windows, and the structures were being demolished by the park doing nothing," said Faust.
By 2002, the National Park Service ultimately came up with seven options for what to do with the buildings in Elkmont and let the public express its opinions. For the most part, the public fell firmly on two sides: preserve or get rid of every building.
There was very little middle ground. There was also no lack of theatrics. At a meeting in March 2004, some people dressed as fireflies and held up signs asking for the cabins to be removed to restore the native plant life.
It was a somewhat comical scene for people to dress like lightning bugs while unknowingly debating the world's leading expert on the luminescent insects.
"I remember her [the woman dressed as a lightning bug] well. If you look close, she was actually dressed as a ladybug. You are giving me flashbacks," joked Faust, who recently published the world's first firefly field guide: Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs.
One of the most vocal and vehement opponents of preserving the cabins was Ted Snyder with the Sierra Club. During a September 2002 meeting to discuss options for Elkmont, Snyder angrily told WBIR, "Those cabins have no historical significance at all, in no way, shape, form, or fashion. They should be removed. They are falling down. They are rotting away. The Park Service cannot get enough money up to rebuild them. And if it could, it would be a waste of money."
While many of the public arguments about Elkmont centered on money, several documents from the time show funding was far from the main obstacle. One study commissioned by the National Park Service said the Wonderland Hotel would be profitable enough to recover the cost of restoring it within five years.
There were also people willing to give millions of dollars to save Elkmont.
One offer that was never publicized, until now, came from Sandy Beall, the founder of Ruby Tuesday. The Beall family also founded and operated the world-renowned Blackberry Farm resort in nearby Walland.
In a letter sent to the Park on February 1, 2001, Beall's states a desire to pay for $15 million project to restore the original Wonderland Hotel. The concession would be operated by the Blackberry Farm Hotel, which Beall wrote, "has the expertise, track record, and desire to make this project one that all constituencies would be proud of."
"We have the desire to do what most wouldn't have the ability to do, either because of lack of experience, historical perspective, architectural appreciation, or desire," wrote Beall.
Beall's proposal includes restoring the hotel, improving the roads and landscaping, maintaining the property at no cost to the park, paying minimum rent for the property, and sharing a percentage of the revenue with the park. The letter says the project would take two years to complete.
"It is our hope that this project would represent an area of interest for the National Park. We believe it would add value to the Park from the Public's perspective, balance to the many camping options, and save and maintain a very important structure without the Park having to commit operating or capital funds," wrote Beall.
Beall's offer was ignored.
The Wonderland Hotel continued to disintegrate. In 2005, part of the building collapsed. The park tore the hotel down in 2006.
If the park wanted to pursue Beall's proposal, it is worth noting it could not have simply accepted the offer and started work immediately. Construction projects in the park must be opened to the public for competitive bids. However, the Park never solicited any commercial bids to restore the facilities for lodging.
The NPS has stated any commercial concession operations are only permitted when it is determined to be both "necessary and appropriate."
One can argue the operation of lodging would be appropriate, considering the hotel and tenants existed in Elkmont for decades. The Park said it was unwilling to deem a hotel at Elkmont as "necessary" because there are dozens of lodging options just a few miles away.
"At the time the park was created, something the park leadership did intentionally was not to build grand lodges," said Soehn. "They wanted to provide some benefit from the tourism for our local communities."
Those who wanted the hotel preserved said it was necessary to serve people who wanted an overnight experience in the park, but may be unable to camp outside or hike to the LeConte Lodge at the top of Mount LeConte. The LeConte Lodge is the only commercial lodging within the Great Smoky Mountains and, like the Wonderland Hotel, existed before the national park was created.
"I love the LeConte Lodge. It is a really special place. But you have to hike to the top of a mountain to experience it. We argued Elkmont could be an option that would be accessible within the park for people who simply cannot make that hike and are not hearty enough to camp in a tent, whatever the reason may be. The elderly, the disabled, families with small children, and anyone else could use Elkmont as a place to experience the park overnight without having to camp. It is a very different experience to be in the quiet park and hear all the sounds of nature as opposed to staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge," said Faust.
After years of exhaustive studies, debate, and decay at Elkmont, the National Park Service was poised in 2006 to announce its preferred option for the future of the historic district. Whatever the choice, it knew the decision would anger a large number of people with very strong feelings about the remnants of the resort community.
Part Four: Threading the Needle:
Compromise Chosen; Project Lingers
There were two main positions taken by the public and various organizations involved in the debates about what to do with the buildings at Elkmont. One side wanted to keep the cabins for lodging. The other wanted the cabins removed. There was very little middle ground.
The National Historic Trust took the same stance as Faust and others who wanted to restore Elkmont for public use. It determined the best way to get people to care about and preserve the historic structures was to use them for their intended purpose.
"You learn to love a place when you can spend the night there. To be here at night and not just drive through the national park in a minivan makes a big difference in how much people will support the Great Smoky Mountains. When you get to spend the night and watch the little animals creep out in the dark, maybe see the lightning bugs come out, wake up to the early morning sounds, it changes you in fundamental and positive ways," said Faust.
Others felt strongly the best way to enjoy nature in Elkmont was to remove the cabins and let the natural montane alluvial forest take over.
The process for making a decision was long and arduous. The buildings sat empty, were vandalized, and dissolved for a decade and a half while awaiting for a decision.
"As the years passed, you started assuming nothing would be done," said Lynn Faust.
In 2006, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ultimately chose a compromise with little public support. It would keep 19 cabins, but not allow the buildings to be used for lodging or overnight use.
"At the end of the day, neither side got what they wanted in its entirety," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson. "But we felt like this was the best balance between preserving nature and the history of Elkmont."
Of the 19 cabins saved, two would be made available for rentals during the day for events. The remaining 17 would become empty museum exhibits visitors can walk inside, much like the cabins in Cades Cove.
"The Park Service was essentially trying to thread the needle. They weren't on one side or the other. They were trying to figure out the best resolution," said Don Barger with the National Parks Conservation Association.
The decision showed the GSMNP was persuaded to reconsider its previous stance on the historical significance of Elkmont. In 1992, the park clearly stated the entire community should be razed.
In a 2008 interview with WBIR, then-spokesperson Bob Miller said, "There was a perception in the park for many years that the only real history here was the pioneers and the people that built log cabins. I think we recognized over the years the recreational use of this area as weekend retreats was kind of a sidebar to that history."
Barger said once the park announced it wanted to share the story of Elkmont with visitors in some form, saving buildings was a logical decision.
"Once you answer that basic question that this is a story we want to tell, you can't just get by with foundations [of buildings] and photographs," said Barger. "The lesson you learn from Elkmont is there were no bad guys. They were all doing it for the right reasons. All sides were involved in the argument because they have a love for this place."
The NPCA was the only non-governmental agency involved in the debate to officially express approval for the plan at Elkmont.
"It was very polarized. We did not approve the plan because we believed it was perfect or thought 19 cabins was the right number to preserve. The NPCA decided the park service went about making the decision the correct way. It involved as many sides as possible in the discussion, really examined the issue, and tried to resolve a direct conflict between two missions the park is mandated to do: preserve nature and preserve history."
The National Park Service had finally made a firm decision in 2006. It did not have full funding. The project would have to be done incrementally as money became available. Work began in 2009 when all of the necessary environmental impact studies were completed and the plan was officially approved.
Crews started by removing four cabins in Daisy Town with the least historical value because they were rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original structures in 1975. Parking spaces were built where those cabins once stood. A public restroom was also added with a parking lot beside the Appalachian Clubhouse.
The first two buildings preserved were the ones the park intended to make available for day-use rentals. Crews finished restoring the Appalachian Clubhouse in 2011 and the Spence Cabin in 2012. Additional parking was also built near the Spence Cabin at the head of the Little River Trail.
"The Appalachian Clubhouse was really the hub of this community with parties and meals and gatherings," said Soehn. "Our historic preservation crews restored it and kept the rustic features. The only difference is instead of wood-burning fireplaces, they are now propane. Now people have a lot of different gatherings, lots of weddings here. You can have acoustic music and really have some nice events. The Spence Cabin does the same thing, but accommodates smaller groups in a more intimate setting."
Visitors to the newly-restored Appalachian Clubhouse in 2011 included people who grew up coming to the cabins. They sang "Elkmont Will Shine" and soaked in the nostalgia of a beloved bygone community.
Completion of the first round of preservation was something to sing about in 2012, but the project soon stalled without funding. In 2016, no additional progress had been made. The other 64 cabins continued to waste away while waiting for money to be restored or torn down.
In April 2016, a fire destroyed the annex building of the Wonderland Hotel. The fire was determined to be human-caused, but likely accidental because it originated in the fireplace of the building. Investigators were unable to determine who caused the fire.
Faust has been critical of how the NPS has executed its chosen plan. Specifically, she believes the government has literally decided to throw money away by disposing of materials that could pay for the project.
"There is so much valuable wood in the cabins. There are hardwoods and so much American chestnut, which you cannot get anymore because the trees were wiped out by the chestnut blight 100 years ago. This is wood people would pay the park to be able to reclaim and that money could help pay to restore the cabins they want to keep. Instead, they are taking the easiest route. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a contractor to pulverize everything and haul it to the Sevier County landfill, just like they did with the Wonderland Hotel," said Faust.
Soehn said the park decided the buildings are too unstable to safely perform additional salvage and there are also concerns about asbestos and lead paint.
Faust says that is not the case.
"Any demolition expert knows how to salvage unstable structures. A simple option is to knock the building down and remove the valuable wood. You destroy some wood in the process, but most of it can be salvaged. We sold an old shaky barn to a group that buys old buildings for the wood. They knocked it down, completely cleaned up the site, and paid us to do it. That was for oak wood. I know groups would be eager to do the same to the cabins to reclaim irreplaceable chestnut lumber and paneling," said Faust.
On April 17, 2017, the contractor began demolishing 34 of the old cabins in Elkmont. When asked about asbestos or lead paint, WBIR was informed the demolition crews did not need to take any additional precautions because "less than one percent" of the buildings have concerns about the toxic materials.
While the NPS is not salvaging hardwoods for money, it has saved many things from the cabins doomed to be demolished. The materials include hardware, window sills, glass, and other materials that will be recycled for use in buildings that will be preserved.
"I can tell you, our crews feel like they have removed what was salvageable and usable," said Soehn.
The materials are poised for a big year. Funding in 2017 will allow the park to make its most significant progress in the prolonged project in the Elkmont Historic District. Preservation of four cabins is underway in Daisy Town. The demolition of 34 cabins on Millionaire's Row and Society Hill will finally put most of the structures out of their misery after a quarter-century march toward death.
Part Five: Apologies to Spring Cottage:
Elkmont's Future; Final Farewells
Lynn Faust took the familiar walk down Little River Trail to say goodbye to a dying family member in early-April 2017.
"This cabin has been called 'Spring Cottage' for close to 100 years. There's a spring that's beautiful and that was our drinking water until the 1970s," said Faust. "It was from here we first watched what was later to become the famous 'light show,' the synchronous lightning bug display. My mother-in-law, the late Emily Faust, coined the term 'the light show' and was smart enough to figure out exactly what time of year and time of night to see synchronous fireflies. We would sit on the back porch in our rocking chairs and blankets. If you've ever seen the display, you know it is very peaceful and relaxing. Inevitably, we would slowly doze off to sleep on the porch."
The cabin that sparked Faust's interest in becoming the leading lightning bug expert in the world was one of the first to be demolished in 2017. The National Park Service agreed to a contract of more than $400,000 for demolition of 34 of the decayed cottages.
On April 18, heavy equipment chewed up Spring Cottage and spit piece by piece into dump trucks to be hauled to the Sevier County landfill.
The demolition finally ends Spring Cottage's slow 25-year decline since the lease expired in 1992. The closure offers no comfort to Faust.
"It has been like losing a loved one for 25 years. But it has gone on so long now, we're almost fond of the decaying relative," said Faust.
One need only look at the front lawn and staircase at the Wonderland Hotel to know what the future holds for the land where cabins are cleared. Photos in 1992 are unrecognizable from the same angle today. The cleared hillside and manicured lawn in 1992 is now completely covered by a canopy of trees.
"These cabins will be gone. So the forest will reclaim it and it will disappear," said Faust.
While several cabins are leveled, four in the Daisy Town area of Elkmont are being preserved. The historic preservation crews have already finished restoring the Mayo Servants Quarters building.
"It has been preserved just as it would have been in the early 1900s. There is remarkable workmanship and they peeled through several coats of paint to find the original color. Every piece of glass in this cabin was salvaged from the other cabins [that will be demolished]," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson.
When this round of work is done, the park will wait for additional funding to finish the to-do list at Elkmont.
At the end of 2017, there will still be 13 structures that need to be restored. Twelve other cabins left standing at the end of the year will continue to wait to be torn down. Ten of those doomed structures are in the Wonderland Club area of Elkmont.
After 25 years of arguing unsuccessfully to save the cabins for public lodging, Faust feels a sense of defeat and despair. But the victories are undeniable.
Without the decades of dedication to a fierce debate, all of the 70 historic buildings and the story they share would have disappeared without a trace to current visitors. In 1992, the NPS planned to tear everything down.
"I guess there is a little bit of solace that a few empty shells of cabins will remain. But those 19 structures are less than a third of the community that was here. I just don't want Elkmont to be forgotten or for people in the future to just think it was those structures in Daisy Town," said Faust. "There are so many interesting stories here and every one of the cabins played a part in those stories."
Since 1934, the day of demolition was inevitable. The cabins belonged to leaders who helped create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They took the lifetime lease, knowing their beloved community would end in someone's lifetime.
"The purpose of a life estate is well-intentioned. We are going to make this public land, but we don't want to displace this individual. We want to let them live their life out here," said Don Barger with the NPCA. "The problem with that in Elkmont and throughout the park system is we all have families. We have children. We have grandchildren. They become attached to the place the same way we were. So a life estate doesn't actually prevent the sense of separation. It only delays it. There has to be an end point, but it does not make it less painful that it happens a lifetime later."
Faust recalled hosting a wedding for dear family friends at Spring Cottage in 1992 and provided WBIR a copy of home movies of the ceremony. In the process of obtaining file footage for this series, WBIR also located film of a wedding in Elkmont in the 1930s. WBIR covered a wedding at Spence Cabin in 2013 when it was temporarily placed in limbo by the government shutdown.
The countless weddings at Spence Cabin and the Appalachian Clubhouse will continue due to the efforts of families who fought to save the community. The romance and love affair with Elkmont that started more than a century ago continues as couples exchange vows and develop a deep appreciation for this destination in the Smokies.
As Faust bid farewell to her longtime family cabin, she wrote messages on scrap pieces of wood scattered outside Spring Cottage. Faust left love notes on lumber, saying the cottage remains in so many hearts. It also offered apologies to Spring Cottage with the note, "We are so sorry it ended like this. We love you."
The sentimental sendoff even touched the rugged crew members who tore the cabin apart. Several men on the demolition crew mentioned the cabin "with all the sweet notes" from its previous owner.
"Elkmont touches everyone," said Faust. "My fear is most will just never know how many people it touched. There was an entire huge community."
That community shares a story of train tracks, timber, early tourism, vacation cabins, and the creation of the most-visited national park in the country. The intimate relationships people formed with their backyards in Elkmont led to discoveries of natural wonders of the world, such as the synchronous fireflies.
Spring Cottage may be gone, but no apologies are necessary. Faust and others already saved Elkmont. Their experiences here in the past have create a future where people far and wide will visiting this nook in the Great Smoky Mountains to see for themselves how Elkmont will shine.
Neighborhood Photo Galleries:
All Elkmont structures past-and-presentBelow are four photo galleries containing more than 450 images of the historic structures. The photographs come from private albums of former cabin tenants, WBIR archive footage, library collections, and current photos taken by reporter Jim Matheny at Elkmont.
The four galleries are organized by Elkmont's neighborhoods: Daisy Town, Society Hill, Millionaire’s Row, and Wonderland Club. Photos have a small map added to the left side of the image to highlight the building's location, its name, and the date the photo was taken.
Reporter's Note: If the slideshows do not appear on your device/app, the photo albums are also posted to WBIR's Facebook page at these links: Daisy Town - Society Hill - Millionaire's Row - Wonderland Club
PHOTO GALLERY: Elkmont Daisy Town
PHOTO GALLERY: Elkmont Society Hill
PHOTO GALLERY: Elkmont Millionaire's Row
PHOTO GALLERY: Elkmont Wonderland Club
Elkmont Video Extras:
WBIR Elkmont Archive Footage
This section has several Elkmont videos from WBIR's archives. They include unedited interviews, raw video footage, as well as some fully produced stories that aired during WBIR's newscasts. See the descriptions beneath each clip for more information.
Thanks and Resources:
Credits and Links to Materials
Special thanks to the many people who contributed to this series. Countless individuals provided interviews, historical documents, photographs, home movies, and historical film footage to help WBIR paint a more complete picture of Elkmont's significant history.
10News also appreciated materials gathered from the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, the Knox County Public Library's newspaper archives, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound (TAMIS), and WBIR's The Heartland Series.
We extend gratitude to the Southeast region of the National Parks Conservation Association for taking time to provide an independent perspective on the debate at Elkmont.
Thanks to the staff at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, who were extremely helpful with interviews about a controversial topic and provided access to closed demolition work zones.
The GSMNP has a page devoted to the project at Elkmont and includes the full environmental impact study published in 2009. The document is a valuable historical resource with many maps of the region. It also provides the agency's official response to each concern expressed by the public about the project at Elkmont.