(WBIR) Oh, the things you can discover and learn in the Great Smoky Mountains. This week that includes lessons about how an intriguing headline can lead people across the country to marvel at the "discovery" of an abandoned town and long-forgotten Wonderland in the national park.
Headlines claiming a "Hiker Discovers an Abandoned Town" exploded online and became one of the most popular and shared stories on Facebook. In truth, the "discovery" is one of the worst-kept secrets in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The "abandoned town" is Elkmont, one of the busiest and easily-reached destinations in the entire national park. Signs lead drivers directly to it on paved roads, just a 10 minute drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near the park's entrance.
Nonetheless, The Huffington Post and other media recycled a story by the Roadtrippers website, which reported Jordan Liles "discovered" the Wonderland Club in Elkmont while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year. Liles is a blogger who posted a 22-minute video exploring the abandoned buildings. The confusion may have spiraled out of control because of this statement in the beginning of his video:
"In May 2013, I discovered an abandoned neighborhood in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tennessee Wonderland documents my exploration of the row of historic homes and the hotel, and concludes with before and after photos and a brief history of the land."
The problem with the statement is Elkmont was never missing, forgotten, or kept secret. The National Park's website lists Elkmont as "some of the best-known historic areas in the park." Most of the structures featured in the viral video are visible from one of the park's main roads. Tennesseans and anyone familiar with the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have gotten a good laugh out of the viral popularity of the articles.
"Elkmont historical district is one of the most popular areas for people to come and learn the history. So it's certainly not a hidden part of our park," said Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains. "So while the person who made the video may have discovered it for himself for the first time, this community is well-known and people have been enjoying it for years. It's always a surprise to us to see what social media is going to do with a story. Why it went viral now, we have no idea."
Liles has since added a caption to the YouTube video apologizing for any confusion from the "poor choice of words." Liles wrote he should have instead stated he "stumbled upon" or "saw" the site. Liles also says he has no idea why some websites are claiming the land has gone untouched for hundreds of years. If you watch the video he posted in 2013, it clearly is not claiming to be a tour of a long-forgotten location as implied by various media headlines.
For those who want to personally discover the site, you can drive directly to it. It is next to Elkmont Campground, one of the most popular campsites in the Great Smoky Mountains. There are several parking lots complete with spots for handicap van accessible parking next to the abandoned buildings. It's also the area where thousands flock every year to see the rare synchronous fireflies.
As for why the buildings are there in the first place, wealthy families from Knoxville and Asheville used to take trains to Elkmont to escape the summer heat, according to the park's website. The community was established 20 years before the Smokies became a national park.
In the early 1990s, dozens of families fought to keep leases on their vacation properties in Elkmont. For those people, the small Smoky Mountain community was their "home away from home." But that changed when the National Park Service didn't extend their leases in 1992, forcing those families to move their belongings from the property. The Wonderland Hotel, which had been in business at Elkmont for 80 years, also met the same fate.
1992 Video: See Last Days at Elkmont and Wonderland
Today, the park is in the process of preserving 19 of the original 74 structures at Elkmont. The rest will be demolished. The National Park Service is happy for people to discover the history of Elkmont for themselves, as long as it does not include trespassing at the closed buildings.
"We have 'no trespassing' signs up because a lot of the floors in these buildings are not stable. There are other concerns like asbestos and lead paint. You can look at the buildings without going inside," said Soehn.
Bottom line, it appears some people in other parts of the nation and the world are discovering what those in East Tennessee knew all along.
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