Elkmont Campground by Warren Bielenberg (Photo from National Parks Service)
By Emilee Dehmer
Elkmont, Tennessee, is known for many things. Part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s one of the largest and busiest campgrounds in the park, with access to Little River and Jakes Creek and the trailheads for numerous hiking trails. The stunning 80ft Laurel Falls is a short hike away. In May and June, the area is also known for one of the most exciting natural events in the Smokies: the synchronous fireflies. The event is so popular that visitors wishing to experience the phenomenon must enter a lottery, months in advance, to secure a four-hour parking spot.
For all of its charms and beauty, though, Elmont is probably best known as the abandoned town of the Smokies, a place that was once a booming logging camp and resort town for wealthy vacationers that slowly became a ghost town. Visitors can explore the town that once was, through both abandoned and preserved structures.
How Elkmont got to that point begins in the early to mid-1800s, when some of the first white settlers began to make their homes in the Smoky Mountain region. One of the first was a man named Robert Trentham who built his cabin in 1845. His son, Levi (whose cabin is one of the few remaining and preserved structures), would later inherit the land and be the catalyst for the history that follows.
During this time, many logging companies began to move into the mountains to mine the lumber abundant in the region. Sawmills and grist mills began to spring up throughout rural parts of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Trentham land was not immune to this and soon a businessman from Pennsylvania named W.B. Townsend expressed interest in the land and purchased around 80,000 acres from Levi. Townsend established the Little River Lumber Company (LRLC) in 1900 and logging began in 1901.
The town of Elkmont was established as a base for the logging company. A sawmill was built in Tuckaleechee about eighteen miles away. As the need arose for an easier way to transport materials and people between the two towns, Townsend established the Little River Railroad Company and finished laying tracks between the two in 1908. Townsend took a real interest in his business venture and eventually moved his family to Tuckaleechee. They became engaged members of the community and in 1903 the town was renamed Townsend in his honor.
As you can imagine, the railroad was not an inexpensive venture. To help pay for the expenses, the Little River Railroad Company hitched an observation car onto the regular logging train running betweeen Townsend and Knoxville, charging customers a small fee to ride. This allowed passengers to journey the two- and half-hour trip up to the mountains and back on the Elkmont Special.
As those with the financial means came into the mountains for daytime retreats, it was only a matter of time before they wanted more permanent accommodations. A year later, on February 11, 1910, the LRLC sold fifty acres of land to a group of wealthy businessmen from Knoxville called the Appalachian Club. While the club started as a way for the men to get out to hunt and fish, it wasn’t long until their families were joining them on these excursions. A clubhouse and cottages were built to make the land more family friendly.
Oil on fabric portrait of Catharine Gaut (later Mrs. Burton), 1914-15, painted at her family's cabin at Elkmont by Catherine Wiley (1879-1958) (Tennessee State Museum collection)
Soon, others wanted in on the development. In 1912, three brothers from Knoxville bought 65 acres from the LRLC and subsequently opened the Wonderland Hotel in June of the same year. While the Wonderland was only two miles from the Appalachian Club, the members had little tolerance for one another. This divide only got worse when a few years later the brothers sold the Wonderland and its land to a group of Knoxvillians who felt snubbed by the Appalachian Club. The new owners subsequently turned the Wonderland into a club. According to Margaret L. Brown’s The Wild East (University Press of Florida, 2001), though the members of the two clubs had to take the same train to their locations, they would not acknowledge one another on the trip or while at their respective destinations. 
Elkmont winter circa 1928 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo from National Parks Service)
The time in the mountains was spent like any good vacation. Members enjoyed swimming, horseshoe, card games, horseback riding, lawn tennis, canoeing, dances, and parties. Meals were catered for both clubs until a fire destroyed the original Appalachian Clubhouse in 1932, after which most members just cooked for themselves. While the Wonderland Club was members only at first, they eventually opened to the public as well.
The members at these clubs loved their time in the mountains so much that they became the driving force to protect the land as well. By the time the logging companies began to move out of the area in the mid-1920s, over 49,000 acres of the LRLC land had been logged. In total, two-thirds of the present-day holdings of the Smokies were logged during this time.  Two members from the Appalachian Club, Ann and Willie Davis, returned from a trip to Yellowstone and spread the word that the Smoky Mountains should be a National Park as well. Fellow member Colonel David Chapman ran with this idea and pursued it relentlessly for almost a decade.
Unlike the west, which had an abundance of open land, creating a park in the Southeast required the purchase or donation of private property, because people were already living on the land. While the first attempt at purchasing lands for the park failed in the Tennessee State Legislature, the second was successful with the caveat that Knoxville pay for one third of the park purchases. In 1927, the LRLC sold 76,507 acres for the park. However, this was not all the land that was needed. The problem was there were people living in the mountains and on these lands, and many of them had been living there for decades. While no one socioeconomic class can describe all those living in Appalachia at the time, these residents lacked the political pull and the deep pocketbooks of the members of the Wonderland and Appalachia Club.
Citing The Weeks Act of 1911, the state government wanted their lands for the park, but was only willing to pay about half of what it was worth. The state, unwilling to pay the additional costs, instead invoked the right of eminent domain on these properties. Eminent domain, however, excluded the two prominent clubs because they could not invoke the right on improved properties unless “all reasonable efforts to purchase the land” had been used. In total, 5,665 people had to leave their lands and their homes, while 100 or so wealthy club members were allowed to stay.
The club members' stay on the land was accomplished through life long leases. Those who owned cottages on the land were given the option of a full buyout immediately or they could take half the value and be given a lifelong lease, with an option to pass these leases to their heirs. Nearly all club members chose the lease option. These leases made these communities even more exclusive and desirable, as they were the last people who would be allowed to have property in the new national park.
As the years passed the clubs and communities of Elkmont continued to enjoy their mountain retreats. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps turned the old logging town into their camp and in the late 30s Elkmont Bridge was constructed. While activity slowed at Elkmont during the war years, there was still activity. The Wonderland Club Hotel became a main attraction for dances, dining and parties. Everything seemed to be going well for those who had their cabins in the mountains. That is, until electricity came to town.
The TVA helped bring electricity to these rural areas of Tennessee, and the cabin owners at Elkmont wanted their cabins upgraded with this modern convenience. When they petitioned for power lines to be connected to the area the power companies refused due to the large expense. The Sevier County Electric System, the TVA local power company partner for the area, needed a guarantee that service would be needed for at least twenty years to ensure it would recuperate its costs. The problem was that while Elkmont residents had lifetime leases there was technically no way to guarantee that the leases would be good for another twenty years, as one cannot guarantee their life expectancy. This dilemma is what would lead to the eventual downfall of Elkmont.
Most of the cabin owners worked with the National Park Service to renegotiate their leases to be twenty year leases. NPS allowed for this renegotiation mainly because they had ranger cabins nearby and it would also benefit them to have these cabins electrically wired. The lease was negotiated, with a key phrase: there would be no renewals of the lease when the twenty years was up.
Development in the mountains continued, and in the mid 50s-60s, Elkmont campground was developed with 340 campsites and an amphitheater. In the 70s, despite the original clause in the twenty-year contract, a renewal of the leases was negotiated and the people of the Appalachian and Wonderland Club received another twenty years with their properties. This would be the last twenty years they would receive.
Bets Ramsey (back row, right) the Quilters Hall of Famer and celebrated fabric artist, writer and educator, is pictured here with her family at Mayna Avent's cabin at Jake's Creek near Elkmont in 1974. A note from Ramsey notes the location as "where I spent a week with Mayna MacKinnon & we taught ourselves to make baskets." (Tennessee State Museum collection)
It wasn’t for their lack of trying. As the leases began to expire in the late 1980s, the Board Members of the Elkmont Preservation Committee sent a letter to the National Park Service saying that they would be happy to donate a significant amount of money to the new Visitor Center, and use their contacts with the state legislature to secure additional funds, if a renewal of the leases could be negotiated once again.
When word got out about the proposed donation, several environmental organizations and news agencies picked up the story and argued that the rich should not be given preferential treatment. The Chairman of the Sierra Club wrote “although the intent…is not clear, the offer has all the aspects of attempted bribery.” Amongst the mounting pressure of these groups, the federal government formally rejected the offer and stood firm in their decision that there would be no lease renewals after 1992.
Although it was decided that no one would be returning to Elkmont, that raised another question of what would happen to the buildings and the town once everyone left. Historic preservationists wanted Elkmont to be preserved as these were historic sites and showed the history of the area over a hundred years. Environmentalists wanted the buildings torn down and the land returned to its natural habitat.
The official word from the National Park Service, per the 1982 lease, was that the buildings were to be torn down. Before that could happen, however, 49 of the 74 structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which prevented their demolition. Unwilling to maintain the structures, and unable to officially tear them down, NPS chose to let the structures naturally deteriorate with time until another solution could be reached.
A compromise was eventually reached that nineteen structures would be restored and maintained, and the remaining structures demolished. The Wonderland Hotel, which had been damaged by fire in 1995 and collapsed in 2005, was torn down in 2006. Progress towards the project was slow, and by 2012 only four additional cabins had been demolished. By 2017 restoration work for six out of the 19 buildings had been completed, including the work on the original Appalachian Club lodge, which can now be rented out as an event space.
Elkmont today. (Photo by Mary Skinner, Tennessee State Museum)
Today, people are welcome to explore the “abandoned town” in the Smoky Mountains and see structures that have slowly been reclaimed by nature. Along the Jakes Creek or Little River Trails, you can see stone structure remnants of some of the demolished buildings. While the glory days of Elkmont as a resort town for wealthy vacationers may be behind her, she’s returned as a vacation destination of a different sort, drawing nature enthusiasts, those curious in exploring “ghost towns” and plenty of historians interested in the preservation of structures and stories that tell tales of turn of the century mountain culture.
Emilee Dehmer is a Tennessee State Museum Educator