Clingmans Dome Controversy, the Tower That Weathered a Media Storm

clingmans dome in north carolina

The once described "flashy and conspicuous" Clingmans Dome is now one of the most beloved destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

A Smoky Mountain local recalls the tale of the tower that was almost canceled

The Hatfields and the McCoys. The Jets and the Sharks. The Capulets and the Montagues. The National Park Service and the National Park Association. Queue freeze frame, quizzical look and record scratch. What? That’s right. The organization that was to be the voice of the National Parks and the group charged with caring for the parks went to war. More specifically, they waged a fairly nasty media campaign over a beloved spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

So what was the hubbub? The design of the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Yep. First of all, let’s start things off by saying it was the 50s.

Clingmans Dome is a popular spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it was once a source of controversy. When the observation tower was designed, the NPA called it “flashy and conspicuous.” But today, it is an iconic landmark. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the national park.

Setting the stage, America in the 1950s

People in the 50s were very serious about the design of things. Coming off the heels of the depression and a Second World War, this era had a booming economy and no idea what to do with their free time. People had time for hobbies. But because their previous hobbies were dispatching Nazis, saving metal and trying to survive by eating bowls of dust, the hobby market was lax.

So fads sprang up everywhere. Hula-hoops, pogo sticks, etc. These are the people who invented panty raids and telephone booth stuffing. Modern and futuristic were the buzzwords of the day. Anything space race, aerospace, sleek metal or chrome colors were the rage. Even the cars had massive, aerodynamic pastel-colored shark fins. Into that world sprang Mission 66, an ambitious 10-year plan to expand and improve national park infrastructure in time for the Parks Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966.

Clingmans Dome with ramp
Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains is now an iconic destination (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

The design of Clingmans Dome

This brings us to Clingmans Dome. The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, the dome – named after a Confederate general – had been home to a wooden observation tower built in the 30s. That tower resembled a fire tower, but park experts had discovered that despite its great height, the spot wasn’t ideal for fire spotting. A general observation tower would serve the public much better.

According to the book “Blue Ridge Fire Towers” by Robert Sorrell, they hired a Gatlinburg architectural firm operated by Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olson to design the 45-foot high tower. Bebb’s original design included a cylinder that made the tower look more like a silo. However, park officials determined the cylinder was unnecessary and removed it, leaving the now-familiar mushroom cap design.

Now, in the history of designing things, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the phrase “mushroom cap design” employed positively. “Why Martha, that tower, out there in the distance, rising majestically through the mists in the morning sun, I say, doesn’t it remind you rather of nature’s most noble creation, the wondrous mushroom?”

Clingmans Dome Ramp
The design of Clingmans Dome was quite controversial when it was first pitched to the public (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

The dome was called flashy and conspicuous

Not surprisingly, when the design was revealed in 1958, there were detractors. The NPA called it “flashy and conspicuous,” Sorrell said, and the organization published objections in the National Parks Magazine. The chief objections were that the design didn’t fit well with the surrounding landscape and also wasn’t in keeping with the values of the National Park Service. But had I penned the NPA’s objections, I might have gone with the more succinct: “It’s fugly.”

Certainly, with the hindsight of nigh 70 years, it’s easy to look at the mushroom connected to a long, wide ramp and be critical. But, the dome tower is functional and would be a heck of a thing if they let skateboarders ride it.

The western view from clingmans dome
The views at Clingmans Dome are like none other in the Smokies (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

The Clingmans Dome controversy goes national

The NPA’s objections got picked up in magazines and newspapers around the country. As a result, it was something of a national controversy at the time. Eventually, things calmed down and cooler heads prevailed, thanks in no small part to the fact that Bebb’s design was functional, and it was also popular with locals. Ground was broken in December 1958 and the thing was finished in October 1959.

Today, at 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On clear days, views expand over 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.

Have you been to Clingmans Dome? Did you know it was once controversial? If so, let us know in the comments. Click here to view the web story version of this article.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com (preferred) or call 865-505-0648.

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33 thoughts on “Clingmans Dome Controversy, the Tower That Weathered a Media Storm”

  1. I feel sure that WWII veterans will appreciate the comment that they had hobbies like killing Nazis. I’m sure the families of those who died will also be amusesd.

    Reply
  2. Oh my, a Confederate General? Whatever will we do now? I swear you all aren’t journalists anymore, you’re a bunch of worthless idiots

    Reply
  3. The most distressing thing I see in this article, is that the view is obstructed by pollution. I would think that is something the neighboring areas would like to do something about. I’m just remembering how Chattanooga was in the 1960’s and what they did to fix that.

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  4. I can’t express how much I enjoyed reading this article!!! BRAVO!! The humor was obvious and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s too bad not everyone enjoys reading fun and informative articles.

    Reply
  5. The “blue” haze is from the moisture the trees give off certain times of the year. The Blue Ridge Mts are named for this haze.

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  6. My thought on the name is Thathat once you got to the top and you fear heights “You cling on man!”.

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  7. What a wonderful article. We moved to The Smokies less than a year ago,and have never heard of the Clingmans Dome. Your humor was great! Just read the article and enjoy it.

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    • Research the natural history of the region. The trees there create the haze. It’s the types of trees that are native there and flourish there. In fact here was a major blight of invasive insects that nearly killed off the vast majority of the trees on and around the mountain and the air got crystal clear. It took many years to end that problem but the area is now back to health. There are no near sources of that much pollution. The types of trees are solely responsible for the haze. It’s a huge national park full of natural air filters. I’m a Clingman and descendant of The Clingman it’s named for. My family has more information than anyone about the history of that place and the man it’s named after.

      Reply
  8. Cling ons they were in Star 🌟 Track. My 2nd EX-wife who is a 10 time Ironman finisher & swim instructor in Temecula, California called cling ons small children who would Cling on around her neck, It’s All Good in the Mountains ⛰ & in All Good Tennessee.
    WWG1WGA.
    Semper Fidelis 🇺🇸
    God Bless America 🇺🇸

    Reply
  9. We have walked to Clingmans Dome. It was worth the high steep walk up. It is a something everyone should experience if they can.

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    • H Don! At the time, it was named after him because he argued it was the tallest peak in the Appalachians. Most sources say that Clingman had a debate with a North Carolina professor about the highest peak. Clingman said it was ‘Smoky Dome’ (now known as Clingmans Dome) and the professor said it was ‘Black Dome’. The professor won the debate by roughly 40 feet. But, Smoky Dome became known as Clingmans Dome, and ‘Black Dome’ was named after the professor (now known as Mt Mitchell).

      Reply
  10. My late husband and I and our young son and daughter hiked up Clingman’s Dome in the early 1960’s . A gorgeous place to view the yes,Smoky Mountains!!!❤️

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  11. I have been to Clingmans Dome 5 times since 1970. I have also been to the top of Mt Mitchel only once that I can remember. My family went camping alot in the G.S.Mtns. and my Father may have taken us there before.

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  12. We hiked there yesterday. Highly recommend—fantastic views on a clear day. Paved, but very steep incline. Be sure to use restroom at the base—no restrooms at the summit. Take a jacket..

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  13. I was born and raised in Gatlinburg. Teenagers being teenagers, we drove up the paved trail all the way up to where it the tower gets narrow. I had one of the tiny Honda civics from the early 80s. We made it a surprisingly long way up. Backing down was a challenge. Yes, this was stupid. We were kids, it was winter and dark, and there were no visitors around (obviously). I’m not proud, but what an enduring memory I have.

    So lucky to have been raised in the Smokies. My great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Huff, opened the Mountain View Hotel before the park was a park.

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  14. I love the view! I keep stupid crap out of my minds world. I live the jokes and history in this article. I loved my visit to Clingmans Dome. I overcame huge physical limitations and huge fears of heights when I made the hike up.

    Reply
  15. In a good automobile, on a dry day, you can coast from Clingman’s Dome all the way into Gatlinburg City limits.
    30+ miles…..Don

    Reply

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