It’s easy to be brave in the light of day, wandering around the empty lodges of the Elkmont ghost town in the Great Smoky Mountains.
It’s easy to peer into the dusty corners and ignore the dancing shadows when the sun rests high above, illuminating the forest and ramparting the weaknesses that fall prey to silly things like ghost stories.
But then the sun goes down and the moon is shrouded by the clouds. The campfire flickers blue and the lanterns sputter.
A cold wind rustles through the leaves. And our impudent bravery becomes a much rarer commodity.
As a good Hoosier, I was raised with a grandmother who could recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” from memory.
And I can tell you, in the daylight, I never feared the witch tales about ghosts that came and snatched up naughty children. But today, at near 46 years old, put me in the mountains near Elkmont as the sun goes down, and my old Nanny’s favorite parable comes sprinting back to the front of my mind.
“The goblins will get you, if you don’t watch out.”
The Elkmont ghost town in the Smoky Mountains
The Elkmont ghost town is the former logging town and resort community near the Sevier-Blount County line in Tennessee.
In the daylight, Elkmont is a historic relic lost to time.
Elkmont was established in 1908 by the Little River Lumber Company as a base for mining operations. Not surprisingly, considering working conditions at the time, it was an especially dangerous place to live and work.
Various logging and train accidents claimed lives and limbs, seeding the potential for angry ghosts – if you believe in that sort of thing – or good ghost stories, if you don’t.
Two years later, the company began selling plots of land to rich families from Knoxville and the surrounding area for hunting and fishing cabins. By 1912, a resort known as Wonderland Hotel was built on a hill overlooking Elkmont.
In 1919, a group of elite businessmen bought the resort and rechristened it the Wonderland Club.
For the next two decades, it hosted East Tennessee’s wealthy socialites in what I can only assume were creepy parties. (Picture the guy in the bear suit in “The Shining”).
When the national park came, Elkmont’s cottage owners were given lifetime leases that were converted to 20-year leases in 1952.
The leases were renewed once in 1972, but the renewal was denied in 1992.
The buildings were scheduled to be torn down. However, they were saved when they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The abandoned buildings in the Elkmont ghost town
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the park had to decide which buildings to preserve. The decisions were based on cost, environmental impacts, the feasibility of preservation and the importance of the structure.
Specialists within the park service and from contracted firms worked on the project.
As a result, 19 of the cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the NPS today. A map of the buildings can be found on the NPS website.
One by one, each cabin will be refurbished until all cabins near the Appalachian Clubhouse appear as they were in Elkmont’s prime.
The buildings that were not marked for preservation have been removed. Yet, these buildings were not completely erased from the landscape.
Traces of their existence remain.
The Elkmont ghost town hike
Visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot.
If you travel along the Little River Trail and the Jakes Creek Trail, you’ll find a series of stone chimneys and foundations.
These are the remains of the demolished buildings.
The Elkmont Campground in Tennessee
Nearby, the Elkmont Campground is the largest and busiest campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Reservations are required to camp in Elkmont Campground, which is typically open from mid-April to late November.
You can make a reservation for the Elkmont campground online at Recreation.gov.
Why Elkmont can be creepy at night
The Elkmont area by day is a history lesson. At night, it’s a living Rorschach test.
There have been reports of the nagging apparitions of railmen and loggers in the area.
I’m a skeptic by nature. I don’t really believe in haints or ghosts or goblins. I don’t believe in spirits that linger in the places where their souls were wronged.
I remain my Nanny’s boy, and when the sun goes down and the wind comes up, my skepticism flickers with the firelight.
Elkmont ghost stories: Is Elkmont haunted?
While I am a skeptic, I can concede that if there are such traumas a soul can suffer in life that may be bound to a place in death, Elkmont is as likely a spot as any.
And if you do see a lost soul in Elkmont, chances are it belongs to one of the workers who lost their lives on the mountain, such as Daddy Bryson and Charles Jenkins.
On June 30, 1909, Bryson was driving a train stacked with logs heading to Townsend from Elkmont.
As the train approached a sharp curve, Jenkins, the brakeman, applied the brakes, trying to account for the rails being wet with rain from earlier in the day.
The NPS reports that brakes didn’t have enough sand and passengers, and crew jumped to safety.
Bryson and Jenkins remained aboard the train and paid with their lives.
It’s tragic to be sure.
But it doesn’t seem quite so egregious as to warrant more than a century of hauntings, right?
Let’s put it another way. Why haven’t Jenkins and Bryson gone into the light?
The answer is about as East Tennessee as it gets.
Tourists flocked to the wreck, not to mourn the lives lost but to gawk, gander and get photos of the wreck.
Somewhere, in the great beyond, Daddy and his brakeman may have been like “Oh, Really? Y’all tourists want a show? We’ll give you a show.”
So, at least theoretically, the souls of the two trainmen have stuck around Elkmont for the sole purpose of giving tourists the Large Marge treatment.
Have you visited Elkmont? Do you know of any ghost stories? Let us know in the comments below.
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