It’s easy to be brave in the light of day, wandering the empty lodges of Elkmont, the former logging town and resort community near the Sevier-Blount county line in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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 when the sun goes down and the moon is shrouded by the clouds, and the campfire flickers blue and the lanterns sputter and a cold wind rustles through the leaves, our impudent bravery becomes a much rarer commodity.
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, that in the daylight I never feared the witch tales about ghosts that came and snatched up naughty children. But today, at damn 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.”
About the Elkmont region in the Smoky Mountains
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, rechristened it the Wonderland Club and, for the next two decades, 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 renewal was denied in 1992. The buildings were scheduled to be torn down. They were saved, however, when they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The cabins that remain at Elkmont
Today, 18 of the cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the National Park Service. The Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin were rehabilitated in 2010 for day use permits, and reservations are required. Park crews also completed preservation work on four additional cabins in 2017. These four cabins are now open to the public to walk through and view.
While the remaining cabins are closed to the public until preservation work can be completed, visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot. Hiking the Jakes Creek and Little River trails will lead the visitor past the stone walls and chimneys that mark the former locations of the other resort cabins that once stood in Elkmont.
Why Elkmont can be creepy at night
Elkmont by day is a history lesson. At night, it’s a living Rorschach test.
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.
The tale of the two workers who lost their lives on the mountain
It is in those moments that 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 National Park Service reports that brakes didn’t have enough sand and passengers and crew leapt 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 train men have stuck around Elkmont for the sole purpose of giving tourists the Large Marge treatment.