The area that would become the village of Gatlinburg existed long before a South Carolina farmer made his way to the mountains looking for a new home for his family.
The history of Gatlinburg begins with the spine that existed long before the American Revolution, long before colonists and first settlers, long before Columbus.
U.S. 441, the highway which runs through the heart of Gatlinburg and through the mountains to North Carolina, was built upon the legacy of a footpath we know as Indian Gap Trail.
This gave the Cherokee and the Native American tribes that pre-dated them access to the abundant game in the Smokies’ forests and coves.
It was ultimately here that a farmer from Edgefield, South Carolina created a homestead for his family.
Who was William Ogle?
William Ogle arrived in the area circa 1802. With the help of the local Cherokee tribe, he cut, hewed and notched the logs in a mess of white oak trees where he planned to erect a cabin. He called the area the Land of Paradise.
Ogle returned to South Carolina with plans to raise one more crop for supplies and then move his family to the mountains.
In 1803, Ogle was stricken with malaria and passed away before he could see his dream become a reality.
Ogle’s wife, Martha Huskey Ogle, returned to her family in Virginia. But by 1806, she brought the family back to the mountains, including her brother and her daughter’s husband James McCarter.
They built that cabin, which still stands today on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon.
Martha’s cabin has been moved a couple of times, but it still stands right along the entrance to Gatlinburg’s main strip. It’s along the same path that the people of the mountains have followed for centuries, next to the visitor’s center.
Why is Gatlinburg called Gatlinburg?
The community, then known as White Oak Flats, grew slowly and added more names to the McCarters, Huskeys and Ogles.
Many of the people who came to White Oaks were veterans of the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812 who claimed 50-acre land grants that they had received for their service in war.
Eventually, White Oak Flats became Gatlinburg, named after a man who rubbed many of the town’s residents – especially the Ogles – the wrong way.
Radford Gatlin was a controversial figure and a preacher who would prove to be impactful for the tiny community.
In his short time in town, Gatlin apparently had the town renamed in his honor, got into a feud with several of the Ogles and was branded (fairly) as a Confederate sympathizer.
Gatlin opened the area’s second general store and later added a post office in his store. He also established his own “Gatlinite” Baptist Church.
At one point, his barn burned down and he lost most of his livestock.
Finally, he left in 1859, eventually making his way back to his native Georgia and then South Carolina.
The Civil War in Gatlinburg
The residents of Gatlinburg did not share Gatlin’s Confederate views, but they tried to stay neutral during the war.
The Smoky Mountain cities were largely pro-Union, but Tennessee had elected to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy in 1861.
However, the war found its way to Gatlinburg. A Confederate colonel occupied the area to protect saltpeter mines and mine an ingredient in gunpowder from the Alum Cave.
Federal troops marched in from Knoxville. A skirmish ensued. The Confederates were driven out in 1863 after the Battle of Burg Hill.
They did not mount a counter offensive, but did perform several minor raids until the end of the war.
Over in Pigeon Forge, The Old Mill was used as a makeshift hospital and a quasi-factory for the production of Union Army uniforms.
It wasn’t until the logging boom of the 1880s that the cosmic tumblers fell into place. This created the confluence of events that would transform Gatlinburg from a minor mountain village to a tourism mecca.
The logging companies come to the mountains
It’s easy to see why the mountains were popular with logging companies like the Little River Lumber Company. The trees grow straight and tall in the Southerland highlands, making for perfect timber.
By the early 1900s, logging companies were buying up vast tracts of land so they could harvest the timber. They used all the best environmentally friendly practices of the time. They cut the forests down like termites, only leaving an army of stumps behind.
The tourism business began when Greene County native, Andrew Jackson Huff, opened a sawmill in Gatlinburg in 1900.
The local residents began catering their businesses to loggers and logging company executives.
National interest in the mountains begins to increase
About this time, increasing national interest started the flow of tourists. This was due in part to the local-colour movement featuring writers like Mary Noailles Murfree and Horace Kephart.
Visitors were attracted to the description of the area’s beauty and their depiction of the “wild” people who lived within.
Kephart became one of the leading voices to protect the beauty of the mountains from the voracious logging interests.
He pushed aggressively, along with many others, for the creation of a national park in the mountains like the ones out West in Yosemite or Yellowstone.
Never one to miss a trick, Andrew Huff, a staunch proponent of the park, opened the village’s first hotel, The Mountain View Hotel, in 1916.
His son Jack followed in his father’s footsteps and opened the LeConte Lodge in 1926.
In 1912, Gatlinburg proper had six houses, a blacksmith shop and a general store to serve about 600 people in the wider area.
Also, in the early 1900s, there were no public schools. So in the early 1900s, the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity, which was actually a women’s organization, voted to provide education. They were known for helping the underprivileged.
Many folks who lived there were educated at the school. The school’s focus on local craft skills helped establish Gatlinburg as an arts and crafts center. Today, it is called the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park opens in 1934
In 1934, when the national park opened, the city received an estimated 40,000 visitors. The next year that number was 500,000.
In the ensuing years, the tourist trade in Gatlinburg TN grew to meet the demand. Popular restaurants and hotels grew. Locals experimented with the type of attractions that would please the tourists and earn their money.
The first Pancake Pantry opened in 1960. Also in the early sixties, the area opened its first theme park known as Rebel Railroad.
Today, downtown Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas are a bustling tourist town with several attractions and things to do.
Still, even with all that growth and expansion, Gatlinburg is limited by the mountain’s geography.
Attractions like Ober Gatlinburg and Anakeesta have managed to build up and out. However, the vast majority of Gatlinburg’s business remains along that same spine where centuries of Native Americans hunted for their food.
Most of the town’s tourism business remains along the road that Radford Gatlin argued with the Ogles about.
There are days when the tiny town threatens to be overwhelmed with traffic of visitors from all over the world.
Ultimately, it’s the same area where William Ogle planned to assemble his notched logs and raise his family in a mountain paradise.
Did you know about the history of Gatlinburg, Tennessee? Let us know in the comments!