Gatlinburg history: When did Gatlinburg become a tourist attraction?

Ogle log cabin

The historic Noah "Bud" Ogle cabin is on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by ehrlif/shutterstock.com)

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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. 

gatlinburg tn with early settlers image
Gatlinburg was built on a rich and interesting history. Left: Modern-day Galtinburg; right: Radford and Elizabeth Gatlin (photo composition by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com with sources from stock and public domain)

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. 

Read Also: The Ogles vs the Gatlins: The feud that built Gatlinburg

Elkmont chimney remains
Remnants of the logging town of Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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. 

Read Also: Ghost stories from the abandoned lodges of Elkmont

Treemont park sign
A sign at the entrance of the Tremont Institute in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the fall season (photo by jadimages/shutterstock.com)

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.

Meigs Mountain Trail Sign in Fall
Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park (photo by William Silver/shutterstock.com)

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.

Read Also: Is Ripley’s Aquarium worth it? An honest review with discounts

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!

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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13 thoughts on “Gatlinburg history: When did Gatlinburg become a tourist attraction?”

  1. I didnt know that I love to read about things like this. The mountains are like a magnet, they pull at your soul. Seems like I belong there.L

  2. Love the park. Great for picture-taking great for picture Taki g all year round. I have taken thousands of photos, post many on my facebook. Dollywood is a fantastic place to go. And you may run into MS Parton when she comes to visit. Christmas in Gatlinburg is the best.

  3. I am related to the Ogle’s from Gatlinburg. My Granny Reece was Nancy Ruth Ogle. I just remember her mother’s name Lucinda Ogle…we called them Mammy & Pappy. There house was moved from Ogle road. Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge must have come from Jack Huff. Great story…did they name it Gatlinburg so the most hated man in town would leave it? That’s what I always heard growing up. I didn’t realize how close to it I was.

  4. Thank you for the information have been there several times over the years and planning on going back in July

  5. So agree with Lynn Desmond on her comment it does pull at the heart very nice place love it in the mountains and I did not know the history like that live reading about it

  6. Ogles, McCarters, Maples, Whaley and Reagan are the 5 major families that built and influenced it. McCarters were transportation, McCarters riding stables. Ogles and Maples owned property and motels. Whaley always been construction and such with Reagan restaurant. This article only touches on a fraction of the history.

  7. I have lived outside Gatlinburg for the past 17 years and learned more about the history from this article than in the time I have lived here. Great information. Thank you Marc.

  8. My great grandma’s name was Lucinda Ogle. She was married to Perry Ogle. The Lucinda mentioned in a comment must not be my great- grandma!!

  9. I was born ingatlinburg in 1937 l believe the National governess convention. There in 1948 introduced Gatlinburg to the nation

  10. The people who were born and raised in the area have got to be the sweetest and most generous people in the world. About 20 years ago me and my husband went and at the same motel. I believe it’s called the Mountain House. We were regulars there having stayed there twice a year for a number of years when our car broke down. The clerk, a sweet ,elderly lady named Louise reached in her purse for her keys and said to my husband “Here sweetie, take my car and go do some sightseeing. You don’t need to sit in the room while they’re working on your car.” We didn’t take her up on her offer but we were so grateful for her kindness that he never stayed anywhere else after that. And her car was a nice big white Cadillac.
    .

  11. My family stared going to Gatlinburg in the 50’s when I was a kid. I remember garbage cans along the road with quite a few bears around eating the food from trash cans. We could hardly get to our motel stopping with everyone else to take photos. I got real close to the bears without realizing the danger. I don’t remember when the park decided trash cans on the roadway needed to go. We hardly ever see bears now. Love Gatlinburg and going there with my grandkids.

  12. I have found the beauty in Gatlinburg to be so amazing. We were there for Christmas of 2019 and I’m looking forward to getting back there again!!!

  13. My ancestors were the Ogles, Reagans, Whaley, Partons, etc. I enjoy learning about my heritage and how special it truly is! My mother was born and raised in Gatlinburg and surrounding areas. She always wanted to go home since we moved to South Georgia many years ago. She passed last November and to honor her I took her to be buried with our family in Levi Trentham Cemetery. ❤ (Elkmont)

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