The spine of what 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, 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 this spine upon which a farmer from Edgefield, S.C., elected to create a homestead for his family.
William Ogle, a man with a dream
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.
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 died 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, including her brother and her daughter’s husband James McCarter to the mountains, where the notched logs awaited, ready to be assembled.
They built that cabin, which still stands today on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon.
The community that would become Gatlinburg is formed
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 spine that the people of the mountains have followed for centuries, next to the Visitor Center.
The community, 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 Revolution or the War of 1812 who claimed 50-acre land grants that they had received for their service in war.
Why is Gatlinburg called Gatlinburg?
Radford Gatlin would prove to be impactful for the tiny community. In 1856, a post office was established in the general store of the irascible Radford Gatlin.
Somehow, White Oak Flats became Gatlinburg, named after a man who rubbed many of the town’s residents – especially the Ogles – the wrong way.
In his short time in town, Gatlin apparently had the town renamed in his honor, got into a blood feud with several of the Ogles and was branded (fairly) as a Confederate sympathizer.
He fled town after having his barn burned down and much of his livestock killed.
He left in 1859, eventually making his way back to his native Georgia and then South Carolina.
The residents of Gatlinburg did not share Gatlin’s Confederate views, but tried to stay neutral during the war.
The Civil War in Gatlinburg
The war did find its way to Gatlinburg as a Confederate colonel occupied the town to protect the saltpeter mines near the state border.
Federal troops marched in from Knoxville. A skirmish ensued. The confederates were driven out.
They did not mount a counter offensive, but did perform several minor raids until the end of the war.
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. 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 seeds of 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, 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, a general store and a church to serve about 600 people in the wider area.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park opens in 1934
In 1934, then the national park opened, the city received an estimated 40,000 visitors. The next year that number was 500,000.
In the ensuing years, Gatlinburg’s tourist trade 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.
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 upon which 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, and nearly got himself and his wife killed in the process.
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 mountain paradise.
Did you know about the history of Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments!