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 Mountain National Park (stock photo)

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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. 

Ogles vs Gatlins
Gatlinburg was built on a rich and interesting history (photo composition by Morgan Overholt/ with sources from stock and public domain)

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. 

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

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. 

Elkmont cabin
Remnants of the logging town of Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)

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. 

Read Also: Ghost stories from the abandoned lodges of Elkmont

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The national park was opened in 1934 and saw half a million visitors the very next year (stock photo)

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!

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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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