3 Hidden Secrets in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Where To Find Them

an old chair lift peaks over trees in gatlinburg tennessee

If you know where to look, you can see parts of an old attraction rusting away in Gatlinburg (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Local lists the best hidden secrets that are part of Gatlinburg’s rich history

One of the most pleasing – and occasionally frustrating – things about life in a tourist town is the nature of change. Things can come and go quickly. Certainly, some institutions become iconic and stand the test of time (hello Pancake Pantry). That said, there seems to be little rhyme or reason why some things last and others fade.

Currently, I’m mourning the passing of the Cheese Cupboard in the Village Shops. Should I have expected a specialty cheese shop to survive in Gatlinburg? I don’t know. The socks store is still open. But soon, the area will forget about the gouda things that went on there. However, that doesn’t mean the past is always erased. In this article, I will discuss the hidden secrets and the links to Gatlinburg’s past that can still be found if you know where to look. 

Gatlinburg is always changing and ever-evolving. But without a lot of room to expand on the main strip, links to the past get lost or built over. Still, if you know where to look for a handful of hidden secrets, real-world Easter eggs will remain, including relics from the past like old churches, cemeteries or abandoned parks.

A sign for the Appalachian club in Elkmont
The Appalachian Clubhouse was once a place for the elite to socialize (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. The Appalachian Clubhouse

In the decades before the National Park, lumber companies set up shop in the mountains. The aggressive work of these companies helped push the National Park movement forward because the idea was to protect the forest before the logging companies chopped it down. One such operation was the Little River Lumber Company operating in the tiny community of Elkmont, which is not terribly far outside Gatlinburg’s modern-day city limits.

In 1910, the lumber company donated 50 acres of land to a group of civic and business leaders to establish a sportsman’s club. Over time, that club’s membership transitioned from hunters, trappers and fishermen to more of a social club. The Appalachian Clubhouse became a hotel for members and their guests and was the social hub for the elite who had cabins in the area. The original clubhouse burned in 1934 and was replaced by the current building – which has been renovated and preserved by the National Park Service. You can see the clubhouse and some other remnants of the Elkmont Community in Elkmont Campground, not far down Little River Gorge Road from Gatlinburg.

old abandoned chair lifts hang in the sky among trees
Several chairs from Fun Mountain are visible from a parking lot area (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

2. Fun Mountain

The lesson here, I believe, is that branding matters. In 1993, when I was a senior in high school, an ambitious venture launched in Gatlinburg. It should have been a success. Was it submarined by a series of branding blunders? I can’t say for sure. But you tell me, why else would a mountain theme park filled with carnival rides fail in an otherwise booming tourism town? Had they called it something cool, it might still be around today.

The problem? Let’s start with the name Fun Mountain. Really? That’s the best you got? At least give a little flair or spruce it up a little. Carnival Mountain? Located right at the confluence of Highways 441 and 321 in the heart of Gatlinburg, Fun Mountain was a theme park accessible by a chair lift that had bumper cars, go-karts, mini-golf and a variety of carnival-style rides. It lasted a mere seven years before most of the park’s rides and equipment was sold.

What remains of the park?

Fun Mountain went under, and all the pieces were sold away. Today all that remains is the rusting chairlift. They are still visible, dangling from the steel cables and a giant, somewhat inexplicable concrete pad. Ironically, as a Gen-Xer, I find the current version of the rotting Fun Mountain far more interesting than, say, the Do-Se-Do Scrambler. The remnants remain today in the back of the Tennessee 73 Scenic Parking lot. There are no trespassing signs after a point that must be respected.

white oak baptist church in black and white
The White Oak Baptist Church (public use photo)

3. White Oak Flats

Radford Gatlin – a controversial figure who seemed to be disliked anywhere he went – had lived in White Oak Flats for about two years when the town’s name changed to Gatlinburg. Gatlin owned the general store in which the Post Office was located. It’s thought that he somehow used this position to finagle the name change. He left town a few years later after feuding with members of the Ogle family on the location of the road that would become the main drag through town. Gatlin got his preferred road location but came to fear for his life and left.

The truth is that the more appropriate person to name the town after would have been Martha Jane Huskey Ogle. Martha’s husband William was known to visit the area and enjoyed hunting with the native peoples in the area. In 1802, he – with the help of the native Cherokee – began the work of sawing and hueing logs to make a homestead. He returned to South Carolina to collect Martha and their seven kids but needed to bring in a crop first to have provisions for the new home. He passed away before the family could move. Still, after a few years, Martha, her kids, and her brother Peter Huskey returned to the work William had started. The cabin was finished and the town which would become White Oak Flats was created. Martha was – in essence – Gatlinburg’s matriarch. And she never left.

White Oak Flats Cemetery

Martha passed in 1827 and was buried in White Oak Flats Cemetery – located behind Fannie Farkles and Ole Smoky Distillery’s “The Barrelhouse” today. You can visit her grave – as well as the graves of many other Ogles, Maples and the other early settlers of Gatlinburg. You can also visit the cabin that her husband started and she and her family finished. It has stood the test of time, as a school, then a hospital and a museum. It’s moved a couple of times over the years. Today it is on the site of the first church building in the community. It is right next to the big parking garage at the intersection of Highways 441 and 321 not far from the remnants of Fun Mountain.

In a place where land is as scarce and valuable as Gatlinburg, there’s not a lot of room for sentimentality. Progress marches on. Still, if you know where to look, or if you happen to see large, rusting lift chairs dangling somewhat inexplicably from the sky, then the history of Gatlinburg, White Oak Flats and the rest is right there to be found.

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