Depending on who you talk to – or what you see on the internet – there are some wild theories about happenings within the thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Perhaps the most well-known missing persons case in the Smokies is the mystery of Dennis Martin.
Dennis, at the age of only 6, disappeared in the mountains without a trace in 1969, never to be seen again.
Volunteers, boy scouts, national guard members, multiple rescue squads and even a group of 71 Green Berets came and searched for the boy. Helicopters arrived as well.
It was one of the longest and most extensive searches for a lost person in the park.
Ultimately, multiple search and rescue efforts turned up nothing.
So what happened to him?
Approximately 12 million tourists came to visit the Great Smoky Mountains last year, making it the most visited national park in the United States.
The mountains are vast and beautiful. But they can also be deep and unforgiving.
There are hundreds of thousands of miles of old-growth forest in the deep woods of North Carolina and Tennessee.
In that kind of wilderness, it doesn’t take more than a moment for a life to be forever changed.
What happened to Dennis Martin?
The Martin family was on a camping trip on Father’s Day weekend in June of 1969.
Dennis, along with his brother (Douglas), father (William) and grandfather (Clyde), started at Cades Cove and hiked to Russell Field where they camped overnight. Afterward, they made their way to Spence Field.
They had met with another group visiting the area, ironically also named Martin.
Dennis and his brother and new friends played a prank in the form of a sneaky surprise on the adults.
But Dennis never emerged from his hiding spot. Only minutes had passed. They quickly searched for him, but he was never found.
Clyde hiked out to the Park Rangers Station, but a massive storm had arrived. Weather is believed to have hampered the search.
Other unsolved disappearances
But Dennis is not the only young person to disappear in the mountains.
Trenny Lynn Gibson disappeared while on a field trip. The group planned to hike to Andrews Bald, nearby the observation tower. Trenny reportedly walked ahead on the trail by herself and was never seen again.
While I had heard of six-year-old Dennis Martin, I was unfamiliar with so many others who have seemingly disappeared without a trace in the Smokies.
So, to take a closer look at some of these unsolved mysteries, I purchased the book “Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains”.
The book is broken up into three main sections: Those who vanished without a trace, the “puzzlers” and finally, deliberate disappearances.
The “puzzlers” discuss a couple of cases that date back to the early 1900s.
The ones who vanished without a trace
To me, this was the most interesting section of the book.
In my opinion, the authors Juanitta Baldwin and Ester Grubb do a good job of being respectful to the missing persons and their families. I believe it is important to treat such heavy matters delicately.
Even as I type these words, I find myself wondering if a loved one from these impacted individuals will ever come across my words. When there is no closure, I imagine one could spend a lifetime looking for clues and answers online.
It is important to read through pages about these cases instead of only headlines and 30-second Tik Tok videos.
The book details the search efforts and the families behind them. In some cases, you even get to hear from the families through published written letters. For example, Hope Collins, Trenny’s mother, writes a letter about coming to terms with her loss.
The ones who vanished without a trace include the cases of Thelma Pauline Melton, Trenny Gibson and of course, Dennis Martin.
Thelma Melton, commonly referred to as Polly, walked ahead of some of her friends along Deep Creek Campground and disappeared. She was 58.
There are rumors about what might have happened. But they are only rumors. No clear evidence has been discovered.
Trenny, as mentioned above, was on a field trip with her classmates from Bearden High School to visit Clingmans Dome and hike to Andrews Bald off the Appalachian Trail.
Many of these stories are similar. Often, a reward is offered for any information. Park rangers, park officials and even special forces come to look for those missing.
These stories are haunting. It’s maddening to think back on those critical moments and wonder what might have happened, or how it could have been different.
The deliberate disappearances
The book also discusses a few cases of people who likely did not want to be found.
Often, fugitives on the run hide in the thick growths of trees and fog within the more than half a million acres of land in the national park.
However, the book notes that in many cases, a body is found.
But that was not the case for William Bradford Bishop, Jr., and Eric Robert Rudolph.
However, a 2006 update revealed that Rudolph was finally captured in North Carolina. Bishop is still wanted by the FBI.
Where to get the book Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains
The book was first published in 1998 and then updated in 2009. The authors are Juanitta Baldwin and Ester Grubb.
Baldwin, a writer and psychologist, has also written “Smoky Mountain Mysteries”, “Smoky Mountain Ghostlore” and “Smoky Mountain Tales”.
Grubb is a photographer and certified physical education teacher.
The book also includes a map that shows where each person went missing.
The book is sold in visitor centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and online at smokiesstore.org. Proceeds go to the preservation of the park.
You can also order the book online at Amazon.
What about Derek Lueking?
This missing person case is not in the book because it is more recent. However, it’s another well-known unsolved mystery of the Smokies. Derek Lueking disappeared about ten years ago.
Multiple sources collaborate that he was staying at a hotel near Cherokee, North Carolina near the national park.
His car was found near Newfound Gap. Inside, it had survival gear that included items like a pocket knife and sleeping bag. Mysteriously, it also had a note instructing others to not look for him. It is unclear who wrote it.
Some believe he at least had a backpack and/or granola bars on him when he disappeared.
Investigations were launched, but the case is still a mystery.
Hiking safely in the Smoky Mountains
The national park service recommends hikers come to the mountains prepared.
Bring at least basic gear, plenty of water and a map.
It’s also wise to hike with a companion. There is safety in numbers.
If you must hike alone, let someone know your route and your expected return time. Also, tell them to contact the park if you do not return as expected at (865) 436-1230.
Have you visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What strange disappearances have you heard about? Let us know in the comments below.