A Brief History of Gatlinburg

The Indian Gap Trail followed the Little Pigeon River along what we now know as the Parkway, through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, then up and over the Smoky Mountains to present-day Cherokee in North Carolina. For centuries, the Cherokee used the trail for hunting the plentiful game that roamed the Little Pigeon riverbanks coursing through the mountains and valley.

William Ogle was the first settler in the flats of what would become Gatlinburg, the Cherokee helping him fall, hew, and notch logs for his cabin. He returned to South Carolina to gather supplies and his family but died of malaria before returning. After moving to Virginia for a brief time, his resolute wife Martha Huskey Ogle made her way down the Indian Gap Trail with her brother and daughter’s family to find the logs still waiting to be built into a cabin. They erected their cabin near the confluence of Baskins Creek and the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River, where the small home still stands today near the heart of Gatlinburg.

The area was first called White Oak Flats, with a steady stream of settlers moving into the area to take advantage of the plentiful game and incomparable scenery. Many of the newcomers were veterans of the American Revolutionary War who received 50-acre deeds after serving their new country, names like Ownby, Reagan, and Bohanon, whose descendants still live in the area today.

Radford Gatlin owned the general store in White Oak Flats, securing the rights to house the Post Office when it came to town circa 1857. The community was renamed Gatlinburg, though Gatlin feuded with his neighbors, likely over his attempts to divert the main road past his store. Gatlin found himself in a blood feud with several of the Ogles and fled town in 1859 after having his barn burned and much of his livestock killed. Gatlinburg did its best to stay neutral during the Civil War, enduring a skirmish on Burg Hill over Alum Cave’s saltpeter mines. The outnumbered Confederates lost, fleeing over the mountain to North Carolina.

Historic Gatlinburg

By the late 19th century, the newly-invented band saw and railroad were hungry for trees, and the Smokies had a lot of big, straight ones. Lumber companies began buying up vast tracts of Smokies forest land. Andrew Huff built a sawmill in Gatlinburg, with many residents providing lodging to loggers and to a steady trickle of tourists, who were attracted to the area by glowing write-ups about the wonders of the mystical mountains.

In 1912, the women’s fraternity Pi Beta Phi established a school for the area’s underserved youth, where they also sold local artisanal crafts. A nurse for the school found that the isolation of the mountain folks enabled them to retain much of their English and Scots-Irish heritage. The people were generally not in a hurry – life unfolded in seasonal rhythms of gardening, hunting, and staying warm through the cold winters.

By the early 20th century, the thickly forested mountains were being logged at a staggering rate, until Congress passed the Weeks Act to fund the formation of national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite and an initial 76,000 acres in the Little River Lumber tract, near present-day Townsend, was protected in 1926.

Andrew Huff saw the writing on the wall and shifted from logging to tourism, opening the Mountain View Hotel in 1916. His son Jack built the LeConte Lodge on top of the mountain in 1926. With the logging interests in Elkmont and the Tennessee legislature determined to stay the course, the park proposal was an uphill climb until, in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established to protect the last of the untouched forests.

The new Park completely reshaped Gatlinburg. From the first to second year, visitation went from 40,000 to 500,000. From 1940 to 1950, the cost of land in Gatlinburg increased from $50 to $8,000 per acre. The town grew into every available nook and cranny perched along the Indian trail spine, doing its best to accommodate the eager guests who came to take in the grand spectacle of the Smokies. Vacation cabins, storefronts, campgrounds, and parking lots stayed full during the peak seasons, just like we see today. Fortunes were made and memories replayed.

Gatlinburg is poised to remain a vibrant, activity-rich vacation destination as the gateway city to the Smokies. There’s something for everyone in this mountain town, with hikers, skiers, shoppers, and sightseers filling their vacation days with enjoyment. Let us all be grateful for the Creator of these wonderful mountains and the people who came before us, the original Americans and the settlers who saw the potential of the mighty Appalachians.

This is their story.