Friday, November 23, 2007

My Kind of Town: An Abandoned One

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique for many reasons. One thing that makes it stand out from so many other parks of similar size is that it was created from largely private lands during the Great Depression. Because of this, the Park Service felt the need to negotiate, along with cash payments, certain grants from which other National Parks are exempt. Among the privileges granted in this earlier time which have grown problematic are that no entrance fees be charged, that most of the park is accessible and open to horseback riders, and that a small section of the park contained private lodges and second homes for which leases were extended until well after the establishment of the park boundaries.

(All that remains of the old Wonderland Hotel. My wife and I stayed here shortly before they lost their National Park lease. Our stay was pleasant, and in retrospect, it would have been nice if the Park Service had continued the lease/concession on that old-style hotel.)


This last agreement has proven, in recent years, to be a bit of a legal pain in the ass for the Park Service. When the park was formed, an area adjacent to Gatlinburg known as Elkmont contained a hotel, several private lodges, and dozens of vacation homes owned by wealthy landholders. With the added clout of these wealthy folk, they were able to negotiate lifetime leases that extended their ownership in most cases until the early 1970s, and in at least one case, the year 2001. The hotel, known as The Wonderland Hotel, was operated on a concession basis until 1992, much in the tradition of some of the lodges and hotels in our western National Parks.

(We wandered around empty ground where once we had stayed in a rustic hotel room.)

The lease/concession on The Wonderland was not renewed and the hotel was shut down. The many cabins, and the hotel, were then allowed to begin to slowly deteriorate while the Park decided how to best proceed to remove these structures and allow the remainder of Elkmont to revert to its natural state as a second growth forest.

All of this would have come to pass years ago were it not for a group of meddlesome troublemakers who decided that these rotting, worthless structures were “historical landmarks” and that they should be protected and renovated. Fortunately for those of us who wish to see the parklands restored to their natural state, the bulk of the Wonderland Hotel finally did collapse and was removed. However, this left several lodge buildings and dozens of cabins still standing in various parts of Elkmont. If left to their original plans, the Park Service would long ago have removed these unsightly shacks and allowed the forest to regenerate. But because of various legal challenges, these stacks of rotting wood, rusting tin, and tilting rock are still mucking up the scenery.


Here’s hoping that spontaneous combustion, Father Zeus, Thundering Thor, or some enterprising gremlin will destroy these disgusting monuments to minor wealth and privilege. There are, quite literally, thousands of similar disgusting developments ringing in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a virtual cancer of urban sprawl. It will be most welcome to see this horrid one gone from its place within one of our most beautiful and precious National Parks. May Elkmont soon begin to be allowed to revert to its natural state as a grand cove hardwood forest.

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