On June 15, 1934 it all officially came together at long last. Congress’ act dated that day noted that an area of 400,000 acres within the minimum boundary of the park had been acquired, and therefore it established the Great Smoky Mountains as a national park (GSMNP) with sufficient land for administration, protection, and development.
If you thought GSMNP was previously an enormous parcel of pristine wilderness just waiting to be christened a national park, think again! Merely acquiring the land took decades of work and millions of dollars.
By the late 19th century, logging had grown to become a major industry in the mountains. One socially unacceptable side effect was that cut-and-run style clearcutting was destroying the natural beauty of the area. As a response, there was a growing national interest, including from the National Park Service, in establishing a large national park in the southern Appalachians.
However, there was no parcel of federally-owned land large enough. The rolling mountains of forest that now make up GSMNP were then owned by many separate entities, primarily logging interests.
On May 22, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill committing the Federal government to administer the land for a national park in the Great Smokies as soon as Tennessee and North Carolina donated 150,000 acres, and to begin park development when the states had donated 423,000 acres. So, though Congress had authorized the park, there was no nucleus of federally-owned land around which to build such a park, and furthermore Congress did not want to spend any money to establish one — the bill explicitly declared that no federal funds would be used to purchase park lands.
Then there were the current owners of the proposed park land to contend with. The large lumber companies pulled out all stops, first to derail the project and, when that failed, to get the best possible price for their land. The Champion Fibre Company, owners of the largest land holdings in the proposed park, hired famed attorney Charles Evans Hughes to represent them and even bribed a lawyer hired by the Tennessee Park Commission to influence jury selection in a condemnation hearing. The process of taking all five of the major timber companies to court–in the case of the Suncrest Lumber Company to the U.S. Supreme Court–delayed the purchase of land until the late 1930s.
Private citizens from Tennessee and North Carolina pitched in to help assemble the land for the park, piece by piece. In 1927 the North Carolina and Tennessee state legislatures each committed two million dollars in bond funds to purchase land for the park. In 1928 John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the final five million dollars needed for land purchases.
With the money in hand, the state-appointed commissions faced the daunting task of buying land from over 4,000 individual homeowners who did not want to sell. As one resident put it: “They tell me I can’t break a twig, nor pull a flower, after there’s a park. Nor can I fish with bait, nor kill a boomer, nor bear on land owned by my pap, and grandpap and his pap before him.” Litigation costs and loss of pledge money due to the Depression quickly used up the available funds for land purchases.
The Department of the Interior and its head, Harold Ickes, found ways to circumvent the no-federal-funds-to-be-used proviso. In 1933 President Roosevelt issued an executive order to allocate $1,550,000 to complete land purchases in the park, justifying the expenditure as a means to “enhance the effectiveness and enlarge the opportunity” for Civilian Conservation Corps work in East Tennessee and western North Carolina. When this proved insufficient, Congress reversed its position and appropriated an additional $743,265.29 to secure the required 423,000 acres.