Today the former town of Elkmont, TN in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a magnet for lovers of the synchronous firefly display.
But in the early 1930s nature’s display was being outshone by political sparks flying in all directions. The previously bucolic summer haven for the socially prominent and wealthy members of Knoxville, Maryville, and Chattanooga was about to be changed beyond recognition, and tempers were high. There were two sides on the issue–one wished for a national park and one wanted the area to be preserved as a national forest. Colonel David C. Chapman was the driving force behind the national park; he wanted roads and facilities erected so all Americans could enjoy the area. He also believed the visitors would bring in money for local businesses.
James Wright, a Knoxville lawyer and owner of a cottage in Elkmont, led the opposition. A dedicated conservationist, Wright believed the area would be contaminated by hoards of crowds. He thought the area would be best protected if classified as a national forest.
In the end, the national park idea won out. Colonel W. B. Townsend had years earlier purchased 75,000 to 80,000 acres in the surrounding area in order to create the Little River Lumber Company. Now, by agreeing to sell 76,500 mountain acres to the state, which would then be transferred to the Federal Government, he became the linchpin in creating the new park. He agreed to give up his lumbering empire. The town was facing its demise, for the public was not allowed to reside in national parks. Logging operations were stopped and the government began to buy the homeowners’ property.
Great opposition arose from the residents and members of the Appalachian Club, a well established local sportsmen’s group. They hired James Wright to defend their rights in court. Neither side would back down and no compromise was in sight. The State Park Commission was faced with two conclusions: either exclude the area in question from the proposed park or acquire the lands through purchase at the discretion of the owners, and at their stated price. The National Park Service would not agree to the exclusion, and the Commission did not have the funds to pay the owners’ set prices.
The Commission and the Secretary of the Interior finally found a solution by devising a plan whereby the landowners would be offered long-term leases to live on the property, which would be purchased by the government at reduced rates. Upon grudging Congressional consent, the plan went into effect.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park became a reality in 1934, and the residents of Elkmont remained in their homes now owned by the Government.