The next day, we headed back into the park and visited Elkmont. You may have heard of Elkmont, since it was recently the center of a weird little news story that went viral last month. A hiker posted a video on Youtube, where he awkwardly stated that he “discovered an abandoned neighborhood” in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The video got picked up by a hiking website, then by the Huffington Post. Soon news sites were spreading the story of a mysterious town, long abandoned and unknown being found like it was the lost city of Atlantis.
Yahoo News poetically stated that the hiker “followed an unmarked gravel road through thick forest up a hill to where a staircase covered in grass leads to the front of the site.” Which makes one imagine Indiana Jones using a machete to clear a path to Elkmont through thick jungle. A lucky hiker finding a “town that time forgot,” right smack dab in the country’s most popular national park? How amazing!
Elkmont is a neat collection of abandoned buildings, but it was hardly forgotten, lost or stashed away in secret. The largest campground in the national park is at Elkmont. The town is close to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, and along the busy road that leads to Cades Cove. Thousands of people visit the old cabins at Elkmont every year, and you can actually drive right up to them. If the people who mindlessly spread the news story had made a quick Google search, they could have found thousands of pictures of Elkmont.
Like this one!
We parked and went to have a look at the buildings. Elkmont got its start in 1908 by the Little River Lumber Company, who established a base there. A few years later, they began selling plots of land to hunters and fisherman from Knoxville. The Appalachian Club and the Wonderland Park Hotel would soon open, attracting more visitors. By the 1920's, Elkmont was the top vacation spot for Knoxville’s rich and famous.
Several large cabins and cottages were constructed, many of which are still standing today.
When the National Park was created in 1933, the cottage owners were granted lifetime leases. Those leases were coverted into twenty years leases, but the National Park Service refused to renew them in 1992. The park wanted to tear down all of the old buildings, and let the land return to nature.
In 1994, the Wonderland Hotel and several of the cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This resulted in a debate about the fate of the Elkmont buildings. Save them for their historic value or remove them and give the land back to the forest?
In 2005, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed. But the National Park Service decided to go ahead and preserve the Appalacian Club and 18 of the most notable and historic buildings. The rest will be removed, unless gravity and the weather don’t complete the job first.
It is a little creepy at some of the buildings, this probably wasn’t the best place to visit right before Halloween. Some buildings would still be in decent shape, while others were trashed out. Foundations had sunk in a few buildings, dropping the floor a few feet. Doors had rotten off their hinges, and daylight streamed through holes in the walls and ceilings. All of it with the little hint of sadness that haunts old abandoned places like this.
Several old buildings sit along Jakes Creek, which must have been prime real estate when these were built. Some of them have already collapsed, others were closed off with tape.
It reminded me a lot of the old ghost towns along Route 66. Once grand relics of another era, that are being slowly worn down by time. We spent a few hours here, and still didn't see all of the buildings there. Guess we'll have to go back and "discover" them next time!