The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Blog Post #29

by Jane Van Ryan

The U.S. National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month and holding special events in parks across the country. In Virginia where I live, the Shenandoah National Park has waived entrance fees for a few days, encouraging visitors to hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just a few miles from Knoxville, does not charge an entrance fee but it shares a lot in common with the Shenandoah National Park. Both parks were launched at the same time by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926, and both required the purchase of land from family farmers and others who owned property in the designated areas. In the Smokies, lifetime leases were available for those who did not want to move, or could not move for health reasons.

Several prominent business and political leaders from Knoxville worked hard to secure enough land to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For them, the park was a way to save the mountains from being clear cut by loggers and to attract tourists:

Knoxville resident Col. David C. Chapman, a drug company heir, got involved when he became the leader of the Appalachian Club, which represented a group of people who owned homes in the Elkmont area. After he was appointed to the Tennessee State Park & Forestry Commission in 1925 by Gov. Austin Peay, he negotiated land purchases and helped to raise money to buy more land. Today he is known as the “Father of the Park,” and a portion of US 441—Chapman Highway—is named for him.

Ann Davis, the first woman elected from Knox County to the Tennessee State House of Representatives, pushed for the park’s establishment as early as 1923 after she and her husband W. P. Davis visited several national parks in the West. Apparently at her urging, W.P. started the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association and convinced the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to include a portion of Tennessee in the park. Initially, the park was planned to contain only land in North Carolina.

Photographs of 6,600 ft. tall Mt. LeConte taken by Knoxville brothers Jim and Robin Thompson were instrumental in encouraging the government to add some of East Tennessee to the park. Jim was an avid hiker and founder of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Most of the photographs have been attributed to him, but younger brother Robin was responsible for six aerial shots. Photography was the family’s passion. Their father founded Thompson Brothers Commercial Photography in Knoxville in 1902. Today the firm still exists as Thompson Photo Products.

Knoxville Mayor Ben Morton was a strong advocate for the park and helped to raise both financial and political support in 1925-26. In 1927, after his term as mayor had ended, he was appointed by the governor to the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains Commission which was chaired by Col. Chapman. In 1931, he helped negotiate the $3 million land settlement of 100,000 acres owned by the Champion Fibre Company, which ensured the park would become reality.

Many other notable personalities were intimately involved in the park’s success, including John D. Rockefeller Jr. who donated $5 million and all of the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide jobs to unemployed men during the Great Depression. During 1933-1942, about 4,000 men were assigned to 22 camps within the park where they built roads, bridges, trails and structures.

Rush Strong Hazen, 1880's

Back in the 1920s, Mayor Morton probably asked Evelyn Hazen’s father Rush Strong Hazen to make a contribution to the park. Based on Hazen’s reputation for generosity, it is likely he complied. Evelyn often complained that her father was too generous. She criticized him for paying off the church’s debts every year. Mr. Hazen also served on the Board of Directors for the First Exposition of Conservation, held in Knoxville in 1913.

Although Evelyn must have been aware of the community’s interest in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she probably was too preoccupied with her own problems to get involved. By the 1920s, she was engaged to Knoxville businessman Ralph Scharringhaus, who was always looking for ways to get her into compromising situations. For just one example, read my last blog post about the rendezvous at Chattanooga’s Hotel Patten.

Evelyn’s and Ralph’s 15-year-long engagement ended in scandal and a court case that was covered by newspapers all over the country. To read an account of their story, contact the Mabry-Hazen House and fine bookstores in Knoxville for a copy of my book The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen.