Elkmont combines hiking and GSMNP history

March 14, 2022

FOTS Classic Hikers at Elkmont

by Danny Bernstein, hike leader

Haley Stevenson stands by Huskey Gap Cascades
Haley Stevenson stands by Huskey Gap Cascades, along the Little River Trail. Photo by Danny Bernstein

A couple of days ago, Haley, Outreach and Marketing Coordinator for Friends of the Smokies, and I led our first hike in the Classic Hikes series 2022 – a loop in Elkmont outside Elkmont campground.

The hiking itself was easy, peasy but the sights on the way were amazing. I have been to Elkmont so many times, and there’s always something new.

There is evidence of settlements everywhere in the Smokies. But what makes Elkmont fascinating is that this settlement is not about people moving down from the Great Wagon Road and scratching out a living.

Millionaire’s Row, Society Hill, Daisy Town

This was a second home community or actually three communities – Millionaire’s Row, Society Hill and Daisy Town.

These homes — or really cabins — were built after the Little River Railroad Company, owned by Col. Townsend, cut down all the trees from here to the town of Townsend.

Families from Knoxville bought a small piece of land by the river and built a summer cabin. The mom and children spent the summer here while dad came on weekends.

Altogether, there must have been over 70 cabins. They built the Appalachian Club, a place to eat and socialize. They were not looking for privacy. They wanted to be next to others and have their kids run around with others.

These were not fancy houses, even if the name “Millionaire’s Row” tried to make them sound swanky.

Until the 1950s, the cabins didn’t have electricity. Knoxville had been electrified decades before. I don’t even want to think about their sewer system. The summer people probably thought they were roughing it.

Elkmont cabin
NPS is restoring some of the cabins in Daisy Town in Elkmont. Photo by Danny Bernstein

We find Little River Trail headed by the pink Spence Cabin. (Our group photo at the top of the blog post was taken on the terrace of the Spence Cabin.)

The house was owned by Alice Townsend, third wife of Col. Townsend. She was 33 years younger than him. She outlived him by that many years and died in 1969.

Once the park came in, officially in 1934, the government offered a partial payment to the homeowners for their property in exchange for a lifetime lease. And this is the crucial thing: partial payment. Most part-time owners took this deal, as this was not their primary home.

Government’s process to possess cabins

The leases were renewed several times for various reasons, but the bottom line was that the last family left June 30, 2001.

And then. What to do with the cabins? You can’t just leave them since the wood will rot and become a safety hazard.

We turn right on Cucumber Gap Trail in the woods – no houses here.

Hikers cross stream on Cucumber Gap Trail
Hikers cross a stream on the Cucumber Gap Trail. Photo by Danny Bernstein
Alice Morier Townsend gravestone
Hikers visited the cemetery where Alice Morier Townsend is buried. She was the third wife of Col. Townsend. Photo by Danny Bernstein

But another right takes us to Jakes Creek Trail and Society Hill with more signs of houses. Only Col. David C. Chapman’s house has been saved on this street. This is where the group has lunch.

We take a side trip to the cemetery where Alice Townsend is buried. But wait! Where is Col. Townsend? He’s buried in Pennsylvania next to his first wife.

And back to Daisy Town and our cars. Daisy Town is the best part.

After a tortuous public decision-making process, the park decided to stabilize 19 cabins (from one credible source) and tear down the rest.

Craftspeople have been working on the restoration for several years, and now some houses are open to the public. Most of the refurbished houses are in Daisy Town. The houses may have been in better shape.

Also the street is drivable – no hiking needed to see these houses. This is the first time since the park started working on the houses that you can go in a few of them. They are not furnished; this isn’t Disneyland or Sturbridge.

The people living around the Appalachian Club thought of themselves as very exclusive. Not everyone could join. So a second group built the Wonderland Hotel in another part of Elkmont.

You need to climb for about 10 minutes from the parking area to see the remains of this club. Other than the chimney, nothing was saved from this hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 2016.

This just skims the surface of history of the Elkmont Community. This is all in your national park – no entrance fee, no guide needed, just time and curiosity.

Outdoor writer and avid hiker Danny Bernstein is a member of the FOTS Hike Advisory team and brings more than 40 years of trail experience, having previously completed every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Trail, the Mountains to Sea Trail, South Beyond 6,000 Challenge, and three Caminos de Santiago. She is the author of five books related to hiking. Her blog is Hiker to Hiker.

Register for Classic Hikes

Classic Hikes of the Smokies are the second Tuesday of the month, from March through December.

The cost is $20 per hike for current members of Friends of the Smokies, and $35 for new and renewing members of Friends of the Smokies (includes one-year membership and hike registration).

The next hike is Porters Creek on April 12. You must register prior to the hike.

Trails Forever improves GSMNP trails

Proceeds from the Classic Hike series benefit Trails Forever.

Trails Forever logo

Friends of the Smokies established the Trails Forever endowment in 2012, thanks to a matching gift from the Aslan Foundation in Knoxville.

Today, the endowment has grown to more than $6 million and funds a full-time trail crew in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to reconstruct and rehabilitate some of the park’s most impacted trails.

The FOTS Trails Forever crew has restored Forney Ridge TrailChimney Tops TrailAlum Cave Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, and Abrams Creek Trail.

This year, the Trails Forever crew will be restoring Ramsey Cascades Trail.

Learn more about contributing to the Trails Forever endowment.

Thanks to our sponsors

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