Along the scenic Fighting Creek Gap Road that runs between Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, is a mostly ignored sign that points the Elkmont Campground. Most people who aren’t camping drive right by it without ever knowing that tucked behind the modern park service campground is a ghost town created by the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What’s more, it can be visited and explored for free by anyone who knows where to find it.
What began as a logging town in 1908 for the Little River Lumber Company eventually morphed into a vacation village for those who enjoyed fishing, trapping, and hunting. The lumber company logged most of the northern slopes of what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the early part of the century. Eventually, it created a railroad between Elkmont and Townsend to move the enormous logs out to the sawmill. The current road to Elkmont is the roadbed of the old rail line. The first owners of the original homes were employees of the lumber company and spent their days cutting and dragging down the huge trees that covered the mountains that surrounded them.
Once the lumber had been played out, a group of businessmen from nearby Knoxville began buying the properties and expanding the services available. A social clubhouse of sorts called the Appalachian Club was built and later a large 50-room hotel known as the Wonderland Lodge was established to house tourists. The lodge was built a couple of miles to the north of Elkmont and was a large and comfortable place surrounded on all sides by the wilderness. It featured all the modern creature comforts of the day, yet offered guests as much nature as they could handle—including many encounters with the black bears who called the area home.
When the federal government set its sights on creating a new national park in the area in 1925, the lumber company sold the government the initial 76,000 acres of the land it had mostly already logged, including the land surrounding Elkmont. The government, as governments do, decided it couldn’t have a privately owned vacation village inside the boundaries of the new park, so it set up a deal to offer lifetime leases to the cottage owners of Elkmont for half what they were valued while forcing others whose homes were inside the boundaries to sell out and move.
However, in 1952, the government reneged and changed the leases to 20-year leases. In 1972, those leases were again renewed for another 20 years to mostly senior citizens by this time. Those leases ended in 1992, meaning the National Park Service could finally demolish the old homes. But before it could accomplish the demolition, the Elkmont Historic District and the Wonderland Hotel were placed on the National Historic Register.
After a couple of fires, the grand old Wonderland Hotel, which had been empty since 1992, collapsed on itself in 2005 and cleanup crews came in and removed the debris. This NPS, now with 80-some protected structures on its hands, was mostly befuddled as to what to do. It couldn’t tear the buildings down, so it seems the organization mostly tried to forget they existed and let the forest reclaim them. No signs or directions were published. The hope was that as time moved on, the area would be forgotten about and with almost no maintenance being performed, the district would be reclaimed by the recovering forest.
However, with the advent of the internet, the district began to be talked about and shared with visitors. The NPS began to do a little maintenance here and there to keep some of the properties from completely falling down. A good portion of the old homes was deemed too far gone to save and in 2017, a plan was put in place and approved to demolish those not worth saving.
The NPS still maintains the properties. Suggestions to turn the homes into vacation rentals are routinely declined. There are signs on most all of the properties warning visitors to keep out or face dire consequences.