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As Smoky Mountains National Park Turns 75, UNCA Professor’s Book Describes Unusual History

ASHEVILLE, NC – The history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is complicated, unique and full of human drama, and that’s just what fascinates UNC Asheville History Department Chair Dan Pierce.

Since he began researching the park in the 1990s as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Pierce has been surprised at every turn to learn that establishing Great Smokies National Park in the early 1900s was not the smooth process it was for the first parks in the West.

“In my research, I found out that much of what I thought I knew was wrong,” Pierce says. “What I did find was a compelling, complicated and unique story that still teaches us important lessons today.”

On September 2, 1940, thousands of people gathered with President Franklin Roosevelt at Newfound Gap dedicate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park (2002, University of Tennessee Press) tells how the 427,000 acres necessary to establish the park had to be bought from individuals and lumber companies, unlike Western parks that were already government holdings. So funds had to be raised and lawsuits brought by unwilling sellers had to be dealt with. “The park could never happen today,” Pierce says. “And it still seems hard to believe that it happened even then.”

Pierce explains how businessmen and politicians spearheaded the park’s creation as an economic boon, raising about $1 million of the necessary $5 million for land purchases. Donations came from rich and poor, school children and housewives. The states of North Carolina and Tennessee had promised to issue $2 million in bonds each, contingent on an additional commitment of $5 million. The park was at a stalemate when philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller rode to the rescue with the last $5 million—saving the park ideal by making available the $10 million needed for land purchases.

“The part of the book I have been proudest of—and probably have gotten the most comments on—is the chapter on the removal of the working-class farm families and the condemnation of their land. If I feel any sadness about the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is for the families who lost their homes, churches, businesses and communities.”

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