The idea to create a national park in these mountains started in the late 1890s. A few farsighted people began to talk about a public land preserve in the cool, healthful air of the southern Appalachians. A bill even entered the North Carolina Legislature to this effect, but failed. Ultimately, the drive to create a national park became successful in the mid-1920s, with most of the hard working supporters based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina.
In May, 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that provided for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. This allowed the Department of the Interior to assume responsibility for administration and protection of a park in the Smokies as soon as 150,000 acres of land had been purchased.
But buying the land was difficult, even with the money in hand. There thousands of small farms, large tracts, and other miscellaneous parcels that had to be surveyed, appraised, dickered over, and sometimes condemned in court. The timber and paper companies had valuable equipment and standing inventory which required compensation.
Worse, in some ways, were the emotional losses to people who had to walk away from their homes. A later survey of the displaced people showed that about half took the money and ran and were glad to have it; while the other half expressed feelings from mild inconvenience to outright hostility.
Some people were allowed to stay under lifetime leases, particularly if they were too old or too sick to move. Younger ones were granted leases on a short-term basis, if they wanted to try to stick it out. However, they could not cut timber, hunt and trap at will, or otherwise live as they always had.
The first Superintendent of the new park arrived in 1931. By 1934, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal government. Congress thus authorized full development of public facilities.
Much of the early development of facilities and restoration of early settlers’ buildings was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an agency created during the Depression to provide work and wages for unemployed young men. The CCC worked from 1933 to 1942 when World War II finally shut the program down. Many of the trails, campgrounds, and the beautiful stone bridges and buildings are examples of their work.
The park was formally dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940. He spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap astride the Tennessee - North Carolina state line.