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A Short History of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

The area surrounding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a rich history. Whether you’re planning a vacation to the area or just curious about its history, the following information will give you a general idea of the history of this area.


Gatlinburg Origins


The city of Gatlinburg was once known as White Oak Flats. Later on, the city derived its name from a businessman with the last name “Gatlin.” For many in the early Gatlinburg community, logging operations were a primary source of income.


Although most visitors recognize Gatlinburg as one of the highlights of Tennessee, it was almost excluded from Tennessee’s territory. In 1784, a territory known as Franklin petitioned to become the 14th state in the United States. When the governor of Franklin, John Sevier, was arrested for treason, the territory collapsed and Gatlinburg became part of Tennessee.


About Radford Gatlin, Gatlinburg’s Namesake


The city was named after Radford Gatlin, a businessman with ties to the area. Gatlin’s general store was the home to the town’s first post office, which is how it eventually became known as Gatlinburg.


This story has a strange twist, though. Because Gatlin was in constant conflict with other residents, they ran him out of town in 1859. Thus Gatlinburg is named after a man greatly hated by his peers!


Significant Historical Developments in Gatlinburg


William Ogle was the first person to decide to permanently settle in the Gatlinburg area. The local Cherokee helped him cut, hew and notch lots in the flats in preparation to build a cabin the following year.


When he returned to Edgefield to get his family, malaria claimed Ogle’s life in 1803. His widow moved to Virginia to be with family. Later, she and her brother, along with her daughter and her daughter’s husband, made the trek to Gatlinburg. When they arrived, they found William Ogle’s logs and used them to build a cabin. That cabin stands to this day.


The conflict of the Civil War impacted the residents of Gatlinburg. Although most of the residents were pro-Union, Radford Gatlin held pro-Confederate views that eventually resulted in his expulsion from the area.


Gatlinburg, however, tried to remain neutral during the war. When Confederate Colonel William Holland Thomas led a legion to occupy the town and its mines, federal forces worked to drive out Thomas’ men. When the Union’s forces marched on the town, the Confederate soldiers were forced to retreat to North Carolina.


Pigeon Forge Origins


Around 1820, Isaac Love built an iron forge near Little Pigeon River. The iron forge and its proximity to the Little Pigeon River inspired the name “Pigeon Forge” for this little town in Sevier County, Tennessee. The iron forge is now called Old Mill, a popular tourist destination for Pigeon Forge visitors.


Significant Historical Developments in Pigeon Forge


Colonel Samuel Wear become one of the earliest permanent white settlers to the area after 1783. This Revolutionary War veteran created a “fort” as a safe resting place for early pioneers in the area. He later became a member of the committee that drafted Tennessee’s state constitution.


Religion played a significant role in Pigeon Forge’s early history. Circuit preachers to the area created a massive Methodist following, giving birth to a Methodist population that remains in the area to this day. In 1808, Bishop Francis Asbury delivered a sermon in Pigeon Forge. Christians erected a log church at the site where he preached, memorializing this event.


Early tourists to the area visited Pigeon Forge because of the extensive religious revivals in the Middle Creek area. These revivals could last for weeks at a time and drew tourists from all over the region.


Development of Tourism in Pigeon Forge


When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was opened in 1934, there was no tourism to Pigeon Forge. Although some campgrounds and lodges cropped up in the following decades, travel to the area did not occur until the second half of the 20th century.


Pigeon Forge became a tourist destination because Gatlinburg had limited land resources for development. Local families held the available land, unwilling to allow outside businesses develop the area. This forced entrepreneurs to develop land elsewhere, causing many of them to land in Pigeon Forge.


In 1985, plans for Dollywood were proposed to actor and singer Dolly Parton. The park expanded over the years and now features both an amusement park and a water park. Live entertainment and year-round attractions bring tourists to both Pigeon Forge and Dollywood.


The Formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park


In 1911, United States Congress passed the Weeks Act, allowing the government to purchase land for national forests. Influential figures from the area wanted to create a park similar to Yellowstone or Yosemite in the Smokies. In 1926, the government purchased 76,000 acres of land that eventually became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


The park now covers over 500,000 acres, offering scenic views and hiking trails to the public. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States and is one of the largest natural areas in the eastern US.

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