A trip to Elkmont, Tennessee, is sure to be filled with mystery and storytelling. Once a settlers’ village, then a logging community, its lively existence came to an end as a wealthy visitors’ country club community that Smoky Mountains National Park let fade into its current dilapidated state.
Just 15 minutes from Gatlinburg, Elkmont offers hiking and exploring opportunities. There are trails, a cemetery, dilapidated buildings to admire from outside and refurbished buildings that can be explored and even rented for special occasions.
First, let us tell you about Elkmont. Becoming an abandoned ghost town didn’t happen overnight. In fact, many of the residents tried to keep it alive. We’ll get to that.
Located on Little River, Elkmont attracted settlers in the 1800s who were homesteaders, hunters, squatters, and small-scale loggers. They established farms and built cabins creating the Little River community.
Robert Trentham was one of the first settlers in Elkmont, according to historical documents and studies. His cabin was built in 1845. The cabin is now known for his son, Levi Trentham, who left his mark on Elkmont’s history as a mountaineer, skeptic of outsiders and store owner.
Known as “the prophet of the Smokies” and the mayor of Elkmont, Levi Trentham inherited his father’s land in 1905. He had the land surveyed, then sold plots to sport hunters and industrialist W. B. Townsend. Townsend incorporated Trentham’s land in his large-scale logging enterprise, the Little River Lumber Company, which he started in 1900.
The Logging Years
Townsend and a group of fellow Pennsylvanians bought almost 80,000 acres of land to start the company. For about 40 years, commercial logging was intense in the area with Little River Lumber Company cutting 560 million board feet of lumber out of the Great Smoky Mountains, according to Little River Railroad Museum.
Log camps, such as Elkmont and Tremont, served as homes for workers and their families during these times. With the expansion of the railroad by the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, the tourism industry boomed. The railroad opened the “Elkmont Special,” a two-and-a-half-hour scenic tour that cost $1.90 and included stops in Maryville, Walland, Kinzel Springs, Townsend, Line Springs, Wonderland Park, and Elkmont, according to the Tennessee Museum.
Wealthy visitors taking daytrips began to want to stay over. In 1910, the railroad company sold 50 acres of land to a group of wealthy Knoxville businessmen called the Appalachian Club. The club began as a way for the men to get away to hunt and fish, families started joining them on the weekend and summer excursions, leading to the building of a clubhouse and cottages to make the land more family friendly.
Membership into this club was quite exclusive, so in 1912, three brothers from Knoxville bought 65 acres from the LRLC and opened the Wonderland Hotel in June of the same year. The Wonderland area soon became its own club, only two miles from the Appalachian Club. Over the years, the two vacation communities evolved into a favorite vacation spot for wealthy families to escape the summer heat. Parties would often end with a boisterous round of singing the local song “Elkmont Will Shine.”
“Elkmont will shine tonight, Elmont will shine.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
In 1961, the Elmont Campground was opened, bringing people from all over the country to Elkmont. The campground is still open and is a popular place for visitors to come for the annual synchronous fireflies spectacle. Each and every year in the Smoky Mountains, for a magical few nights in June, one of the 19 species of fireflies (lightning bugs) in the park – the Photinus carolinus – synchronize their flashing pattern. (For more on the fireflies, see our blog post.)
Club members were key to protecting and preserving the land and creating the national park, which today is the most visited national park in the country.
In 1927, the LRLC sold 76,507 acres for the park. More land was needed to create the park, but there were people living on it. While many people were forced to leave their land when they sold to the park, the clubs were able to stay, negotiating lifetime leases. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940, “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”
In 1952, the however, those leases were changed to 20-year leases to placate power companies who wanted a guarantee the cabins would be there if they committed to expanding power to the area, according to news reports. Those leases were renewed them in 1972. In 1992, however, the National Park Service declined another renewal and took over the land, which included Elkmont, leading to the town’s total abandonment.
How Elkmont Looks Today
Today only eighteen of the 70 buildings are to be preserved by the National Park Service. The Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin were rehabilitated in 2010 for day use. Park crews also completed preservation work on four additional cabins in 2017. These four cabins are now open to the public to walk through and view.
While the remaining cabins are closed to the public until preservation work can be completed, visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot. Hiking the Jakes Creek and Little River trails leads visitors past the stone walls and chimneys that mark the former locations of the other resort cabins that once stood in Elkmont and were allowed to deteriorate.
Wonderland Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, however it collapsed in 2005. Several homes around it were in such disrepair that the NPS marked the buildings for removal. Unfortunately, the Wonderland Hotel annex site completely burned down in 2016.
The Appalachian Clubhouse constructed in 1934 has been rehabilitated by the National Park Service to closely resemble its original appearance, with the addition of electricity and running water. The 3,000 square foot clubhouse is today a perfect location for meetings, events and celebrations with the charm of exposed wooden beams and massive stone fireplaces.
The Clubhouse is available for use from April 1 – October 31. The Clubhouse is rented on a daily basis and may be used from 10:00 AM through 8:00 PM. The rental fee is $250 per day, Monday through Thursday, and $400 per day Friday through Sunday. Group size is limited to 96 people. Reservations and more information including a map and photographs are available by searching for “Appalachian Clubhouse” at www.recreation.gov.
Take a tour:
Memories of Elkmont:
Residents and visitors to the area during its social heyday have fond memories and reflect on them in this video from a 2011 reunion.
Vicki Matthews Rawden who was born in 1946 visited the area as a child, as her father did. His parents bought a cabin there when he was six years old in 1922, she says in the video. She played with other kids visiting the area, mostly from Knoxville.
“We’d all run up and down the line and we’d play Scrabble and cards and stay up real late and laugh and carry on,” she said. “It’s like heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Here’s a Pinterest page for Elkmont History that is worth browsing as well.
Getting to Elkmont:
From Gatlinburg, take East Parkway to Baskins Creek Parkway. Continue on Baskins Creek Parkway to U.S. 441 S./Parkway. Take Fighting Creek Gap Road, then follow the sign off Fighting Creek Gap Road for the Elkmont Campground. When you reach the campground itself, there will be a little road off to the left called Little River Rd. “That will skirt you around the east side of the campground and around behind it. Keep going until you eventually reach the Jakes Creek Trailhead parking area and you will essentially be in the middle of the Elkmont Historic District.”
From here, visitors can walk around the area and explore. Find the Old Elkmont Cemetery. Personally, I love a good cemetery, and The Old Elkmont Cemetery is a good one – located in a clearing in the mountains.
Check out this video:
More Ways to Learn About the Elkmont Ghost Town in the Smokies
After a visit to Elkmont, find out more about logging and the railroad at Little River Railroad Museum in nearby Townsend. Founded in 1982, the non-profit corporation was created to preserve the heritage of the Little River Lumber Company and the Little River Railroad. There’s even a replica of the Elkmont Post Office.
The larger artifacts, including Shay 2147, a vintage caboose (L&N Class NE “Little Woody”), two vintage flatcars, a portable Frick steam engine, one of the original “setoff” houses (used for logging families in the mountains), a wooden water tank that was used in Walland and a log loader are displayed on the grounds. Our plans include construction of a replica of a passenger platform.
In 1983 the original Walland Depot building was moved to the site, and now contains the primary collection of photographs, papers, tools and other smaller artifacts. This building was renovated in 1995-96, and new exhibits were created to tell the Little River story.
Find the museum at 7747 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy, Townsend, (865) 661-0170. A one-time visit is free or become a member with a tax-deductible donation – a year or a lifetime.
And for even more, here some books about Elkmont:
Last Train to Elkmont: A Look Back at Life on Little River In The Great Smoky Mountains
Ready to book your trip to The Great Smoky Mountains and take a trip to Elkmont?
American Patriot Getaways staff are ready to help you find the perfect cabin for relaxing and playing and getting to Elkmont and all the other historic sites in the national park.
Give American Patriot Getaways a call at 800-204-5169. Let our experts help you find the right cabin and all the right fun, food and entertainment.
Check out our Travel Guide for everything to do and many of our cabins.