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The story of Elkmont​: the wealthy resort town left abandoned

Updated: Feb 7

Buried deep within the tallest mountains of the Appalachian chain is Elkmont, Tennessee, one of the most visited ‘ghost towns’ in the entire region. Just minutes away from the highly popular town of Gatlinburg, Elkmont used to have a lively existence as a country club community for the elites.

Today, Elkmont poses as an attraction for guests and tourists in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the abandoned homes and resorts of the once-lively town still stand. However, the full story of Elkmont carries far more depth than existing as a vacant ‘ghost town.’

Prior to the introduction of industrial lumber operations, this land existed as a small community where several families lived and farmed. Before it was coined the name Elkmont, it was known as the Upper Little River. Although, as territorial expansion grew rapidly during the 19th century, the foundation of this soon-to-be bustling area emerged.

At the beginning of the 1900s, sources of timber diminished in the North, prompting lumber companies to look towards the Appalachian region, where they discovered low-cost land and wood. Wealthy entrepreneur Colonel Wilson B. Townsend quickly purchased a vast acreage of land and established the Little River Lumber Company. From this, the town of Elkmont began.

“You really cannot talk about the cabins up there unless you talk about that logging town, because that is the foundation of what happened there,” said Brad Free, Ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Not even two decades later in 1918, Elkmont thrived with a population of 1500, the second largest town in Sevier County, Tenn. The array of scenic beauty and the mild climate landscape within the mountaintops of Appalachia also attracted visitors to the area.

With an influx of tourists, including the wealthy residents of Knoxville, the Appalachian Club and Wonderland Club opened their doors. Over several years, these clubs transformed into one luxurious colony that consisted of private lodges owned by Knoxville's professors, government officials and business owners.

The 1920s were a prominent time for the cultivation of Elkmont. In 1934, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was established in this area of Appalachia, and the families residing in Elkmont decided to keep their cabins under lifetime leases.

“The small, once-thriving logging and tourist town officially became a ghost town with no one living here; the buildings emptied and devoid of the thriving events they once had,” said Jasmin Diaz, from the Smoky Mountains blog.

The government initially planned to destroy all remaining parts of this town, just as they did with others in the surrounding area. However, Elkmont was registered for mass restoration by the National Register of Historic Places.

Preservation agencies restored nearly 20 historical structures, conserving the virtue of this once-bustling town. Over a dozen cabins have been fully restored, as well as multiple buildings from the town itself and the prominent Appalachian Club.

As for the structures that were not part of this renovation process, their remnants still stand for tourists to visit on foot. Even though they are now rundown and shabby, several of the chimneys, staircases and foundations remain, just right off the main Elkmont trail.

Today, thousands of visitors flock to the Elkmont area between May and June of each year to witness the incredible sight of synchronous fireflies. This special spectacle is unique to the area as tens of thousands of these exceptional lightning bugs assemble in swarms to flash together in harmony in search of a mate.

Elkmont poses as the only area in the entire Western side of the planet with such a large population of fireflies at once. This region of Appalachia has gathered significant international attention over the past several years, and the visitor rate is only rising.

This, in turn, refurbishes the legacy of Elkmont by commemorating it with the exquisite beauty of nature. There is no infamous ghost story that trails along with the history of Elkmont, nor was it ever really a ghost town at all. What is remembered of Elkmont is all that remains: preserved cabins accompanied by the twinkling of fireflies.

“I tell you something about Elkmont,” said Eddie Tipton, Elkmont resident. “It’s a magical place. When I come up here, I feel close to God. I love this place, my favorite place in the world to be.”

Photos taken by Marisa Sardonia.


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