The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is soon to celebrate its centennial. A good hike in the mountains is a perfectly appropriate way to celebrate that. But so is a walk around downtown Knoxville.

That’s where much of it happened, where lawyers, bankers, and engineers began the work that made the big, complicated project a reality. By some accounts, what became the nation’s most popular national park started on Gay Street 100 years ago this December.

To set the stage, we may need to clarify that the Smokies were not always a popular or even practical destination. In fact, the mountains were not familiar to most Knoxvillians. We could see them to the south, on a clear day. But more a barrier than an attraction, they were tough to get to. By the early 1900s, lumber trains with passenger cars attached occasionally took well-connected Knoxvillians to Elkmont, a tiny community of workers’ cabins that became a rustic resort. Most of the mountains required overnight trips just to be able to see them up close, trips calling for a combination of train rides, hired wagon or horseback rides, and hiking, often without trails. For Knoxvillians, it was easier and quicker to get to Manhattan—on the direct, comfortable passenger train—than to get to a remote, exotic, forbidding place like Cades Cove.

Moreover, none of the Smokies were protected. All of the mountains were, for practical purposes, privately owned. Much of the area was cleared for farming, and much more of it purchased for timber; thousands of acres of the Smokies were denuded of their old-growth trees, for the lumber industry’s answer to a nation’s insatiable demand for houses and furniture.

That began to change in the early 20th century, with Elkmont and the development of a tourist resort in Gatlinburg, accessible at first by dirt roads. Those who made the trip came back to Knoxville raving about how beautiful it was. But only a few dedicated hikers had the time and resources to get into the mountains and behold their beauty up close.

Some of them were artists, like Charles Christopher Krutch, who’s honored with a public-art installation on the Gay Street side of Krutch Park, the downtown park established about 40 years ago by a bequest from his nephew. Because the Krutch family were known for their love of the Smokies, landscape designers worked to make the park seem reminiscent of the mountains. 

The story goes that an affluent Knoxville couple, Willis and Annie Davis, got the ball rolling to make a Smokies park permanent and national. Originally from Louisville, Ky., the Davises had come to Knoxville when he took an executive position with the Knoxville Iron Co. (Located in the Lonsdale area, about two miles northwest of downtown, it still exists as a corporate-owned steel mill.) Annie Davis was a Bryn Mawr graduate full of ideas. They’d been on a grand tour of Western parks, like Yosemite. By all accounts, it was Annie who said, why can’t we do something like this with the Smokies?

They didn’t keep the idea a secret. Knoxville had three daily newspapers at the time, and the most progressive of them was Scripps-Howard’s new paper, published in the old Commerce Building at 126 S. Gay Street, The Knoxville News. Its newsroom was at the site of what’s now Addison’s Bookstore. Its editor, Edward Meeman, a U.S. Navy veteran from Indiana who then lived in an apartment in the Hutson Building on Clinch Avenue, was immediately sold on the idea, and extolled it in an August, 1923, editorial: “The beauty of the mountains will not preserve itself. Man must save his world from defacement by his own restless activity. What East Tennessee needs is to have the Smoky Mountains made into a national park.”

Of course, Willis also loved his wife’s idea, and he was well-connected. He first proposed it at a meeting of the Knoxville Automobile Club. Founded back in 1904 by Cowan Rodgers, the former tennis champion and bicyclist who had introduced the first automobiles to Knoxville in 1898, primarily to build better paved roads for automobile travel, the club responded enthusiastically to Davis’s suggestion, partly just for the chance to promote safe roads for automobiles into the forbidding mountains. That meeting took place in a long-gone building, on State Street, just south of Church Avenue.

What happened next was more formal, in the top of a tall building that still stands on Gay Street. It was in the venerable law offices of Lindsay, Young, and Young—specifically in the office of Judge Hugh B. Lindsay, former chancellor and attorney general who at age 66 was one of Knoxville’s best known political figures. He’d been Republican nominee for governor in 1918, but did not campaign (that old gentlemanly habit of running without campaigning died out completely in the 20th century). Earlier that year, Lindsay had led the toasts for one of his colleagues, Judge E.T. Sanford, who had just been exalted to the U.S. Supreme Court.   

There in Judge Lindsay’s office On December 21, 1923, several men, most of them with at least a passing acquaintance with the auto club, founded an organization called the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. One of their goals discussed was to complete a road from Knoxville to the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina. But its main purpose, as stated, was to create in the Smokies “the first large national park east of the Rockies.” The Association would be the primary entity organizing the national park before the federal government took it over.

Willis Davis was up there, of course, along with Judge Lindsay. Rodgers, now a major regional automobile dealer, became the organization’s treasurer.

Pennsylvania-born J. Wylie Brownlee, North Knoxville real-estate developer and former Knoxville alderman and Chamber chair who somehow already spent much of his time in the mountains, in Gatlinburg and Elkmont, was secretary.

Attorney Daniel Clary Webb was on the executive committee; his son, Robert, would later found Webb School of Knoxville.

Originally from the town of New Market, James B. Wright, an attorney for the L&N, had during the war been an aide to Secretary of the Treasury W.G. McAdoo, helping him commandeer national use of railroads for the war effort.  

Also in the room was young Nashville-born attorney Forrest Andrews, who, homeschooled, grew up on a farm near Nashville, but attended Vanderbilt, and became a respected legal scholar.

It was not all of one accord. Though a member of that original executive committee, Wright became strongly opposed to the national-park ideal. He wanted to make the Smokies a national forest, available to be cut for timber. Lumber had been important to Knoxville manufacturing for more than half a century, and many other businessmen shared his feelings.

And in the room where it happened was also Col. David Chapman, a Main Street resident who had done time as an army officer training troops in the Great War, but in Knoxville was best known as a pharmaceutical executive whose wholesale business was on State Street. Though just an able attendee that night, the diminutive, bespectacled Chapman would become the main leader of the movement, would be the one to see his name on one of the Smokies’ highest mountains—Mount Chapman—and on the main road from Knoxville to the Smokies. His bust in bronze is in the foyer of the East Tennessee History Center.

No women are listed among those original organizers. Women had earned the right to vote only three years earlier, but in 1923, no one expected them to be leaders of an important organization that might call for dealing with many millions of dollars’ worth of property. As it turned out, though, Annie Davis would soon play a surprising leadership role.

This all happened high up in the “skyscraper” we know as the Burwell Building, on the southeast corner of Gay and Clinch. If you visit the restaurant-bar known as Clancy’s, you’re in the same building. The Tennessee Theatre was added a few years later.

That’s the event worth celebrating this December. But there are several other places in downtown Knoxville associated with founding the big park.

Farragut Hotel/Hyatt PlaceIn the mid-1920s, the building on the other side of Clinch Avenue, then known as the Farragut Hotel—now Hyatt Place—would host countless meetings concerning how the Smokies would look, especially those of the Rotary Club, which included most of the founders in its membership, and which took on the park as a major service project. The Farragut was Knoxville’s largest, newest, and most luxurious hotel, and its lobby became a gathering place for the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association itself, which hosted banquets there. The Farragut also welcomed dignitaries from Nashville or Washington, whether elected officials or members of the National Park Commission, who met here before cars picked them up for tours of the Smokies.

Farragut Hotel & Regional Attractions Postcard

In those days when service organizations tended to be segregated by gender, Annie Davis’s women’s groups met at the Farragut, too. The local League of Women Voters, of which Davis was president, and which hosted meetings specifically about the park project, sometimes met at the Farragut or the Clinch Avenue YWCA, or at other buildings no longer standing, like the St. James Hotel, the Health Center, and the Lyceum. She had a special role in the League of Women Voters, because she was one of city’s first women elected to public office. She served in the state legislature from 1925 to 1927, energetically working to get the state of Tennessee involved in purchasing land from lumber companies for inclusion in the new park.

The Farragut had a natural interest in the Smokies movement, assuming correctly—for a while at least—that tourists from all over the world would stay in Knoxville to see the Smokies. Even bellhops created their own fund to contribute to the Smokies park fund.

Aveda S&W Formerly City National BankAnd next to the Farragut to the north was an important building in the story. Though never quite demolished, it’s hard to discern now. The City National Bank stood in a columned, neoclassical building at 520 S. Gay, where the Aveda Institute, a school of beauty, is today. Although the old bank building saw a major redesign when it became the art-deco S&W Cafeteria in 1937, some of its interior walls are intact. The bank’s officers were mostly supporters of the Park project—notably its vice president, David Chapman. The bank became a sort of clearing house for donations large and small to the Smokies effort. Much of the financing that made the Great Smoky Mountains National Park possible—including the single biggest banking deposit ever made, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller gift of $5 million—was accepted, processed, and held here. It was national news, in March 1928, when two governors convened on this block, along with local, state, and federal officials, including the mayor, the state treasurer—and the acting director of the National Park Service, Arno Cammerer. Along with David Chapman, Ben Morton, Willis Davis—in all, at least four people who have mountains or other major features named for them, met here on that day to accept the Rockefeller gift which, everyone seemed to agree, made the National Park a sure thing. It made national news, and these esteemed movers and shakers posed for a rare photograph, one of the few times they were all together at once.

In fact, several spots downtown were once sites of dramatic developments in creating the park 30 miles to the south. The Arcade Building, for example, to the south of the Tennessee Theatre,Andrew Johnson Hotel with Courthouse contained the Knoxville Journal; still led by a Union veteran of the Civil War, the morning paper came to support the Park movement, and was once a gathering place for Smokies hikers, and a de-facto art gallery for both paintings and photographs of the Smokies. On Union Avenue, the Daylight Building, now home of Union Avenue Books, restaurant J.C. Holdway, and other businesses, presented a Smokies-themed art show in May 1927, featuring some of the best paintings of mountain landscapes to date. Again, the Smokies were not yet formally open to the public—its grand opening was seven years later—but the mountains were already inspiring dozens of artists who were coming to know them intimately. The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club sometimes met at the YMCA after its completion in 1929; it’s still there today. In the 1930s, the Y, known for its simple accommodations for single men, included among its tenants a lively minority of Smokies hikers, some of them famous, including, for a time, Benton McKaye, father of the Appalachian Trail and co-founder of the Wilderness Society, and influential conservationist Ernie Dickerman, who actually lived at the Y for many years. They spent their time in the mountains, and only needed the simplest of homes in Knoxville.

By the time the park was formally open, a new hotel much larger than the Farragut would open just down the sidewalk, near the Gay Street Bridge—and the Andrew Johnson (still standing today, in a slow transition from the office building it’s been for the last 40 years back into a hotel) was slightly closer to the mountains. In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, before there were many hotel rooms closer to the mountains, the AJ, which was then the tallest building in East Tennessee, would serve tens of thousands of Smokies tourists. Among them was Amelia Earhart, who took it as a challenge to drive an automobile solo across the still-rugged roads of the Smokies in 1936, and then gave a press conference at the Andrew Johnson.

The enormous mountain range, straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, included literally thousands of privately owned parcels, each with its own story. Some residents happily accepted the money offered for their family land; others resisted it. Some lumber companies who owned land were local, some international, and every one of them that owned land there had different attorneys, and different negotiating strategies for coming out ahead in the park movement. Most of the decisions that made it all happen took place in conferences or over the phone in downtown Knoxville.

Someday they may have plaques about the important decisions made there. But you can go see them today.