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A Short History of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

In the early 1800s, a young woman named Martha Jane Huskey Ogle, her seven children and other close family members decided to make the trek to the Great Smokey Mountains from South Carolina at the request of her deceased husband. White Oak Flats, Tennessee was founded in 1807 once Ogle and her family built a small cabin in the area that had previously only housed Native Americans. The area was named White Oak Flats due to the large white oak trees that dotted the area. Soon, other families, including the McCarters, Reagans and Whaleys, joined Ogle’s family to create a village, erecting the first building, a church, in 1835.

When the Civil War broke out among the North and the South, Gatlinburg attempted to remain neutral, but over time residents began to choose sides, dividing between the Union and the Confederate states. Although there was only one battle in Gatlinburg, it was raided several times for food and other supplies, leaving the town in despair for several years afterward.

During the 1880s, the invention of the band saw and the logging railroad created a boom in the lumber industry in Gatlinburg. Andrew Jackson Huff built a sawmill. As loggers came in to work in the sawmill, residents began renting out the spare rooms in their homes to loggers, creating another way to make a living. Logging became an important part of everyday life in the area. By the early 1930s, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, aptly named for its location among the scenic Great Smokey Mountains, created a tourist area and subsequently, an economic boom as vacationers from all areas came to visit. Displaced homeowners moved to town to work in the restaurants and hotels that popped up to accommodate the tourists. With the exception of World War II, tourism has remained a booming business in Gatlinburg since the 1930s. While the national park did make residents wealthy, it also led to urban sprawl and air quality problems, problems that pushed the infrastructure of the city to its limit on peak vacation days. The city had to re-adapt nearly every year just to handle the growing number of tourists.

Education was always an important aspect of Gatlinburg. Subscription schools became available in the early 1800s. These schools allowed students if parents paid a fee for them to attend. Education became more accessible in 1912 when the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity opened the first public school in the area. The school taught both practical and academic classes as well as classes that aided in the rebirth of Appalachian arts and crafts.

Gatlinburg changed little over nearly 100 years, thriving as a tourist city. However, part of that tourism came to a halt in 1992. On July 14 of that year, an entire city block burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. An arcade, a souvenir shop and a haunted house, as well as the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum burned to the ground. The city spent three years rebuilding the block, re-opening it in 1995. The fire prompted city officials to write new fire codes for downtown Gatlinburg and build a new firehouse in the area.

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