The Improbable History of Gatlinburg TN
Over 11 million people visit Gatlinburg, Tennessee each year to enjoy its breathtaking natural beauty, fun attractions, and wonderful restaurants. If you were to travel back in time to Gatlinburg’s early days, however, you would find a sleepy little community that hardly received any visitors at all. How did a tiny mountain town become one of America’s most popular tourist destinations? Read our article about the improbable history of Gatlinburg TN to find out!
Way back in 1802, William Ogle set out from South Carolina to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Ogle was in search of greener pastures for himself, his wife Martha Jane, and their seven children, and he believed that he had found the perfect spot in the Smokies. William called the future sight of Gatlinburg the “land of paradise” and decided to lay the groundwork for a new home in the mountains by cutting down local timber and fashioning logs. Then, William returned home to South Carolina to share his plans with his family.
Sadly, William fell ill after coming home and passed away in 1803 before he could make it back to the Smoky Mountains. Despite this tragic turn of events, William’s wife Martha Jane persevered and eventually led the Ogle clan to the “land of paradise” in 1807. The logs William had cut five years earlier were assembled into Gatlinburg’s very first cabin, which can still be seen today at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center.
Putting the “Gatlin” in Gatlinburg
Over the years, more and more people started settling in the community that the Ogles had founded. The small town was initially known as White Oak Flats, but this would change when a man named Radford Gatlin arrived in the 1850s and set up a general store. Before long, the community’s first post office was set up in Gatlin’s shop and the town was renamed “Gatlinburg.”
Although Gatlin literally had the most famous name in town, he was arguably the community’s most hated resident. His pro-secession views and constant feuding with the Ogle family finally reached a boiling point in 1859, when Gatlin was beaten up and forced out of town.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Gatlinburg found itself in a precarious position. The state of Tennessee had joined the Confederacy, but the Smokies were a bastion of pro-Union sentiment. Initially, Gatlinburg tried to stay neutral during the conflict, but the town was eventually occupied by the Confederate Army, who wanted to mine the saltpeter (a key ingredient in gunpowder) in nearby Alum Cave. Gatlinburg was freed from Confederate occupation in 1863 after Union forces drove the rebels out during the Battle of Burg Hill.
A National Park in the Smokies
An exciting new chapter in the history of Gatlinburg TN unfurled in 1934 with the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Suddenly, Gatlinburg found itself at the doorstep of a major attraction that drew in visitors from all around the country. In addition to the founding of the national park, improvements made to U.S. Route 441 also helped fuel more tourism in the Gatlinburg area.
A Beloved Vacation Destination
As more visitors started stopping in Gatlinburg on their way to the national park, our Smoky Mountain city capitalized on the attention it was getting and slowly transformed into a can’t-miss vacation spot. In 1960, the Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg became the first pancake house in Tennessee and two years later, Ober Gatlinburg emerged as the state’s first and only ski resort. In 1961, the Rebel Railroad theme park opened in nearby Pigeon Forge and after several other iterations, it was rebranded as Dollywood in 1986. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies opened in Gatlinburg in 2000, and in 2018 it was voted the #2 aquarium in the entire country by the readers of USA Today.
Now that you know all about the history of Gatlinburg TN, it’s time to start planning your getaway! For some great vacation ideas, check out our guide to fun things to do in Gatlinburg.