The crowded hills of Appalachia have long kindled the Southerner’s heart for nature. Clothed in soft blankets of verdant green in summertime and the prickled hairs of threadbare limbs in winter, the mountains of the Blue Ridge inspire us. They serve as iconic emblems of the beauty of the Southeast, drawing visitors into her gnarled coves for centuries. It’s that natural inclination to love these mountains that inspired their preservation and the foundation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park some ninety years ago. With over nine million visitors a year, it’s the most-visited national park in the country. A walk through its dense woods reveals a landscape seemingly untouched by human hand, making it difficult to believe that these same acres were once home to a vibrant population: Cataloochee.
Cataloochee’s is a tale that begins with the pacing feet of the Cherokee. The cool valleys of Appalachia served as fertile hunting grounds for the Native Americans, and their swift feet carved a trail across them. The Cataloochee Trail furrowed through the mountains, connecting the Cherokee settlements from present day Cove Creek to Cosby, Tennessee. The path was so oft traversed that at points the wear of passing feet alone carved it a foot deep into the earth.
Just as their descendants’ hearts would do for generations, European explorers fell hard for the lush lands of the western Appalachians, her crystalline creeks and thinly veiled balds. By 1791, with the signing of the Treaty of Holston, the land was in European hands (the Cherokee left, but on amiable terms, and friendships remained).
The region’s unique balds, flat peaks too high for trees and too warm for alpine growth, proved to be the perfect place to free-range livestock. The high, sweet grasses of the balds satiated the hungry mouths of all types of animals, and the early nineteenth century found settlers roosting on the summits.
It wasn’t until 1834 that a settler came down the mountain to bed in the largest, lushest valley. Henry Colwell moved his family to the Big Cataloochee Valley that year, and there the family remained. Colwell, a name that eventually slid into the harder consonants of Caldwell, was a common one in the region for the next century.
Drawn by the rich bottomland ideal for farming, with abundant pastures and loamy dirt, other names made their stake in the big and little Cataloochee valleys separated by Noland Mountain: Caldwells and Bennetts and Palmers, some seeking success, others redemption—like George Palmer, who, according to lore, sequestered himself in the remote valley to escape the temptations (and failures) of drinking and gambling in Waynesville.
Life in Cataloochee was, by comparative standards, easy. Crops practically planted themselves in the soil, packed with nutrients from centuries’ worth of mountain runoff. Livestock thrived, sheep and cattle on the thick-stemmed grasses, hogs on the fruits of the dense forests. Wild game was plentiful and a handy source of extra income, their furs traded for coins. The mountains sheltered the deep valley from the worst of storms. Cataloochee was a cocooned enclave of sweet civilization.
The idyllic valley fostered growth of all types, including community. By 1860, when the state recognized Cataloochee as a township, the population had reached 160; by 1900, 764; and by 1910, 1,251. Cataloochee was the largest community in the Smoky Mountains.
The residents of Cataloochee, united by their remoteness and mutual lifestyles as much as their now generations-deep blood ties, were of a uniquely plucky and concordant variety. They were allies, a wee community sheltered from a rapidly advancing world and the tumultuous challenges that came with it. They banded together against common enemies as varied as flood and the state.
It’s a position well-represented by the tale of the schoolhouse. When Cataloochee’s population outgrew the small school, they sent a delegation of citizens to Waynesville to petition the government for a new, larger building. But the snobbish authorities turned down the request with the argument that Cataloochee did not pay enough taxes to justify the construction of the new school.
On the long road home, the disappointed delegation sought solace in a bottle of whisky. But solace turned to inspiration. When the three men arrived home, under cover of darkness and spurred by drink, they removed all the furniture from the schoolhouse and set the old rickety frame ablaze. The Beech Grove School, which the government paid for shortly thereafter, still stands today.
Cataloochee was a community as inherently successful in the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth. New needs were met with new industries. The cool mountain climate was perfect for delicate apple orchards, and the sweet fruit became the largest cash crop. The most profitable export, however, was manmade. An estimated 95% of Cataloochee households produced the “wicked” spirit of moonshine. Cataloochee shiners would hock their wares in Waynesville, from which it was shipped afar, sometimes to such important cities as New York City or D.C.
Another industry that flourished in early twentieth-century Cataloochee eventually proved to be the valleys’ downfall: tourism. Unmarred by the logging industries that had already decimated much of the surrounding mountains, Cataloochee was a uniquity worth the trek. The pastoral ambiance drew disillusioned city folk with promises of peace and restoration in the region’s mineral-rich springs. Cataloochee’s residents capitalized on the growing industry, adding rooms for rent to their familial homes and stocking local creeks with rainbow trout for visiting outdoorsmen.
Outsiders grew to love the valley and her mountains so much that they began petitioning for its preservation. Teddy Roosevelt’s fledgling National Park System protected the breathtaking wonders of the West—why not the simpler beauty of Appalachia?
In 1920, the reverend of Cataloochee gathered his congregation to break the news. What the rest of the South considered salvation was a devastation for the local community. The Smoky Mountain National Park would secure the safety of the mountains but ensured the destruction of Cataloochee.
The tight-knit townsfolk first vowed to band together with their signature brand of brashness, but it was futile. Their options were stark: sell their land or be forced out by eminent domain. The Park Commission eventually offered lifetime leases for the most stalwart of opposers, but even then life in Cataloochee proved impossible with farming and logging restrictions. Within decades, the last resident of Cataloochee fled the valley.
But the community of Cataloochee lives on, in the blood and souls of descendants and in their annual reunion. Every August, some 300 descendants (and even a few natives) return to Cataloochee, gathering in the old Palmer Methodist Chapel in the warm light of a Sunday summer morning just as their ancestors once did. Folks with names like Caldwell and Palmer shake hands in the field before the church, baked by the sun and cooled with the icy balm of sweet tea. For one day, their heritage comes back to life in the green Cataloochee valley.