Past Times

Great Smoky Mountains National Park dedicated in 1940

Crowds and dignitaries gathered 75 years ago this week at Newfound Gap on the North Carolina-Tennessee border to witness the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Writer Herbert O’Keef covered the event for The News and Observer, reporting a dateline of “New Found Gap, N. C.-Tenn. Line, Sept. 2 – By portable Western Union Radio.”

Twenty thousand or more persons toiled today to the top of this pinhead – 5,054 feet in the Great Smokies range – to hear President Roosevelt dedicate a vast beautiful National park that a score of years ago was only a dream in the hearts of a few people.

At the crack of dawn the procession began – but even those early birds found some earlier birds ahead of them. At least two Tar Heels who wanted to be sure they got positions close to the crest, came up Sunday night and camped. They were Herbert Gibson, Jr., and Robert Airial, both of Sylva. Until North Carolina roads leading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were closed at 3:15 p.m., an invading stream of cars filed past under the eyes of watchful and sweating highway patrolmen, CCC boys and National Park Service men. Considering the size of the crowd, it was handled in tiptop fashion, though many moaned at the distances they had to walk from parking places to the gap where the speech was delivered.

For Governor Hoey the whole day was a real homecoming. He shook hands at the rate of several a minute, uttered glittering generalities to strangers who greeted him and inquired as to the health of his friends. He posed for countless pictures, usually with the wife or husband of the picture taker. The Governor, Mrs. Hoey and Miss Isabel Hoey came early and ate their lunch on the mountain. ...

Mindful of the fact that it generally rains when the President comes to North Carolina, Park Service officials erected a canopy over the monument from which Mr. Roosevelt spoke. But, as the sun continued to bear down in genuine tropical fashion, they pulled down the awning.

Two hours before the President began his speech, all available standing and sitting space around the stand was taken. For thousands who could not see the speakers, large loud speakers sent the President’s voice booming across the mountains and through the haze which continually hovers over the range from which the Great Smokies drew their name.

In this throng hearing a great Democratic President, there must have been some Republicans, since there are quite a few of them in those mountains. But, it is certain at least one Wilkie supporter did not tarry to hear the goings on. Motorists in the steady stream toward the Gap saw one car, bearing a New York license, heading in the opposite direction. On the front bumper it bore a sign complete with reflector buttons, proclaiming Wilkie for President. The monument from which the President spoke was bare of decorations except for large American flags at each end and in the middle and the flags of North Carolina and Tennessee.

The seal of the Department of the Interior hung from the front of the speakers’ platform. The monument bears only this inscription on a bronze plate: “For the permanent enjoyment of the people this park was given, one-half by the people and states of North Carolina and Tennessee and by the United States of America and one-half in memory of Laura Spellman Rockefeller by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial, founded by her husband, John D. Rockefeller.”

In breath-taking contrast to the beauties of the park was the wreckage left in this section by two flash floods of the past two weeks. Dedication-bound motorists passed pile after pile of debris, shattered houses, twisted steel bridges, roads still showing damage in spite of rush road repair work by the State Highway Commission. …

Cars not bearing “official” stickers were stopped at the top of the gap and all passengers were discharged. The drivers proceeded to parking places along the seven-mile road to Clingman’s Dome and parked, headed in the direction toward which they were to go after the ceremony ended. Drivers were brought back to the center of activities by busses. The busses carried the drivers back to their cars. They came back to the top of the gap and picked their passengers up and headed out.

Because of the limited parking facilities, the crowd was a major job and patrol officials estimated it would be 9 p.m. before all the crowd was cleared from the park.

Two high school bands, from Kings Mountain, N.C., and from Knoxville, Tenn., entertained during the wait for the President.

“North Carolina is happy to join her fair daughter, Tennessee, in welcoming the great President of this mighty republic to this high eminence for the purpose of dedicating the Smoky Mountains National Park to public use and service,” Governor Hoey said in his address. The N&O Sept 3, 1940

See footage of the dedication ceremonies on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

  Comments