Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hiking Through History

The following is a guest blog by Alice Kemp:

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s more than 800 miles of foot and horse trails are as lovely and varied as any you’ll find east of the Mississippi. Although the Alum Cave Trail to the summit of Mt. LeConte is certainly one of the more exciting and popular ones here, the other trails also have much to offer, whether it’s a tramp along a rushing mountain creek or just a quiet stroll through the woods, everyone can find something to like about the Smokies.

One possibly less known fact about these trails is that many of them, especially those in the lower elevations, will take you back through history. When you walk these trails, scan around you and don’t keep your eyes trained exclusively on the trail in front of your feet. If you do this, you’ll be treated to relics of the old-timey settlers who lived, loved and died here before the Smokies became a national park.

Hiking along, I have often encountered the remains of old stone walls, foundations of cabins, and spring houses made of rocks. However, you might be surprised to know that about 100 old cemeteries also exist within the park boundaries. I have almost literally tripped over old marker stones while exploring down a faint side trail. Many of these markers are nothing more than small rocks set in the ground. If any inscriptions had ever been placed on them, erosion has long since effaced them. Quite a few of the burial grounds that can only be reached by taking a longer trail through the woods to the little side trail are very small, having less than a dozen markers maybe. One observation that has lodged itself in my memory over the years is the number of babies buried in these sad little places. When you can find stones with still-legible inscriptions, you can’t help but notice how many are of children who were born in the winter but did not make it to the promise of spring.

We have a tendency, I think, to glamorize early pioneer life, but it was no bowl of cherries, not in the Smoky Mountains certainly. Life was hard for most people, especially in the winter. One cemetery I encountered near the trail to Ramsay’s Cascades had two markers side by side: one of a baby that died one winter and the other of his sibling who died the next winter. How heartbreaking that must have been! We take our modern appliances so much for granted. Try to imagine, for a moment, what your life would be like if you had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no cars or trucks, certainly no television or computers. Just trying to eke out a living, little by little, day by day, most days probably just like the ones before them.

However, let’s end on a more upbeat note. I’ll bet you don’t know what one of the earliest Gatlinburg tourist attractions was. I once picked up an old Smoky Mountain booklet that showed a photo of a wagon loaded with tourists being pulled down the road by a cow!! Yup, that’s exactly right. My, how times have changed!

For the hiker, probably one of the best trails for "walking through history" is the Old Settlers Trail off Rt. 321 east of Gatlinburg. About 16 miles long, one-way, this trail meanders along the flanks of the mountains, connecting the trail to Albright Grove and the road to Ramsay Cascades. Then there's always Cades Cove in the northwest quadrant of the Park with its series of short, easy trails leading to reconstructed cabins and homesteads.

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Daniel said...

Lots of great information here about GSMNP history. Thank you for sharing it!

Christine said...

Really enjoyed this post! I love finding these old cemeteries.