Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Allure of Mt LeConte: A “Past and Present” Perspective

The following is a guest blog by Andy Drinnon from Twisted Ridge Photography. This is part two of a three-part series that will run on this blog through the end of this week. You can read part one here, as well as an introduction on this series by clicking here.

Part Two – A Summit Camp for Hikers

In 1918, Paul J. Adams moved with his family from rural Western North Carolina to Knoxville, Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, the Illinois native and avid outdoorsman made his first hike to nearby Mt. Le Conte. Inspired by the beauty of his surroundings, five years later, Adams set out to “learn every mountain of the Great Smokies.” He began by hiking from the southwestern end of the Smokies range to Davenport Gap located near Big Creek. Adams described his earliest hikes along the crest of the Smoky Mountains as largely “trailless,” and many of his routes were determined by “trial and error.”

Paul Adams explored the rugged high ridges of the Smokies a decade before the creation of the Appalachian Trail. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Adams’ trailblazing experience, and his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Smokies, soon attracted the attention of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. Organized in 1923, charter members of the association such as W.P. Davis and Col. David C. Chapman of Knoxville played a significant role in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Adams’ initial duties for the GSMCA was to accompany groups - which at times included National Park Service commissioners - into the mountains in an effort to promote the park movement in the Smokies.

Prior to the creation of the Park, Mt. Le Conte was owned by Champion Fibre Company. Because of problems caused by improperly extinguished campfires, forest officials and rangers from Champion attempted to limit access to the mountain. A move that benefited hikers came in 1925 when Champion authorized the GSMCA to build a summit camp on the mountain. It was decided that a caretaker should be placed at the camp to assist with fire protection, maintain trails, and help with various other tasks performed by rangers. Knowing that a reliable water source would be required for the camp, Col. Chapman sent Adams and fellow guide, Will Ramsey, on an exploratory hike to the summit to locate what Adams referred to in his memoirs as “Basin Spring.” Adams claimed to have camped near the spring in 1918 during his first hike to the mountain.

After searching the summit area, Adams and Ramsey located Basin Spring and proceeded to select a suitable site for the camp near the all-important water source. Upon his return to Knoxville, Adams received a letter from the GSMCA stating that he had been appointed as the first custodian of the camp atop Mt. Le Conte. While living on the mountain, he was to protect plant and animal life, maintain sanitary conditions, and do what he could to make visitors more comfortable. Additionally, he was to charge a reasonable fee to those who utilized the camp. Funds received from hikers were to be handed over to the association each month.

Elated by the news of his appointment as caretaker, Adams began purchasing supplies and gathering materials necessary to build a tent shelter at the camp. Concerned about his safety and wellbeing, his mother suggested that he also purchase a dog to accompany him on the mountain. In Knoxville, a local dog breeder introduced Adams to a 90lb German Shepherd named Cumberland Jack II. Almost immediately, Adams forged an extraordinary bond with the highly intelligent former police dog that lasted a decade.

Paul Adams and Cumberland Jack, Winter of 1925. ©The Paul J. Adams Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections

Cumberland Jack proved to be a faithful companion and source of protection for Adams during his tenure as custodian of the Mt. Le Conte summit camp. On July 13, 1925, the pair made the first of many hikes together up the mountain via the old Mill Creek Trail. They were joined by three young boys hired to assist with the construction of the camp. Near Basin Spring, Adams and the boys erected a 24x30ft canvas tent, under which they constructed a lengthy bed made of balsam and spruce. Later that afternoon, Adams cleared a short trail from the camp to Cliff Top. The trail is still used by hikers today.

Over the next few days, Adams and the boys made several hikes up and down Mt. Le Conte in order to haul extra supplies to the camp from Charlie Ogle’s store in Gatlinburg. Their pace of work intensified after word reached the mountain that a large hiking party led by Orpheus M. Schantz of Chicago intended to stay at the camp later that week. Schantz, a former president of the Illinois Audubon Society, enjoyed annual visits to Gatlinburg, and was hoping to study birds during the excursion. Adams and his helpers worked quickly to create a long outdoor dining table with split-log seats and a new bed for use under the tent. Prior to the group’s arrival, the camp staff washed dishes using a cauldron of boiling water, hung blankets out to dry, built two open-air “johnnies” (latrines), and fastened mirrors on tree trunks where a couple of wash basins were placed.

Paul Adams, Cumberland Jack, and Frank Wilson at the Mt. Le Conte summit camp. ©The Paul J. Adams Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections

On July 19, 1925, Adams collected a total of $36 from Schantz’s hiking party which included guides Will Ramsey and Wiley Oakley. This is the first recorded payment for lodging on Mt. Le Conte. The image above shows the tent shelter and the makeshift bed that accommodated the group that evening. During the pre-dawn hours of the following morning, the boys prepared coffee for the guests. Then, the entire party set out for Myrtle Point where they watched the sunrise.

In the fall of 1925, Adams began the work of constructing the first log cabin on the mountain. Cut from nearby spruce and balsam trees, the 15x20ft cabin, which no longer stands, was built west of the site of the current LeConte Lodge. The rear 8ft of the cabin contained four levels of bunks to accommodate hikers. For insulation, or “chinking,” Adams spread a mixture of moss and clay between the logs of the cabin’s exterior. When he was satisfied with the new structure, Adams sent his helpers home and awaited the first snows of winter.

In 1925, Paul Adams built the first cabin on Mt. Le Conte. ©The Paul J. Adams Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections

With Cumberland Jack by his side, Adams spent the winter of 1925-26 on Mt. Le Conte. As he later recalled, conditions were particularly harsh that season. “Snows fell, one on top of the other,” and because of the accumulation, Adams and the dog became “marooned.” Yet, despite the cold and isolation, Adams explained that he was “too busy to be lonely.” He jokingly remarked that a typewriter allowed him to “communicate with human beings,” and he wrote a number of letters to friends and family when he wasn’t working around the camp.

As the snows melted away during the spring of 1926, Adams readied the camp for prospective visitors by building new tables and additional fireplaces. He also improved several trails leading to the summit. Shortly thereafter, Adams informed the GSMCA of his activities. But despite his positive report, Adams received a letter from Col. Chapman notifying him that he was to be replaced as camp caretaker effective May 10, 1926. In spite of Chapman’s objections, the camp committee decided to place Jack Huff in charge of the camp. Huff’s father, Andy Huff, owned and operated the widely popular Mountain View Hotel in Gatlinburg.

The unexpected news was “disheartening” for Adams. In his memoirs, he explained that he had worked “hard in the interests of the association,” and that he had been looking forward to the 1926 season. After packing up and leaving the mountain, Adams returned to Knoxville and unsuccessfully tried to convince camp committee members to retain him as caretaker. Meanwhile, with financial backing from his family, Jack Huff proceeded to construct a larger cabin at the camp which became the forerunner of the present LeConte Lodge. Adams did not harbor any ill feelings toward Huff after the takeover. But, in his short book titled, Mt. LeConte, published in 1966, Adams reminded readers that the “house that Jack built” started from his “beginnings.”

LeConte Lodge as it looked in the mid-1930s. Note the “observation” platform at the top of the tree on the left. © The Herbert M. Webster Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections

A present view of several cabins at LeConte Lodge. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Following his short tenure as caretaker of the Mt. Le Conte summit camp, Adams served as a mountain guide for Andy Huff. Using the Mountain View Hotel as his base, he continued to lead others along trails throughout the Smokies. Years later, he and his wife Maxine moved to Crab Orchard, Tennessee, where they ran a nursery and landscaping business. Additionally, Adams worked as superintendent of fire prevention and safety for the federal Atomic Energy Commission in nearby Oak Ridge.

Paul Adams died in 1985, but his love of Mt. Le Conte never waned. During the course of his life, the allure of the mountain led him back to the summit over 500 times. On July 13, 1975, the pioneering hiker returned to the top of the mountain at the age of 73, possibly for the final time. The occasion marked the 50th anniversary of the camp he worked tirelessly to create. To this day, his legacy has survived through several continuing traditions he and others started on Mt. Le Conte during the 1920s. These traditions will be discussed in part three of this series.

Andy Drinnon is an avid hiker, a historian, and a photographer. You can visit his blog at, or check out the latest on his photography project titled, Scenes from the Smokies: “Past and Present”.



cinnamongirl said...

Great historical account of LeConte...thanks!

April said...

Wow Mt. Le Conte is very exciting to spend a vacation and spend the day hiking together with my family. LeConte Lodge also looks very classic and it would be great to look at and spend the time together with my family.

pearlgirl said...

I love Mt Le Conte also. I have the book MtLeConte by Paul J. Adams, which in not even available anymore. pity. So your blog is great of the mountain!

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Thanks Pearl Girl!

Old Redneck said...

I worked at LeConte Lodge in the early 1960's when it was owned by Herrick and Myrtle Brown. My brother worked at the Lodge a few years later.

We have collected our experiences as well as photographs of LeConte Lodge during the 1960's at theis website: