A ceremonial groundbreaking was held this week for a new visitor center at the main North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee.
The new visitor center will showcase the cultural heritage of the region, from the Cherokee to early Appalachian settlers — or the “human side of the park,” as Steve Woody, a founding member of Friends of the Smokies, called it.
A proper visitor center for the North Carolina side of the park has been a long time coming — 75 years to be exact. Since the park’s creation, North Carolina has limped along with a cramped, make-shift visitor center fashioned out of an old ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The new visitor center could help mend North Carolina’s second-fiddle status to Tennessee by establishing a greater presence on this side of the park.
“You have a huge influx of tourists that need a reason to stop here,” said Tom Massie, Jackson County commissioner and former chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Since the Smokies’ creation, a master plan has called for a visitor center showcasing the cultural heritage of the region to be constructed at the N.C. entrance to the park. The $3 million project will finally come to fruition thanks to donations raised by the Friends of the Smokies and proceeds from bookstore and gift shop sales by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Bo Taylor, leader of a Cherokee traditional dance troupe, said it is fitting that the new visitor center museum will emphasize Cherokee history on the land. The Cherokee were the first people to call the Smokies home.
“Remember us as you go through this park,” Taylor said. “It is part of the DNA of our people.”
75 years and counting
The groundbreaking of the new visitor center on Monday (June 15) doubled as a 75th anniversary celebration. The Smokies was officially created by an act of Congress on June 15, 1934.
“Today we give special thanks to the families who sacrificed to give us one of the great treasures of the United States,” said Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who spoke during the program.
Shuler said the park provides a connection to the collective heritage of the region. It is also a conduit to teach children about nature. Shuler recalled the life lessons imparted to him on hiking and fishing trips with his father. Shuler encouraged the audience to take the young people in their lives on a hike and get them outdoors.
Shuler also lauded the new visitor center and its cultural focus.
“Visitors from across the county will be able to come here and see our heritage,” Shuler said.
Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson thanked the community leaders and visionaries who helped create the park 75 years ago, as well as the families who sacrificed their land for the park’s creation.
The promise of tourism was a driver in the creation of the Smokies, and has indeed held true.
“Tourism really is the engine that fuels our county,” said Glenn Jones, the chairman of Swain County commissioners. The national park is the anchor of that tourism economy, Jones said.
But the preservation of the land has also been important to locals.
“I can take my grandkids into the park and they can take their grandkids,” Jones said. “It will be here forever.”