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Lost or found? Viral article about ‘forgotten’ Smokies town raises eyebrows

out fr2A lot of people familiar with Great Smoky Mountains National Park got a surprise earlier this month when an article began making the rounds online claiming that a hiker had discovered an abandoned town in the middle of the park.

“Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted how much land there is in America. Sure, it’s harder and harder to find places that haven’t been explored, but it’s also become easier to forget places that we’ve already been. Kind of like the entire friggin’ town in the middle of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” read the lead of an article featured on road trip planning site Roadtrippers, later reposted in The Huffington Post. 

Another version appeared in The Daily Mail, claiming that the town had been untouched for more than 100 years.

The only problem with those claims? The “forgotten” town of Elkmont is right outside one of the busiest campgrounds in the park, and the abandoned buildings — which were inhabited through 1992 — are visible from both road and trail. 

“Elkmont is by no means a hidden or lost community. It’s very easy to find,” said Dana Soehn, public affairs director for the park. 

Indeed, San Diego-based videographer Jordan Liles was within earshot of traffic going down the nearby road when he first hiked Jakes Creek Trail in 2009 and stumbled upon the old buildings. 

“I was taking pictures of a river or a stream that runs through Elkmont and I turned around and saw the stone steps that go to the Wonderland Hotel,” Liles said. “I was fascinated.”

So fascinated that he came back the next year with a camera and video equipment to more thoroughly document the area. 

But Liles, who grew up in the Memphis area, never once believed that he had made a unique discovery. He went to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, he talked to some rangers at the campground and he read some books about the old Elkmont community. His video, which clocks in at 22 minutes, 42 seconds, never asserts that he was the first to discover the village.

To the contrary, the end of the video dedicates several minutes to detailing the early history of the town, complete with old photographs. 

Elkmont used to be a resort community, a summer home for wealthy Knoxville families. The abandoned town consists of 74 structures dating back to the early 1900s. When the park was formed, the families were allowed to keep their summer homes through a lease from the National Park Service, and they were inhabited through 1992, when the last leases expired and the park did not renew them. The Wonderland Hotel, which was built to accommodate guests who took the train to the mountains, was a centerpiece of the community.

After 1992, the buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair. Two of the historic structures have been restored and are open to the public, but the remainder are in various stages of dilapidation. The park’s long-term plan calls for restoring 17 more but removing the rest. 

“At the end of that planning process, which went until 2008, we came up with a memorandum of understanding of how we would proceed,” Soehn said. “That final decision included the restoration of 19 structures and the development of interpretive displays and exhibits in the area that help tell the story.”

The fault for the rapidly spreading Internet myth that Elkmont is a long-lost town forgotten in the heart of the Smokies, Liles said, is that of the writers of the articles. He didn’t get any email correspondence from Roadtrippers or The Huffington Post, before they published the article. 

“I didn’t really have control over that and wasn’t really happy when I saw some of that, but in the end I’m glad that once you see the short video that I made, I think that the truth kind of shines through,” Liles said, referencing the history segment that begins near the 18-minute mark. 

Anyway, Soehn said, the likelihood of discovering a completely unknown structure in the park would be slim at best. 

“I would think it would be very unlikely, because so much of the Smokies was inhabited,” Soehn said, “and since the park was established there was very careful surveying and recording of all of the structures that were here, and all of that is recorded in our park archives.” 

Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time that The Huffington Post wrote about Liles’ documentation of Elkmont. In September 2013, the website published a collection of Liles’ photos, presenting them simply as “captivating” images of the abandoned town, mentioning that the buildings are located along a gravel path. 

“When they put up a new one I was surprised because I didn’t know why they would do it twice,” Liles said. 

And when it comes to the article’s suggestion that you “pitch a tent and go for a midnight flashlight adventure,” Soehn said, it pays to remember that camping in the park isn’t a free-for-all. The park’s 848 miles of trail include about 100 backcountry campsites where backpackers are required to stay, unless they’ve got a cross-country camping permit. 

“The backcountry specialists will make sure that there is going to be an adequate place for you to camp because you have to follow all of our Leave No Trace policies,” Soehn said. 

There are some extra regulations surrounding unrestored historic structures, too. Those buildings are off-limits for safety reasons, and that includes all but the two restored buildings in Elkmont. Once the planned restoration is complete, that number will shoot up to 19, though the work won’t be done for quite a while, as it’s slated to be completed “as funding becomes available.”

“All of the structures in Elkmont are signed that you’re prohibited to enter them, and that is for everyone’s safety because the structures aren’t stable enough for the public to enter,” Soehn said. 

But they’re plenty visible for everyone to see. Which is why park staff are still shaking their heads at the idea that people across the country and the world are now operating under the assumption that Liles’ “discovery” of Elkmont is a find akin to tracking down the lost city of Atlantis. 

“You just never know what’s going to happen in the new world of social media,” Soehn said. “I think clearly all of the people in our local communities were shocked that somebody thought Elkmont had not been discovered.” 

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