The story of the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company is the story behind the story of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From 1901 to 1939 the Little River Lumber Company cut 560 million board feet of lumber out of the Great Smoky Mountains. If you laid it all end to end it would go to California and back. While one lumber company in the Smokies was larger than ours, there were several smaller. It’s estimated that all of us together cut ten billion board feet of lumber out of the Great Smokey Mountains. If you laid it all end to end it would go to the moon and back three times.
Needless to say, our clear-cutting of the Smokies’ pristine old-growth forest proved devastating. It was this devastation that spawned the movement that petitioned the federal government to set the Smokies aside as a national park. The petitioners’ plea for the park’s establishment was for the purpose of protecting the Smokies from us, the logging industry, as well as preserving the Smokies for future generations. Government representatives were sent from Washington DC and taken to Mount LeConte, the jewel of the Smokies, to be wooed, wowed, and won. Captivated atop Old Smoky, these government representatives returned to our nation’s capital to coax Congress into passing legislation in 1934 to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park marked the first time in our nation’s history that a national park was established on private owned property. All the private property for the park was taken for public use under the government’s power of eminent domain. Landowners, in both Tennessee and North Carolina, were, as the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution required, justly compensated; that is, paid what Uncle Sam deemed a fair market value for their landholdings. Afterward, with their property appropriated, they were promptly put off the premises.
Although Colonel W. B. Townsend, the owner of the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, sold his 75,000 acres for the establishment of the Smoky Mountains National Park, he secured a deal with the government that reserved his right to continue logging portions of his formerly owned land for an additional fifteen years. He died, however, on February 23, 1936, at the age of 81. Three years later, in 1939, the last log was brought on the Little River Railroad to be cut at the sawmill of the Little River Lumber Company in Townsend, Tennessee. As the book was closing on the story of the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, the book was opening on the story of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.