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New ‘Hazel Creek’ book acquaints readers with this complex, controversial community

Posted by | 04.26.2017
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Ask Daniel Pierce, University of North Carolina at Asheville history professor, why he chose to write about one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most isolated areas, and he’s likely to give you many reasons, with his love of fishing residing near the top of his list.

Concentrating on the area’s little more than 100 years of white settlement, Pierce’s new book –  “Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community” published by Great Smoky Mountains Association – takes readers from first white settlers’ arrival from Cades Cove, Tenn., in the early 1830s, through its economic boom and bust years, to its complicated, controversial place in today’s Western North Carolina landscape.  

“I’ve long had an interest in Hazel Creek; it’s an incredibly beautiful place,” said Pierce, who has been known to wet a line in Hazel Creek on more than one occasion. “And I’ve long had a historical interest in a place, which has so many wonderful stories.”

The stories Pierce tells in “Hazel Creek” include characters like Moses Proctor, the first white man to settle in the area who “probably squatted on the land,” secure in the belief that the area’s isolation would prevent the State of North Carolina from even knowing he was there. That isolation began to loose its grip, however, as others followed, said Pierce, who points out that while “it wasn’t exactly a thriving community, by the 1880s there were a number of families living there. Even before Horace Kephart came, Hazel Creek had really been affected by industrialization.”

What Kephart saw happening in the Hazel Creek community gave him the impression that the area was in decline. That turned out not to be the case, as the Ritter Lumber Company would soon move in, bringing with it railroads and heavy equipment to log the entire region between 1910-20s. The town of Proctor was built for Ritter’s employees, who thrived in the area and numbered around 1,000 at the company’s peak. But as quickly as boom appeared, it went away. By the late 1920s, with no more timber to cut, Proctor was almost a ghost town.

The story of Hazel Creek picks up again in the 1940s with a world war on the horizon. The Tennessee Valley Authority made the biggest changes to the area, Pierce said, when they dammed the Little Tennessee River in “an amazing engineering feat.” The electricity TVA generated supported the war effort, including the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge.

“When TVA closed the flood gates, they flooded the road into the Hazel Creek area and all the communities on the north shore of the Little Tennessee,” Pierce said. The people living there were moved out, but were promised that a new road would be built into the area. Of course, he said, that began the controversy that’s come to be called the “Broken Promise of the Road to Nowhere.”

“I really thought about the ideas of ‘a broken promise,’ the ‘Road to Nowhere,’ and that story still moves me. I think it’s important that that promise be honored, but at the same time I look at Hazel Creek and what it means to me now,” Pierce said. “It’s really the fulfillment of a promise, a promise that the National Park Service made to protect significant places for future generations.

“Hazel Creek was once a place that was clear-cut, a place that was severely damaged by industrial logging. And now what a wonderful place it is, the beauty of the forest and the beauty of Hazel Creek itself. I like to think of that as the fulfillment of a promise,” he said.

"Almost the entire history of southern Appalachia can be viewed within the story of Hazel Creek,” said Steve Kemp, GSMA’s director of interpretive products and services. "There are many lessons to be learned, lessons about forfeiting an agrarian way of life, of resource extraction booms and busts, and interactions between the federal government and private citizens."

“Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community” is published by Great Smoky Mountains Association, a non-profit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many local bookstores, as well as all National Park stores and www.SmokiesInformation.org, carry the book, the sale of which supports Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Pierce will discuss the book in more detail at several public events in Western North Carolina this summer:

  • Bryson City Visitor Center in downtown Bryson City, June 9, beginning at 10 a.m.
  • City Lights Bookstore in downtown Sylva, June 9, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
  • Malaprop’s Bookstore in downtown Asheville, June 16, beginning at 7 p.m.
  • Blue Ridge Bookstore in downtown Waynesville, July 15, beginning at 3 p.m.
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