A Long Day’s Walk to Hear President Roosevelt

A Long Day’s Walk to Hear President Roosevelt

Jim Casada

by Jim Casada 

Among the many intriguing characters I was privileged to know as a boy growing up in Swain County was a local old-timer, George Monteith, who had grown up on lower Forney Creek in an area that eventually became part of the park with the flooding of Fontana Lake. In my mind’s eye I still see him, invariably clad in clean blue denim overalls and wearing a checkered shirt.

He was an exceptional fisherman, a hard worker, a lifelong bachelor, and what one local described as “the walkingest man you’ll ever know.” George walked everywhere he went, although if someone offered him a ride he would accept, but he seemed just as happy to amble through life in unhurried fashion. For all his impressive walking feats—and even in his 70s he thought nothing of a 15- or 20-mile jaunt—the most memorable came in late summer of 1940. 

At that point Monteith was living on lower Forney Creek in a section not included in the original park. When it was announced that on September 2, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be at Newfound Gap for the park’s formal dedication, George decided to attend the grand event. So did thousands of others, but quite possibly he went to more trouble to be present than anyone.

1940 dedication of GSMNP

On the designated day George arose well before dawn, packed a lunch, and headed up Forney Creek. His path took him northwards to Andrews Bald and then northeastwards along the Smokies’ main ridgeline. Once on the spine of the Appalachians, his footsteps followed the general route of today’s Clingmans Dome Road. A couple of hours prior to the scheduled ceremonies he reached Newfound Gap, ate the food he had carried with him, and joined the vast assemblage present for the grand occasion. He listened to his president, shook-and-howdied with folks he knew, then headed back home. 

To the uninitiated or those unfamiliar with the terrain and topography of this part of the park, this particular day in the life of George Monteith may not seem to be anything special. In reality it involved a remarkable hiking feat. Over the course of a single day he walked a total of roughly 50 miles, some of it through really rugged terrain. Upper Forney Creek, from the Cascades in the area of today’s appropriately named Monteith Backcountry Campsite to the main ridge, is steep as a horse’s face. With the general climb and trail ups and downs, George walked through several thousand feet of elevation change. 

Although others at the time recognized it for what it was—a phenomenal accomplishment and feat of endurance—for George Monteith it was nothing more than a long walk to accomplish something he wanted to do. He wished to avail himself of the opportunity of a lifetime, hearing the president of his country speak, and if it involved a lengthy trek, he was quite willing to undertake it.

Photo: The 1940 dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park courtesy of the Collections Preservation Center.

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