Presidents' Day is Monday, February 20

Presidents' Day is Monday, February 20

It was a warm day in early September, just two years after GSMNP was officially established (not officially dedicated), and Newfound Gap Road was closed.

Oh, you could get as far as Conner’s Store, across the road from the soon-to-be Smokemont Campground, before the N.C. Highway Patrol and park fireguards diverted you, but that was about it. Unless you were a governor, congressman, federal judge, high sheriff of Swain or Sevier counties, accredited member of the press, an official of either the North Carolina or Tennessee conservation association, a park official, or president of the United States, you were flat out of luck.

This photograph offers a rooftop view of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's
procession down Main Street of Sylva, North Carolina. President Roosevelt
travelled by automobile from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Asheville, N.C., on a tour
of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and visited Sylva on September 9,
1936. He is in the first automobile, with his arm extended and holding his hat.
Photo courtesy Western Carolina University's Hunter Library Digital Collection. Regular readers of this publication likely recall that only one sitting president has ever set foot in our national park: Franklin D. Roosevelt. His official (though tardy) dedication of the park at Newfound Gap on September 2, 1940, was one of the most famous events in the park’s history. Yet that glorious day was the second time a sitting president visited the Smokies.

Huh?

Indeed, President FDR could not resist visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park twice during his tenure. It helped that he was in office for more than 12 years, of course.

But it’s also important to remember that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the talented and hard-working young men who built much of the new park’s infrastructure, was one of his proudest achievements. And so hundreds of uniformed CCC enrollees lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along several sections of Newfound Gap Road as the presidential motorcade left Gatlinburg in the early afternoon of September 9, 1936, bound for a lunch of fried chicken and caviar at Clingmans Dome parking area.

Whenever FDR’s car passed a line of CCC enrollees, the president smiled and waved his hat, much to the delight of members of the “Tree Army.” During the darkest depths of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration had granted them a job with a small paycheck and room and board, and a purpose. In return, they built the trails, picnic areas, restrooms, campgrounds, and administration buildings that remain in use in the Great Smoky Mountains and elsewhere to this day.

Thunder and torrents of rain greeted the president and his entourage at the Dome, a weather reality that comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever hiked the Smoky Mountain high country on a late-summer afternoon. But the storm eventually passed, and the president smoked a cigarette in his trademark cigarette holder and gazed upon the mountain fastness.

“For 30 years I have wanted to get to the Great Smoky Mountains,” he reported. “Today I finally made it… I am delighted and thrilled.”

He told Tennessee Governor Hill McAlister that he was “very impressed.” Yet FDR also expressed his concern that “too many tourists will come to the park before we are ready for them.”

So true, Mr. President, so very true.

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This photograph offers a rooftop view of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's procession down Main Street of Sylva, North Carolina. President Roosevelt travelled by automobile from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Asheville, N.C., on a tour of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and visited Sylva on September 9, 1936. He is in the first automobile, with his arm extended and holding his hat.

Photo courtesy Western Carolina University's Hunter Library Digital Collection.

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