By Ben Anderson
Driving into Smokemont Campground, you may find it hard to imagine that it’s ever been anything but a recreational playground.
Situated along pristine Bradley Fork on a gently sloping expanse and framed by high ridges, Smokemont does seem to be an ideal setting for the largest camping area on the North Carolina side of the park. But this patch of mountain paradise could not have been more different in its previous incarnation a century ago.
Once home to a community known as Bradleytown, Smokemont became a prototype logging and sawmill town in the early 20th century before the park was established. (Bradley Cemetery is located between Bradley Fork and the Oconaluftee River, near Smokemont Loop Trail’s southern terminus.) Three M Lumber Company arrived first, building a sawmill and railroad in order to extract the area’s extensive forest resources. Three M later gave way to Champion Fibre Company, which by the 1920s had transformed Smokemont into a massive operation that during its heyday produced up to 45,000 board feet of lumber and pulpwood daily. It also employed several hundred workers. With the narrow-gauge railroad tracks, post office, commissary, homes, and school now long gone, the only prominent reminder of the bygone Smokemont community is Lufty Baptist Church, just downstream from the present-day campground.
But there’s another structure, a relatively modest one, surviving from the logging days that had a dramatic impact on the Smokemont area. At the lower end of the campground, Smokemont Loop Trail ends (or begins, if hiking clockwise) by crossing an old bridge over Bradley Fork, just above the fork’s confluence with the Oconaluftee River. A sign notes the structure was designed and built by Luten Bridge Company of Knoxville, TN, in 1921—several years before the park was authorized and more than a decade before it was established. The bridge, now gated, thus was commissioned by Swain County, NC, and not by the National Park Service. Foot traffic has become the rule on the century-old structure spanning Bradley Fork, as part of the five-and-a-half-mile Smokemont Loop.
After the park was created, one of about two dozen Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Smokies was established at Smokemont. CCC men proceeded to rehabilitate much of the area that had been stripped of its trees by the large-scale industrial logging, leaving scarred hillsides in its wake. Ecological renewal of a beautiful valley was under way, preceding today’s comparatively light recreational impact.
Yes, there will again be plenty of human activity in the Smokemont area after it’s safe to reopen the park. Its environs will continue to be a magnet for campers, hikers, fishermen, horseback riders, and backpackers launching trips into the Smokies backcountry. But if not exactly wilderness, Smokemont now has minimal human impact compared with a century ago, when logging ruled the day and transformed the landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Ben Anderson is a GSMA seasonal sales assistant and longtime GSMNP backcountry volunteer.
Photos from top: Champion fibre camp at Smokemont; Smokemont Camp, 1935; Smokemont Church, 1930; Interior of Smokemont Church, 1930; Trainload of logs from Smokemont Mill, circa 1915-1920