Trailside Talk: The Big Picture

Trailside Talk: The Big Picture

Mike Hembree

By Mike Hembree

It seems safe to say that millions of photographs have been shot in the Smokies over the years—from 1950s tourists wielding those old Brownie cameras to today’s cellphones, to professional photographers hauling the very best of photographic equipment deep into the coves and high along the streams.

The results, even with poor-quality cameras, are mostly magical. From mountaintop vistas to streamside views, it’s difficult to shoot a bad photo in the park. You have to try really hard, like maybe moving a finger into the frame just before you hit the shutter button.

Most of the memorable photos shot in the Smokies have no humans in frame. The landscape, as with almost all other national parks, is the focus. And rightly so.

But a subjective overview of Great Smoky Mountains National Park photography reveals that one of the most striking photos in the history of the park features thousands of people, including, remarkably, the president of the United States.

Jim Thompson’s photograph gives a splendid overview of the occasion, taking in the rock-work speaker’s stand, the people and vehicles spread across the Gap parking area, and the sun-splashed mountains in the distance. It’s a view of a Smokies landmark that millions have enjoyed over the park’s years, but no visit to the Gap has been as important or notable as this one—a sitting president coming to the mountains to dedicate the park as a place to “conserve the pine, the red bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout, and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940, "for the permanent enjoyment of the people." Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Thompson’s photograph shows almost everyone in the crowd focused on Roosevelt. Many of the men wear coats, ties, and hats—standard for the era. Sadly, the grounds show quite a bit of litter.

Shot Labor Day, 1940, it is a wide-angle photo of President Franklin Roosevelt dedicating the park six years after it opened. Roosevelt stood at the Rockefeller Memorial at Newfound Gap near the Tennessee-North Carolina line, speaking to a crowd estimated at 10,000.

This moment in Smokies history was buffeted by the winds of war, as events across the Atlantic were making it increasingly clear that the United States would be drawn into World War II. It is likely that many of the men who attended Roosevelt’s speech that September day served under him as commanders-in-chief on the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific.

Roosevelt devoted much of his Smokies speech to the nation’s coming trials, warning that “the greatest attack that has ever been launched against freedom of the individual is nearer the Americas than ever before.”

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Development of the still-young park would suffer through the war years as the country focused on military matters and defeat of the Axis powers, but, for one bright late-summer day in the heart of the Smokies, a beloved president and the park he helped create were celebrated.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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