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National Park Movement
In 1920, Willis P. Davis and his wife Anne, who owned a summer cottage at Elkmont, began to suggest an idea for a national park in the Smokies after a visit to Yellowstone. While the Davises merely suggested the idea to influential friends in Knoxville, it was another Elkmont cottage-owner, David C. Chapman, who took the initiative. Business owners in Knoxville quickly saw the benefits of a national park and began lobbying federal and state governments.
After the U.S. government agreed to establish the national park if the states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land, Knoxville began an intensive lobbying campaign aimed at the Tennessee legislature. In 1925, Chapman hosted a group of legislators at Elkmont to sell the park idea. The following year, Colonel Townsend made the initial 76,000-acre (310 km2) sale.
While Elkmont was the birth of the park movement, it was also home to one of the strongest anti-park movements. Shortly after the Townsend purchase, an attorney for Little River Lumber Company named Jim Wright rallied a hodge-podge group of attorneys, businessmen, and mountaineers at Elkmont to propose the establishment of a national forest rather than a national park. Wright also proposed a massive road-building campaign across the crest of the Smokies in hopes of increasing the land's value. Largely because of Wright's efforts, the initial bill allowing for the purchase of land in the Smokies exempted Elkmont from eminent domain. Cottage owners managed to gain a provision that allowed them to sell their cottages at half-price in exchange for lifetime leases.
The fate of Elkmont's historic cottages
Most of the lifetime leases on the Wonderland Hotel and the rustic cottages at Elkmont expired in 1992 (two expired in 2001), and ownership reverted to the National Park Service. The park's 1982 General Management Plan calls for all structures to be removed to allow nature to reclaim the affected areas. However, in 1994, the Wonderland Hotel and several of the rustic cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving them a special status. A debate immediately ensued over the fate of these structures.
In 2005, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed from a structural failure. Parts of the hotel deemed to have historical value were removed and the rest cleared, leaving only the annex and a chimney. In May 2016 the annex suffered a devastating fire, which is currently under investigation.
In its 2009 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Elkmont, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and eighteen cabins in the Appalachian Club section. The remaining structures will be carefully documented and removed.