Cataloochee – it’s a valley you have to climb up to, opening out at the end of a three mile stretch of narrow and winding gravel road, replete with precipitous drop offs. It takes nerve to go to Cataloochee. But once you do, you’ll be drawn back again and again.
In the early 1900’s over a thousand people inhabited the green glades of Cataloochee. Now the humans are vastly outnumbered by a thriving herd of elk recently reintroduced to North Carolina after a 200 year absence. We are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from the small city of Waynesville. These wide fields are ours now, a precious national heirloom, for which an earlier generation paid a high price.
It is here that certain adventurous settlers began arriving in the early to middle 1800’s. Most of them came from the broad ways lower down on the banks of the Pigeon River. They came on foot and by packhorse over the mountains along the Cataloochee trail, an ancient Indian path connecting the middle towns of the Cherokee nation to their overhill towns in eastern Tennessee. It was here in these high fields those few intrepid individuals, coming together for mutual benefit, coaxed a living out of the land and built a prosperous community of homes and farms, churches, schools, and small businesses.
But it wasn’t to last. A short hundred years later, beginning in the late 1920’s, the corridors of Cataloochee having fallen into the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the businesses gradually ceased operation, schools closed, and farmland went untended as descendants of those earlier settlers began leaving Cataloochee, making way for the park. Here it must be mentioned that for many of those, leaving behind their ancestral homes and farmlands was a tremendous sorrow that no amount of financial compensation could alleviate. There were some occupancy concessions made to residents of Cataloochee but eventually they were all gone, leaving behind a large number of empty dwellings and outbuildings ranging from crude pens and sheds to substantial houses, barns, churches, and schools.
Nearly all the abandoned structures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were eventually destroyed, including most of those at Cataloochee. Fortunately some of the best of both log and frame construction were preserved. At Cataloochee it is frame structures that predominate. The Woody house and the Caldwell house provide excellent examples of historic frame construction, as do the two beautiful churches and the school building. The Palmer house has the appearance of a frame dwelling; however it is a log house, clad with sawn lumber.
These days, however, the main attraction at Cataloochee is not historic architecture, but elk. Elk are large animals, the males sporting great racks of antlers in the fall. They are readily seen roaming about in the fields and forests of Big Cataloochee, munching on grass, and pretty much oblivious of the clicking of cameras and the excited conversations of their admirers along the edge of the road. They have no fear of man; neither (with rare exception) do they exhibit a desire to make his acquaintance. There are signs posted along the road warning against approaching the animals, and park rangers are always nearby. A total of 52 elk were brought here in 2001 and 2002, reintroducing a species that was hunted to extinction in North Carolina very early in the colonial period. The herd has recently been estimated at 140 animals including some few elk living outside the boundaries of the park. Other animals are often seen in the park, particularly wild turkeys, and occasionally a black bear or a few deer.
Hiking is a favorite activity for visitors to Cataloochee. Like the Cherokee trail that early settlers followed to their settlement place here in the folds of the Balsam range, other trails, beaten out by continuous use, ran along creek banks or crisscrossed ridges, connecting family to family. Cataloochee consists of three mountain corridors lying roughly parallel to each other. Big Cataloochee in the middle is the largest of these and the only one accessible by automobile. Most of the old buildings are in this section. The corridor to the south, Caldwell Fork, accessible by a trail of the same name, is a little more remote. Its distinguishing feature is a magnificent old growth forest of giant poplar trees. To the north is Little Cataloochee. Two old log structures, the Cook Cabin and Hannah Cabin are in Little Cataloochee, and are worth the hike in to see them. Also in the Little Cataloochee section is the Little Cataloochee or Ola Baptist Church where Cataloochee descendants still gather once a year on ‘decoration day’, for cemetery maintenance and a shared dinner.
Cataloochee is endowed with an almost tangible beauty which, once experienced, draws us back (in spite of the wicked access road) for one more glimpse, one more photo, one more breath of its crisp, clean air. But it is more than clean air and beauty that beckons the Cataloochee descendants back to their ancestral home on ‘decoration day.’ It is their inherited tie to the land that bids them come; it is as if anything less than being there has never been enough.
Cataloochee is one of several bright gems set in the velvet folds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that are ours to enjoy simply because we are Americans. This is our rich inheritance, purchased many years ago and held in trust for us. Like other ghost communities in the Smokies, Cataloochee was paid for in cash, but also in tears. It behooves us to acknowledge with gratitude the sacrifice those earlier occupants made for us when, willingly or not, they gathered their belongings and went out, as their ancestors had come in, by way of the ancient Cataloochee trail.