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Cataloochee - The Great Smoky Mountains

Posted by on September 21, 2017

Though not located in Tennessee, the Cataloochee Valley area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the places that is a must-see if you’re visiting the Smoky Mountains. Cataloochee is located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side. Once a home to an Appalachian community it was also a Cherokee hunting ground. Now it’s a recreational and historic are inside the park boundaries.

The Cataloochee section of the Great Smoky Mountains consists of three narrow valleys that run parallel to each other and are walled in by the high ridges of the Balsam Mountains. To the southeast is the Cataloochee Divide and to the northwest is Sterling Ridge. Both of these rise above 5,000 feet for long stretches. To the southwest is the 6,155 foot Big Cataloochee Mountain along the Balsam crest and it runs perpendicular to Sterling Ridge and Cataloochee Divide. There are two lower ridges that run parallel between Sterling and the Divide and split Cataloochee into three valleys. Those lower ridges are Noland Mountain and Big Fork Ridge.

Little Cataloochee, the northernmost of the three valleys, is situated along a stream with the name of Little Cataloochee between Sterling Ridge and Noland Mountain. On the other side of Noland Mountain to the south is Big Cataloochee, the middle of the three valleys and made of fertile bottomland along Cataloochee Creek. Caldwell Fork is the southernmost of the three valleys, situated between Fork Ridge and the Cataloochee Divide. All three lay along streams that are part of the Pigeon River watershed.

Elk in Cataloochee ValleyCataloochee today , compared to other driving destinations within the park, is still considered relatively remote. Though Big Cataloochee is accessed by a well paved road the valley is connected to the outside world by a crude gravel road called Cove Creek Road which is riddled with sharp turns as it crosses Cataloochee Divide and Sterling Ridge. Cataloochee Campground lies at the junction of Caldwell Fork and Cataloochee Creek. Back country campsites are located along the Caldwell Fork Trail, Rough Creek Trail and Pretty Hollow Gap Trail.

In 2001, the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center was established at Purchase Knob on land donated to the Park by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore the previous year. The purpose of the center is to facilitate scientific research in the Appalachian highlands and increase public awareness and understanding of this research. The center, located along the Cataloochee Divide Trail, includes laboratories and housing for visiting scientists.

Cataloochee is also known for its elk population. The elk were reintroduced to the park in February 2001 when 25 elk were released in Cataloochee. Most of the original $1.1 million cost was funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which provided $700,000. Elk once roamed the highlands of Southern of Appalachia but were eliminated by overhunting and loss of their habitat. Elk herds are now a common sight in Cataloochee in the spring and fall. After the 2011 calving season, the total population of elk in the park was estimated at just over 130. Be sure not to approach elk too closely as they can easily harm or kill people.

There are many historical structures still located in the Cataloochee area and the National Park Service takes care of them. The Hannah Cabin in Little Cataloochee was built by John Jackson Hannah and its chimney is one of only three surviving brick chimneys in the National Park. The Cook Cabin is located in Little Cataloochee also. It was dismantled in the 1970’s but again restored to its original location in 1999. The Palmer House in Big Cataloochee was originally a log cabin but was later weather boarded with an addition added. Along with the house the site includes Palmer’s frame springhouse, smokehouse and barn. There is a self-guided museum inside the house. The Palmer Chapel is also located in Big Cataloochee. The Caldwell House, also in Big Cataloochee, was built in 1898 and the barn which is adjacent to the house was built in 1923. The Steve Woody House in Big Cataloochee was built in 1880 by Steve Woody. It’s located along the Rough Fork Trail, a mile from the road. The springhouse is nearby. The Little Cataloochee Baptist Church in Little Cataloochee was built in 1889. The Messer Barn was built around 1905 and was originally located in Little Cataloochee but is now standing at the Ranger’s residence. There are a number of rock walls and chimney falls and cemeteries located throughout Cataloochee.

The name ‘Cataloochee’ is from the Cherokee word Gadalutsi, which means ‘fringe standing erect’. This most likely referred to the rows of trees that stand along the ridges that surround the valley. The Cherokee primarily used the valley as hunting ground and early settlers recalled at least one Cherokee hunting camp in the vicinity of Little Cataloochee Creek.

Caldwell Place - CataloocheeThe Cherokee Middlesettlements were connected with the Overhill towns by the Cataloochee Trail which stretched from the Cove Creek area to what is now Cosby, Tennessee. The Cove Creek Road closely parallels this trail today. The trail had been so well used that by the time the first European explorers arrived it was worn down a foot deep into the earth in places. In 1810, Bishop Francis Asbury used it to cross the mountains into Tennessee.

When signing the Treaty of Holston in 1791, the Cherokee gave up their rights to the Cataloochee region. They continued to hunt and fish the valley through the 19th century though. Some of the first Euro-American settlers spoke fluent Cherokee and were on good terms with them. Some even helped the Cherokees who were hiding out in the forest during the time of the Trail of Tears.

The early settlers used the grassy balds along the ridges to free range livestock. Herding camps were in place by 1814 when the first land purchase was made by Henry Colwell. In 1834, Colwell’s son James moved the family to Cataloochee. The spelling of Colwell was eventually changed to Caldwell. The Young Bennett family also moved there. They lived there until the government forced them out in the 1930’s.

A few of the other notable early settlers were George Palmer and Jonathan Woody. Palmer had arrived in Cataloochee to make a new start after losing a fortune from drinking and gambling. Woody arrived shortly before the Civil War. Both families were forced out when the National Park was created.

The Cataloochee fertile bottomland was the reason for the settlers to come into the area and there they could free range their livestock like sheep and cattle and the hogs could roam the forest. Then every year the settlers would drive their livestock to markets in Waynesville or Charleston.

Game was plentiful and hunting and trapping provided extra money for the families to supplement their income. Furs were traded for powder, lead, salt, coffee and cloth. Where Cataloochee Ranger Station now stands there used to be a hunting camp. In the late 1900’s, there was a bounty placed on wolves that roamed the region because they were consistently killing livestock.  Bears and panthers also were a problem, stalking the settlers. There is a story of two women who were both home alone at night, cooking dinner. The scent of dinner cooking drew a couple of panthers down from the mountain. Each woman had to keep the fire blazing in the fireplace thanks to the panthers on the roof trying to dig away at the chimney to get to what smelled so good cooking down below on the fire. Imagine how afraid those women were trying to keep the predators out of the house.

Even with all of the dangers and trials and tribulations of settling in the wilderness of the Cataloochee area, by 1860 had a population of 160 and was recognized by the state of North Carolina as a township. Also in 1860 the Cataloochee Turnpike was completed and it followed closely the old Cherokee trail. The Cataloochee Turnpike was the first wagon road in the Smokies.

During the Civil War, Cataloochee was mostly pro-Confederacy. Many prominent settlers lost sons fighting in the Confederate Army. When most of the men of the valley left the valley to fight in the war, the whole community suffered, the fertile fields left to lie fallow. Cataloochee was looted by raiders from both Union and Confederate soldiers, the Union seeking Confederate sympathizers and the Conferates looking for draft dodgers.

One of the worst raids was enacted by a band of Union raiders led by Colonel George W. Kirk. It involved a makeshift hospital the residents of Cataloochee had set up for returning veterans of the war. Kirk’s Raiders found this hospital and killed or wounded at least 15 patients who were recovering there.

Cataloochee’s remote location and thick forests made it an attractive hideout for deserters and Union sympathizers. Confederate raiders made it a regular thing to make excursions into the valley to root them out. One historic incident occurred when Confederate Captain Albert Teague captured Union sympathizers George and Henry Grooms and Mitchell Caldwell. Teague forced the three to march to a remote point up on Sterling Ridge and ordered Henry Grooms to play a tune on his fiddle. Grooms chose “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. When he was finished, Teague ordered the three executed.
The end of the Civil War brought the local men home but still there was little relief for the local folks. The men were too tired and worn out to plant the fields for the year’s crops and the Confederate money that they had all saved up was now worthless. The arrival of the railroads gave the economy a little boost and helped the area to recover somewhat from the war. When the first railroads were constructed in the 1870’s many of Cataloochee’s residents had never seen a train before. The residents sent Hiram Caldwell and Steve Woody out to Old Fort to see the new trains and come back to tell about them. Many of the residents refused to believe them when Caldwell and Woody told of the fact that they couldn’t outrun the trains on horseback.


The population of Cataloochee increased to 764 by 1900. The Cataloochee School was too small and in 1906 the township sent a delegation to Waynesville to demand a new, larger school. They got turned down. On the way back from Waynesville, the men of the delegation drank a bottle of whiskey and decided to take things into their own hands. They proceeded to burn the school house down to the ground. They removed all of the furniture, they set the building ablaze and moved the remaining school items to the Caldwell cabin. Then they re-petitioned the government is Waynesville, telling them the school had burned down, and asked for a new school. The government had no choice but to build a new school since North Carolina had strict mandatory attendance laws. The new school, known as Beech Grove School, still stands today along Palmer Creek.

The main cash crop in the 1920’s was apples, since the cool climate in Cataloochee was perfect for apple trees. Will Messer built a community apple house in 1910 and it can still be seen today near the Cook Cabin in Little Cataloochee. Messer’s own apple house is on display at the Mountain Farm Museum in Oconaluftee.

There were two post offices in Cataloochee by 1920. One in Little Cataloochee known as Ola, after one of Will Messer’s daughters and the other in Big Cataloochee known as Nellie, after one of George Palmer’s daughters. They sometimes still appear on topographical maps of the area.

There is a story about Boogerman Trail and how it got its name. George Palmer’s son, Robert Palmer, claimed on his first day of school that when he grew up he wanted to be the ‘boogerman’. When he did grow up, he settled in the heavy forest of Elijah Messer’s farm and being protective of his forest, he refused to let anyone cut wood from his property. Even turning down offers from lumber companies and resisting buyouts from the government, this resulted in some of the tallest trees in the valley being found along Boogerman Trail. The Boogerman Trail follows the old road connecting Big Cataloochee with the Caldwell Fork settlements.

Another way the early settlers, and even into the early 20th century, had to supplement their income was of course, moonshine. About 95% of all families made their own whiskey and used it for personal use as medicine for certain ailments and to be able to work long hours in the summer. Not only did they use it for personal use, they also shipped it to Waynesville for sale and from there it was shipped as far away as New York and Washington DC.

Thankfully the Cataloochee region was spared most of the logging boom that deforested a lot of southern Appalachia in the early 20th century. Even though, many residents of Cataloochee found employment with the logging companies. The arrival of the National Park movement in the 1920’s put an end to large scale logging operations in the Smokies before they reached the Cataloochee lowlands.
With the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tourists began trickling into the area searching for the mineral-rich mountain springs that were said to have health-restoring properties. Many mountain folk built additional rooms onto their houses to take in lodgers and several hotels sprang up. The Cataloochee Ranch was one of them and it was established in 1933 by Tom and Judy Alexander. It was open from April 15 through October 15 and had 10 rooms at rates ranging from $2.75 to $5.00 per day. Jarvis Palmer also operated an 8 person lodge with three surrounding cottages during the 1930’s with even lower rates.

Even though the Park created an influx of visitors, when it was first proposed, there was much opposition by the residents who didn’t want to either sell their land or give it up to eminent domain to the government. Some even threatened to dynamite the roads and shoot anyone who came on their land. To ease the commotion, the government offered lifetime leases to those who wanted to remain in their homes. Being skeptical of lawyers, most folks took what was offered to them, whether it be selling their place and finding another home or signing a lifetime lease. Most people were forced out of Cataloochee by 1943.

In the 1970’s the Park Service made plans to develop Cataloochee as a tourist destination and needed a road to get people there. Opposition was immediate by the locals still left there and threats of litigation stalled the plan until 1982 when the Park Service gave up and let the plan die on the table.


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