A History of Cataloochee Valley


There are no shortages of picturesque valleys in the Smoky Mountains, and even though most--including Wears Valley--are pretty easy to discover, the Cataloochee Valley in the Smokies is a much more rugged area and more detached from civilization. This should not deter the traveler from giving the area a visit in beautiful Western North Carolina. In order to have a much easier time when you are deciding to come here, the following details should give you an idea what to expect from this valley, where the history and wildlife--much like other valleys here in the Smoky Mountains--have a special place here with a story to tell.

Palmer chapel the only church in the valleyThe word “Cataloochee” is a Cherokee term that refers to, according to legend, a row of trees along the ridges that surround the area. To familiarize you with the area, there are three distinct valleys that make up Cataloochee: Little Cataloochee, Big Cataloochee, and Caldwell Fork. The three valleys are split by Noland Mountain and Big Fork Ridge, which run beside Sterling Ridge and the Cataloochee Divide. If you are driving to the area, the easiest route to take would be I-40 to Exit 20 in North Carolina, and after a short drive on Route 276, turn onto Cove Creek Road; here you should have an easy time following the signs for 11 miles until you reach the valley.

Early inhabitants of the valley were the Cherokee, but with continued fighting as part of the Cherokee/American wars, this ended with the signing of the Treaty of Holston in 1791, which gave the United States government control of the lands in the Cataloochee Valley. The terms of the treaty stated that the U.S. government would work with the Cherokee--and that they should too--in providing a stable relationship by turning over all criminals and letting them stay on their lands, so far as they maintain the peace. Even though the Cherokee had the right to punish any American who settled on their land, many opted to take a different approach and developed friendships with the early settlers. Unfortunately for the Cherokee--and like many other treaties signed during these conflicts--the treaty lasted just seven years and gave Americans who settled here illegally full control of the land.

Early settlements in the Cataloochee Valley were used heavily by Americans in the way of free ranging livestock. The first land purchase was made by Henry Caldwell and made full use of the grassy balds to establish herding camps. The Caldwells continued growing their livestock here near Big Cataloochee through several generations until the founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park forced them off the land in the 1930’s.

Not far away in a different part of Big Cataloochee lived the Palmer family; they also stayed here until the founding of the National Park. Arriving here in 1838 and seeking a fresh start was George Palmer. Despite hardships that were troubled by drinking and gambling in nearby Western North Carolina, Palmer and his family prospered in Cataloochee and became prominent members in the community. The house that Palmer built in 1860--now called the Palmer House and maintained by the Park Service--was a dog-trot house with two log cabins joined together, and also featured outbuildings along with a barn and springhouse. What you see here today was fancied up at the turn of the 1900’s--modernized with the addition of siding on the outside and paneling on the inside. When the house was built, the Palmers owned an incredible 750 acres of land. One only has to visit the area to know of their significance, as there are many things in Cataloochee named after the family including the Palmer Chapel, Palmer Creek, Palmer Lodge, and Boogerman Trail named after Robert “Boogerman” Palmer. The Palmer buildings are now tourist attractions in the Park visited by thousands each year.

The Caldwell House is a reminder of how times were for some of the residents--a thriving and happy community. It was finished around 1906 and appeared to have comfortably housed the family. Built as a stylized and modern structure, it had interior paneling and woodboarding. Also on the property was a barn and an outhouse by the creek. It was one of around 200 buildings that housed residents in the early 1900’s but only a few of them remain today after the Park was established.  Caldwell House in Tennessee

Roads are a sometimes forgotten aspect of life in the Smoky Mountains in pioneer days, but the people of Cataloochee Valley made good use of the need for a road with the growing population of the area; over 100 people now called this area home at the turn of the 1800’s. In 1825 the county gave the go-ahead for the construction of a road between Cove Creek and Cataloochee. Apparently, this road was only a minor improvement over the previous trail that was here so the Cataloochee Turnpike--the new and improved and official name it was known--was constructed from 1854-1856.

Luckily, the fact that Cataloochee sat in a remote area of the Smoky Mountains also meant that the destruction of the Civil War largely didn’t affect the lives of the people here; although many families did lose loved ones in the war. While most of Southern Appalachia was the home of much pro-Northern sentiments, this remote area was fiercely pro-Confederate. Cataloochee’s setting made it an ideal hideout for soldiers who deserted their group and pro-Union sympathizers; some of which were captured and eventually executed. After the war, people mostly resumed their normal lives with chores and keeping up with news on the outside world. The only real problems that seemed to exist were rebuilding the economy--aided with the building of railroads in the 1870’s--and replacing the saved Confederate money that was now worth nothing.

Now a bustling a thriving mountain community, the Cataloochee Valley boasted some 764 residents by the year 1900--growing to well over a thousand just a decade later making it the largest community in the Smoky Mountains. This growing population proved bothersome when it came to accommodating students to the Cataloochee School. As powerful and influential members of the community, Hiram and George Caldwell were part of a delegation to Waynesville, North Carolina that sought to get a new school built. Unfortunately, as described by Hattie Caldwell Davis--born in the valley and known for her recollections--they were rejected and decided to burn down the school. They tried again and due to mandatory attendance laws, it forced the North Carolina government to agree this time. Known as the Beech Grove School, it still stands today. The three total schools in the area were known to follow the guidelines set forth by North Carolina educating the children in the subjects of reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, geography, and grammar; this provided children with a well-rounded and comprehensive education, and gave them a leg up on their peers in other communities in the region.

While fertile farmland provided for a steady but busy lifestyle that enhanced the people of Cataloochee’s lifestyle, the 20th century brought forth a new way to earn a decent living for the residents--apples. The people figured that with the amount of trees that were in the area--and the cool climate that was associated with this natural configuration--it was a perfect way to grow some apple trees too. Even though it was a nice cash crop for families, most used it as a side job to supplement the farm. Will Messer built one of the first communal applehouses in Cataloochee around 1910, but his very own applehouse can actually be seen up close at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which is the location for the Mountain Farm Museum--a neat display of preserved buildings for early inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains.

Religion here in Cataloochee wasn’t much different than other areas of the Smoky Mountains. Church was always known to be an important part of people’s lives. While Sunday school for the children was held every week, church services were normally held just once a month; this was due to the fact that mostly circuit riders performed the service. They were a traveling bunch that held service for the Baptists and Methodists; however, if a preacher was staying in town awhile, Sunday services were held twice a day. Perhaps this was to make up for lost Sunday services.

You can’t talk about life in the mountains in the old days without mentioning moonshine as a way of life. But wait, here in Cataloochee Valley people didn’t simply just make moonshine as a means of support. No, they did the one thing that many mountaineers wish they could’ve done more with this; the people here drank it. Yes, it’s true that with so many resources at their disposal here, moonshine didn’t need to be sold by most families. It’s been estimated that more than nine out of ten households in Cataloochee used it for personal enjoyment--and ailments too, since life in these days was hard on the body. Very few people here needed to sell moonshine, and if they did, it helped them dramatically, especially during Prohibition, when the demand was at its highest.  

Another benefit to the Cataloochee area was the lack of logging in the area prior to the National Park’s founding. The logging companies stripped much of the area bare, but it never quite reached Cataloochee Valley. Some of the residents here actually worked for a few of the companies, so that gives you an idea of how indifferent some of the residents were to this environmental concern.

Finally, the years leading up to the designation of the area as a National Park saw an influx of tourism that also boosted the economy of the valley. Some of the residents saw this and decided to build extra rooms on their homes to provide accommodations to travelers wondering where they could find this mineral spring that was supposed to bring back their youth. The Cataloochee Ranch was one prominent hotel built during this time by Tom and Judy Alexander. It had ten rooms and was open from April 15 to October 15 with rates that would overjoy most--alright, probably all--tourists today; it was $2.75 a night for the cheapest room and $5.00 for a luxury room. It became clear that even before the modern tourism boom, visitors to the Smoky Mountains could always count on some great Southern hospitality to make their stay worthwhile.

It has been well documented how difficult it was for people to accept the fact that they could not live here anymore. Some people accepted payment from the government and moved on to other areas, but some had to almost literally be dragged out; some went to court and held out for more money, and often they were successful. In the end--and after a lot of bargaining--most people ended up seeing the benefit of moving away, as the lands and the mountainside were largely preserved.

In recent times, the National Park designed a program in an effort to reintroduce elk into the area. The first 25 elk came from The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area--designated by President Kennedy in 1963 and under the oversight of the United States Forest Service--but most of the funding came from The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation--a conservation organization that helps to restore wildlife and their habitats. Each and every elk--which recent numbers have shown to be at nearly 200--are tagged and monitored by the Park. This becomes quite a thrill for the visitor as they have been known to be out and crossing paths in the Smokies in the Spring and Fall months. It is illegal to come within 150 feet of the elk, which are definitely not afraid of humans. Nearby Cherokee often has elk on their roadways during this time, so it is not unusual to encounter one despite their small population numbers in the Smokies.

As you may have learned from reading other articles about different areas of the Smokies, people have toiled long hours on farms and in rugged environments to survive; this was no different in Cataloochee Valley. Through the years, the land was very kind to early settlers, and even though there was some hardships--whether it was from downturns in the economy or raids from villagers or Natives--the people did well to give themselves a good life until they could no longer reside in this remote area of the Smokies.   Image Credit: NPS.gov