In the late fall of 1925, Paul Adams was surprised to see a visitor enter his camp on Mount Le Conte.
Adams, a 25-year-old, had been hired by the Knoxville-based Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association to oversee visitor facilities on this most iconic of the Smoky Peaks. At this point the mountain was owned by Champion Paper Company but was of increasing interest to hikers, hunters, botanists, bird watchers and others attracted to the possible formation of the national park. Adams had to make the guests comfortable or as comfortable as possible in the rudimentary structures he was able to build as part of his camp.
It was not unusual for Adams to have guests since his job was to welcome visitors and protect the mountain from fires and other damage. But this particular guest was not like the others who had climbed from Gatlinburg to Rainbow Falls Trail. Adams described the visitor as wearing “a light gray suit, low shoes, spats, a white shirt, a bow tie and a derby hat” – not the usual hiking attire of the time. He was carrying two cameras but no bag or extra supplies.
The visitor was Frank Bohn, columnist for the New York Times. He asked Adams to go to the hotel at the top of the mountain, and Adams replied that he had arrived. Bohn reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter from Colonel David Chapman asking Adams to help Bohn gather information and take pictures of the flora and fauna of the Smoky Mountains.
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Colonel Chapman was vice-president of the Conservation Association, whose members were heavily involved in promoting a national park in the Smokies. It was Chapman who hired Adams as the guardian of Mount Le Conte. Of course, Adams took all of Champion’s guidelines seriously. He found more suitable clothes for Bohn and set about preparing lunch for his guest. After lunch, the pair, accompanied by Adams’ German Shepherd, Smoky Jack, walked to Myrtle Point so Bohn could take pictures and see the view, which Adams said Bohn said was “the most beautiful that he saw in the North East”. America.”
By evening, the wind had started to pick up, but, despite the violent gusts, Adams had to go on a fire patrol. Bohn accompanied him. First they went to Myrtle Point where the wind was so strong it blew Adams and the reporter into the myrtle and rhododendron, knocking them off their feet a time or two. Adams was used to this bad weather, but Bohn was not. As they followed the trail around the edge of Cliff Top, Adams yelled at Bohn that if he started to fall he had to grab something to his right.
Once Bohn fell several times, he started crawling on his hands and knees along the trail. After Adams scaled the fire tower and made his observations, Bohn asked if there was another way to get back to camp. Adams observed that Bohn was clearly scared. They took an older trail back to camp with the wind still roaring and the echoing sounds of the snapping trees. The next morning, Adams packed a quick breakfast and accompanied Bohn up the mountain to avoid the rain he knew was coming.
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Back in New York, Bohn wrote an article about his trip to the Smokies, which appeared in The New York Times on January 25, 1926, under the title “A New National Park.” Like many articles written about the Smokies during this period, much of the article was a glowing review of the mountains, calling them “one of the half-dozen most remarkable natural scenes in our country”.
Unfortunately, none of the photographs taken by Bohn on Le Conte accompany the article. But, in light of Adams’ account, it is Bohn’s description of his trip to Mount Le Conte that is most interesting.
He calls his hike up Le Conte “a tough climb” and calls for a “beautiful car road” along the summit. Then, he describes Adams: “At the very top of Le Conte, there is a boy who lives alone in a shack of flagstones. The writer saw in the cabin only one volume, namely “Walden” by Thoreau. It had been read and re-read and noted over and over again.
Bohn’s romantic depiction of Adams, who was barely a boy at 25, omits all the terror of windy Myrtle Point and the fire patrol. Instead, it presents Adams – not as a practical, knowledgeable guide – but as an idealistic Southern Thoreau for urban readers eager to indulge in the possibilities hidden in the mysterious and remote mountains.
Adams, for his part, recorded the episode more clearly in his personal diary, a meticulous record of events and observations he began as a teenager and maintained for the rest of his life.
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The differences between these accounts of two very different men, each with their own area of expertise and motivations, make for a fun anecdote. But it’s also an anecdote that alludes to a dynamic that was quite common at the time when newcomers explored the Smokies and, in doing so, applied their own assumptions, interests and agendas to the land and people they found there.
While the Smokies have certainly changed since those two paths crossed atop Mount Le Conte nearly a hundred years ago, it’s safe to say that some things haven’t changed. There are always two sides to a story.
For more on Paul Adams’ time at Mount Le Conte, see: Adams, Paul J. “Mount Le Conte.” Edited and presented by Ken Wise and Anne Bridges. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016.
Anne Bridges is the former co-director of the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Project at the University of Tennessee Libraries and founder of the project and bibliographer of the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Collection.