Gatlinburg is located at (35.721925, -83.499334). According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 10.1 square miles (26.3 km²) 10.1 square miles (26.3 km²) of it is land and none of the area is covered with water.
Gatlinburg is hemmed in on all sides by high ridges, with the Le Conte and Sugarland Mountain massifs rising to the south, Cove Mountain to the west, Big Ridge to the northeast, and Grapeyard Ridge to the east. The main watershed is the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River, which flows from its source on the slopes of Mount Collins to its junction with the Little Pigeon at Sevierville.
U.S. Route 441 is the main traffic artery in Gatlinburg, running through the center of town from north to south. Along 441, Pigeon Forge is approximately 6 miles to the north, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (viz, the Sugarlands) is approximately 2 miles to the south. TN-73 (Little River Road) forks off from 441 in the Sugarlands and heads east for roughly 25 miles, connecting the Gatlinburg area with Townsend and Blount County. U.S. Route 321 enters Gatlinburg from Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley to the north before turning east, connecting Gatlinburg with Newport and Cosby.
For centuries, Cherokee hunters (and Native American hunters pre-dating the Cherokee) used a footpath known as the Indian Gap Trail to access the abundant game in the forests and coves of the Smokies. This trail connected the Great Indian Warpath with the Rutherford Indian Trace, following the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River from modern-day Sevierville through modern-day Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Sugarlands, crossing the crest of the Smokies along the slopes of Mount Collins, and descending into North Carolina along the banks of the Oconaluftee. US-441 largely follows this same route today, although it crests at Newfound Gap rather than Indian Gap.
While various 18th century European and early American hunters and fur trappers probably traversed or camped in the flats where Gatlinburg is now situated, it was Edgefield, South Carolina native William Ogle (1751-1803) who first decided to permanently settle in the area. With the help of the Cherokee, Ogle cut, hewed, and notched logs in the flats, planning to erect a cabin the following year. He returned home to Edgefield to retrieve his family and grow one final crop for supplies. Shortly after his arrival in Edgefield, however, a malaria epidemic swept the low country, and Ogle succumbed in 1803. His widow, Martha Jane Huskey Ogle (1756-1827), moved the family to Virginia, where she had relatives. Sometime around 1806, Martha Ogle and her brother, Peter Huskey, made the journey over the Indian Gap Trail to what is now Gatlinburg, where William's notched logs awaited them. Shortly after their arrival, they erected a cabin near the confluence of Baskins Creek and the West Fork of the Little Pigeon. The cabin still stands today near the heart of Gatlinburg.
In the decade following the arrival of the Ogles and Huskeys in what came to be known as White Oak Flats, a steady stream of settlers moved into the area. Most of these settlers were veterans of the American Revolution or War of 1812 who had converted into deeds the 50-acre tracts they had received for service in war. Among these early settlers were Timothy Reagan (c. 1750-1830), John Ownby, Jr. (1781-1869), and Henry Bohanon (1760-1842). Their descendants still live in the area today.
In 1856, a post office was established in the general store of Radford Gatlin (c. 1798-1880), thus giving the town the name "Gatlinburg". Despite the town bearing his name, Gatlin, who had only arrived in the flats around 1854, constantly bickered with his neighbors. By 1857, a full-blown feud had erupted between the Gatlins and the Ogles, probably over Gatlin's attempts to divert the town's main road. The eve of the U.S. Civil War found Gatlin, a Confederate sympathizer, wildly at odds with the residents of the flats, who were predominantly pro-Union, and he was forced out sometime in 1859.
In spite of its anti-slavery sentiments, Gatlinburg, like most Smoky Mountain communities, tried to remain neutral during the war. This changed when Confederate commander Colonel Will Thomas occupied the town in an attempt to protect the salt peter mines at Alum Cave, near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Federal forces marched south from Knoxville and Sevierville to dislodge Thomas' forces, which had erected a fort on Burg Hill. Lucinda Oakley Ogle, whose grandfather witnessed the ensuing skirmish, later recounted her grandfather's recollections:
...he told me about when he was a sixteen year old boy during the Civil War and would hide under a big cliff on Turkey Nest Ridge and watch the Blue Coats ride their horses around the graveyard hill shooting their cannon toward Burg Hill where the Grey Coats had a fort and would ride their horses around the Burg Hill...
As Union forces converged, Thomas was forced to retreat back across the Smokies to North Carolina. Although the direct threat from Confederate forces was over, sporadic raids continued until the war's end.
In the 1880s, the invention of the band saw and the logging railroad led to a boom in the lumber industry. As forests throughout the Southeastern United States were harvested, lumber companies were forced to push deeper into the mountain areas of the Appalachian highlands. In 1901, Colonel W.B. Townsend established the Little River Lumber Company in Tuckaleechee Cove to the west, and lumber interests began buying up logging rights to vast tracts of forest in the Smokies.
A pivotal figure in Gatlinburg at this time was Andrew Jackson Huff (1878-1949), originally of Greene County. Huff erected a sawmill in Gatlinburg in 1900, and local residents began supplementing their income by providing lodging to loggers and other lumber company officials. Tourists also began to trickle into the area, drawn to the Smokies by the writings of authors such as Mary Noailles Murfree and Horace Kephart, who wrote extensively of the region's natural wonders.
In 1912, the Pi Beta Phi women's fraternity established a settlement school in Gatlinburg after a survey of the region found the town to be most in need of educational facilities. While skeptical locals were initially worried that the Pi Phis might be religious propagandists or opportunists, the school's enrollment grew from 33 to 134 in its first year of operation. Along with providing basic education to children in the area, the school's staff managed to create a small market for local crafts.
The journals and letters of the Pi Beta Phi settlement school's staff are a valuable source of information regarding daily life in Gatlinburg in the early 1900s. Phyllis Higinbotham, a nurse from Toronto who worked at the school for six years, wrote of the mountain peoples' confusion over the role of a nurse, their penchant for calling on her over minute issues, and her difficulties with Appalachian customs:
I soon found that people weren't used to hurrying, and that it takes a long time of patient waiting and general conversation to find out what they have really come for, or to get a history of the cases when making a visit. I have had to get used to getting most of a woman's symptoms from her husband, and not having heart failure when a messenger comes with the news that so and so is "bad off", "about to die", or "got the fever.
Higinbotham complained that there was an unhealthy "lack of variety" in the mountain peoples' diet and that they weren't open to new suggestions. Food was often "too starchy," "not well cooked", and supplemented with certain excesses:
One of the doctors was called to several cases of honey poisoning. The men had robbed some bee gums, eaten a pound or two of each and been knocked unconscious where they stood.
Evelyn Bishop, a Pi Phi who arrived at the school in 1913, reported that the mountain peoples' relative isolation from American society allowed them to retain a folklore that reflected their English and Scots-Irish ancestries, such as Elizabethan Era ballads:
Many times it is the ballad that the child learns first, no Mother Goose melodies are as familiar, and it is strange indeed to listen to a little tot singing of the courtly days of old, the knights and 'ladyes' and probably the tragic death of the lover.
Extensive logging in the early 1900s led to increased calls by conservationists for federal action, and in 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act to allow for the purchase of land for national forests. Authors such as Horace Kephart and Knoxville-area business interests began advocating the creation of a national park in the Smokies, similar to Yellowstone or Yosemite in the Western United States. With the purchase of 76,000 acres (310 km²) of the Little River Lumber Company tract in 1926, the movement quickly became a reality.
Andrew Huff would spearhead the movement in the Gatlinburg area. He opened the first hotel in Gatlinburg — the Mountain View Hotel — in 1916. His son, Jack, would establish LeConte Lodge atop Mount Le Conte in 1926. In spite of resistance from lumberers at Elkmont and difficulties with the Tennessee legislature,the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was opened in 1934.
The park radically changed Gatlinburg. When the Pi Phis arrived in 1912, Gatlinburg was a small hamlet with six houses, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a Baptist Church, and a greater community of 600 individuals, most of whom lived in log cabins. In 1934, the first year of the park, an estimated 40,000 visitors passed through the city. Within a year, this number had increased exponentially to 500,000. From 1940 to 1950, the cost of land in Gatlinburg increased from $50 to $8000 per acre.
While the park's arrival benefited Gatlinburg and made many of the town's residents wealthy, the tourism explosion led to problems with air quality and urban sprawl. The town's infrastructure is often pushed to the limit on peak vacation days, and must consistently re-adapt to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
On the night of July 14, 1992, Gatlinburg gained national attention when an entire city block burned to the ground, due to faulty wiring in a light fixture. The Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum was consumed by the fire, along with an arcade, haunted house, and souvenir shop. The blaze was fortunately stopped before it could consume the adjacent 32-story Gatlinburg Space Needle. The block, known to locals as "Rebel Corner", was completely rebuilt and reopened to visitors in 1995. Few artifacts from the Ripley's Museum were salvaged. Those that were salvaged are clearly marked with that designation in the new museum. The fire prompted new downtown building codes and a new downtown fire station. Ripley's has caught fire twice since its reopening, once in 2000, and again in 2003. Both of those fires, coincidentally, were caused by faulty light fixtures. The 2000 fire caused no damage. The 2003 fire was contained to the building's exterior and the museum suffered minimal damage, primarily cosmetic.
As of the 2000 census, there were 3,382 people, 1,541 households, and 990 families residing in the city. The population density was 333.4 people per square mile (128.8/km²). There were 3,993 housing units at an average density of 393.7/sq mi (152.0/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 95.71% White, 0.15% African American, 0.56% Native American, 1.71% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.86% from other races, and 0.98% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.95% of the population.
There were 1,541 households out of which 17.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 51.5% were married couples living together, 9.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 35.7% were non-families. 29.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.16 and the average family size was 2.64.
In the city the population was spread out with 14.9% under the age of 18, 6.6% from 18 to 24, 25.5% from 25 to 44, 32.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 47 years. For every 100 females there were 97.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 93.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $37,606, and the median income for a family was $40,813. Males had a median income of $24,283 versus $19,250 for females. The per capita income for the city was $19,678. 7.1% of the population and 5.8% of families were below the poverty line. 13.4% of those under the age of 18 and 6.7% of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.
Gatlinburg is an important tourism destination in Tennessee. It not only contains many man-made attractions but borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ober Gatlinburg is both a ski resort and an amusement park. The only ski area in Tennessee, it has eight ski trails and three chair lifts. It is accessible via roads and a gondola from the city strip. The Gatlinburg Trolley, privately-funded public transit system, caters to area tourists.
Another popular attractions is Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies which also features special exhibits covering subjects like the Titanic, pirates and more recently the planet Mars. Dollywood and Dollywood's Splash Country, which are both named for Dolly Parton, are amusement parks located in nearby Pigeon Forge.
A few music and family-oriented theaters make their homes in Gatlinburg as well, including the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre, which hosts a musical comedy. In recent years, the number of musical shows in Gatlinburg has dwindled with several shows having gone to Pigeon Forge and its many venues.
The entire area is a mega-haven for photographers of all types and even glamour model photographers often hold national events and shoots in the region. Some of the waterfalls, streams and other locations make for some of the most outstanding natural backdrops that are available.
Many visitors also partake of locally made candy (especially taffy and fudge), as well as visit one of the ubiquitous pancake houses. During the Christmas season the entire downtown area is decorated with lights. Visitors also benefit from a free shuttle bus that traverses the city every half hour.
Every February, downtown Gatlinburg is the site of the Church of Christ 'Winterfest', in which 12,000 teenagers stay in the town for a weekend and attend Church of Christ conferences.
Other visitors to Gatlinburg have been less complimentary. British journalist Martin Fletcher wrote in his book Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwoods America (1999) of "vile Gatlinburg", noting the excess of arcades, crazy golf, and tourist trivia.