A “step back in time” is such an overused phrase accompanying many a historic town or exhibit. But in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, it’s truly possible.
The descendants of Cataloochee, who have their annual reunion every August, have a rare blessing and a curse. Remnants of their ancestors’ community are frozen in time, preserved as they were when the government in the 1930s-40s displaced more than 1,200 family farms to create the national park, uprooting some 7,000 people. Over the years, descendants have acknowledged that the land would likely have been developed if not for the park, but that is of little solace to the people directly affected.
For the visitor, Cataloochee, accessible only by foot, is a marvel. Wessel and I spent a few magical hours there last month. While nature has altered the landscape and buildings, those changes have been gentle, unlike those brought about by highways and bulldozers.
The drive to the trailhead requires some effort. We entered through Little Cataloochee (as opposed to Big Cataloochee) because reaching the buildings we wanted to see is easier at that end. But the road is rougher — about eight miles of winding dirt roads too narrow for two cars to pass. It was quite the adventure, but doable even in our low-slung 15-year-old Honda Civic.
Ours was the only car parked at the trailhead on a Sunday afternoon. Using the map in the Cataloochee pamphlet we’d bought from the park service, we headed up the main wooded trail, no doubt a main drag back in the day. We first passed Hannah Cabin, built in 1864 and occupied until national park days. Amazingly, the intact cabin has not been vandalized, at least not to our eyes. We also visited Cook Cabin and Messer Farm, which once housed the apple house for storing the apples that brought valley families much prosperity. (The apple house now stands at the park’s Mountain Farm Museum.)
The most amazing building here is the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, built in 1889 on a ridge top and painted white with a gingerbread trim. This is there the annual reunion is held. Cobblestone steps lead to a plain interior, painted white, and guests are welcome to poke around. A Bible at the front was opened to the Book of Daniel. Was this a sign for me? Visitors are allowed to ring the 400-pound bell in the belfry, which, of course, we did, the sound floating off through the woods.
Next to the church is the cemetery, one of several scattered throughout the park and maintained by the park service. Of course the names Hannah and Messer appeared on some of the gravestones.
As we left the woods, we thanked the park service for tending to this sacred ground while sympathizing with the families displaced, as they have been here and during the creation of many other parks in our nation and beyond. Is their loss worth our gain?