History of Townsend, TN

The origins of Townsend, Tn can be traced back, like many area towns and cities, to the Cherokee Indian tribes that roamed the Smoky Mountain region and used them as hunting grounds before the first English settlers stepped foot here in the 1700s.

The Little River Valley and the surrounding tributary streams were called Tuckaleechee Cove at the advent of the 20th Century. Tuckaleechee actually means “peaceful valley” and was the name given to the region by the Cherokee. It remained a “peaceful valley” for over a century. Farming in the valley made up the primary livelihood of its residents with commercial lumbering seeing a 40-year boom in between. When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, the area re-emerged as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies”.

The Little River Lumber Company was founded in 1900 by Wilson B. Townsend and a group of fellow Pennsylvanians who had initially built the business in order to supply tanbark for a tannery located at Walland, Tn just down the road. With the purchase of nearly 80,000 acres of land, they now found themselves the proprietors of what would eventually be a large portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Traversing the region’s rugged terrain and moving the logs to the mill meant establishing some mode of transportation, thus they established the Little River Railroad Company to do just that. The railroad and the lumber company’s headquarters were located in the small village of Townsend. From here, track was laid and run deep into the Great Smoky Mountains. Each worker employed by the company, their equipment, and tools were hauled in and logs back out by the famous Shay locomotives – smaller, yet very powerful steam engines which were constructed for hauling and traveling up steep slopes such as the ones found in the Smokies.

With so much economic productivity coming out of the area, one would have thought that business would have continued to expand, and it did, but in ways you wouldn’t expect. The Smoky Mountains’ majestic vistas and views were bringing in a number of visitors that the railroad was providing easy access to. Elkmont, once a logging camp, evolved into tourist hotels to accommodate the influx of visitors. As logging activities lessened and the railroad tracks were removed, the rail beds provided the beginnings of roadways and trails into the Smoky Mountains. One example is Little River Road; it runs from Townsend all along the Little River to Sugarlands visitor’s center in Gatlinburg. Today’s Little River Road was originally the rail bed of the Little River Railroad.

By the mid-1930s, W.B. Townsend had sold most of the land he originally purchased for the railroad to the state of Tennessee. This sale provided land for the National Park Service to turn into a large portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Townsend became a primary gateway for national park visitors due to its proximity to Cades Cove and the relative closeness to the Little River, which by then had also been adopted into the national park. The park’s other main entrances – Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Cherokee, North Carolina have seen its share of development with welcome centers, businesses, and other attractions springing up, most providing travel opportunities primarily unrelated to the Great Smoky Mountains and its majestic splendor, which draw thousands of visitors yearly. Unlike the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge outlets, Townsend has kept its moniker as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies” intact. It’s still viewed as a more picturesque, natural destination for those who trip to take in the overwhelming beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Little River Railroad Museum

Little River Railroad MuseumVenture over to Townsend and check out one of the hidden gems of the Smokies – the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company. The early history of the Smoky Mountains is on full display at the museum as visitors can come face to face to the inventive, industrious spirit of those early Smoky Mountain settlers. These frontiersmen and their families, as well as other settlers looking for new opportunities, struck their picks in an area of Appalachia eventually becoming the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The beginnings of the Little River Railroad were due partly to the changing landscape. Settlers had to adapt to their new surroundings and adapt their tools to meet the conditions they worked in. The paths they took indirectly assisted in establishing the roads that we travel today through the Smokies.

The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company museum should be a “must stop” for anyone coming through Townsend, whether on vacation or just passing through. History enthusiasts and railroad historians should definitely pay a visit. The old trains that paved their way through the Smokies are now parked for everyone to see in the museum yard – the Shay Engine, a caboose, a set of turn-of-the-century homes, and a water tower. Each was used in the Smokies as part of the early logging industry.

Little River Railroad MuseumThe Shay engine is the centerpiece of the museum and rightfully so. This was the engine that blazed the trail through the Smokies hauling log cars down the mountain to the saw mill. It also transported lumberjacks and other workers up the mountain and back to work. One could say that the Shay engine was the Little River Railroad Company’s backbone in those early years. For train enthusiasts it’s a must-see. You won’t find many of these Shay engines around now-a-days. And to find one as carefully maintained as the one at Little River, that’s a task in itself.

Don’t get too wide-eyed outside, make sure you go inside for a more detailed look at the history of the logging industry in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Elkmont pioneers and the area’s natural history are presented in the first display. Next, you’ll see the rise of the logging industry in detail, as well as the different train models that were used during logging expeditions. The inventiveness of the loggers comes into view in the museum too – designs for new types of rail cars to a swinging bridge for flatcars is detailed and highlighted. The exhibit concludes with a detailed look at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and how the lumber and railroad industries played a role in its beginnings.

The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum is as much a part of early Great Smoky Mountains National Park history as Cades Cove. Another thing is people wonder about the evolution of the land and how it was used before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, you see that evolution in vivid pictures. Vivid pieces of history are preserved, read about the logging industry, or just soak up the essence of early America and the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a historical experience… stop by and stay for awhile.

Townsend Spring Festival & Old Timer’s Day

If you looking for a time or reason to come to Townsend, TN, every spring the town holds its annual Townsend Spring Festival and Old Timer’s Day. And if you’re looking for a literal melting pot of bluegrass, clogging, arts, crafts, BBQ, storytelling, and woodcarving, then you’ve come to the right place. All come together in a cornucopia of events and festivities at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Whether it’s a wildflower walk on Chestnut Top Trail, a book signing, or gardening tips and plant sales by the Trillium Cove Home and Garden, Townsend’s Old Timer’s day has something for everyone.

A typical festival day looks a little something like this:

10:00am: Hedgewood Gardens Tour

11:00am: Clogging Demonstration and Instruction

1:30-3:30pm: Wildflower Walk on Chestnut Top Trail

2:00pm: Hedgewood Gardens Tour

6:30pm: Knoxville Pipes and Drums Concert and Parade: Highland music in celebration of Scottish heritage.

7:30pm Concert: Special entertainment by “Six Mile Express” at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.

On top of those typical, every day festival goings-on, visitors can hear bluegrass music on the festival stage till way past sun down. Guests can even bring their own instruments to the pickin’ porch. Arts and crafts are being made and sold throughout the day and BBQ pork and chicken, ice cream, deli sandwiches, hot dogs, kettle corn, and other good food are always being prepared…. Just be sure to stick around for the cake raffle and bake sale if you know what’s good for you.

A few of the Townsend Days artisans that have given demonstrations in years past include:
– Karen Kenst and Bonny Kate Sugg – basketry
– Lendel Abbott – woodcarving
– Maetta Conrad and Marcella Emrick – quilting
– Carol McBride – rug hooking
– Dale Liles – spinning on the great wheel

Stop by and make your own memories with an old fashioned portrait photo on the grounds near the annual family art fair. Art activities are led each year by the Townsend Artisan Guild.

One of the more unique aspects of the festival might just be the early-Appalachian demonstrations given around the Townsend Days grounds. Things like mountain berry basket making, bee keeping, cornmeal making, and oak shingle-making are just some of the well-attended demonstrations in years past. The festival’s oh-so-popular moonshine still and history of moonshine in the Great Smoky Mountains with Bill Leistner always draws a crowd. A festival favorite, Leistner actually demonstrates how to drink from a moonshine jug.

For those who just love bluegrass, there wouldn’t be a Heritage Festival & Old Timer’s Day without a heaping helping of local bluegrass. From clogging to cake raffles, to actual bluegrass performances by the likes of Deep River, Notchey Creek, Appalachian Bluegrass, Mike Clemmer, and Steve Jordan, the festival stage is always brimming with bluegrass tunes. Banjos, dobro guitars, harmonicas, and whatever else those early Appalachians strung together to make mountain music are strummed and played throughout the day. If anything, just come listen to some great Appalachian bluegrass.

One other highlight of the weekend is the Young Pickers Talent Contest held at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. This is open to all striving, young bluegrass musicians who are interested in performing before a crowd. Bring your own tune, or sing one of the classics. Either way you can’t go wrong and everyone here loves those young performers.

The Townsend Heritage & Old Timer’s Days festival occurs every spring and fall at the Townsend Visitors Center. It’s a celebration of the traditional bluegrass and mountain music, crafts, and heritage of Townsend, East Tennessee, and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Riverstone Family Restuaurant

Riverstone Family RestaurantLooking for a great place to grab a bite just outside the National Park, but close enough to still feel like you’re amongst the trees, try the Riverstone Family Restaurant in Townsend. It still has that country feel as if you’ve stumbled across some off the beaten path eatery in a wooded clearing.

It’s also one of the few Townsend restaurants serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, meaning there’s always something for everyone on the menu. Whether it’s eggs sunny side up you’re craving, or just a sandwich to get you back on the trail, Riverstone is a great place to eat on the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”.

Townsend makes its hay at maintaining its small town charm, but sometimes your culinary options can be pretty limited.  That’s one reason why there is only one fast food restaurant in Townsend. There are really only a handful of places to eat.  Finding a breakfast locale can be especially hard on the first time visitor to Townsend and the Cades Cove portion of the National Park.  Riverstone Family Restaurant’s breakfast choices are quite sumptuous. Whatever your heart desires, whether it is bacon to omelets to a la carte, there’s something for even the pickiest of breakfast connoisseurs on the menu.  A personal favorite is the delicious country ham breakfast – eggs, grits and hashbrowns are gathered up snuggly with a thick cut of country ham perfectly aged.  For those who grew up outside the South, country ham is salt-cured ham traditionally served on most Southern breakfast tables.

Riverstone Family RestaurantAnd don’t forget to stop back by for lunch or supper. Take a look at the appetizers first, the fried green tomatoes at the Riverstone Family Restaurant take a back seat to no one.  Breaded, thick cut tomatoes are a great start to any meal.  Let Riverstone Family Restaurant introduce you to fried green tomatoes.  The sandwiches are some of the best in the area as well.  The Riverstone Burger is simply gigantic and will leave anyone full.  The menu even has a new section for vegetarian selections, including a garden burger.  Still, don’t look past the entrees. Actually, aim right for it if you’re hungry.  The menu consists of Southern staples like steaks, grilled chicken, country fried steak, and the like.  A few of their specialties include country ham, rainbow trout, beef liver and onions, and frog legs.  Sample a few of their Southern specialties; it will do your taste buds a world of good.

The Riverstone Family Restaurant’s down-home atmosphere is one of the other reasons people keep coming back, even out-of-towners on numerous occasions.  The restaurant’s oil tablecloths and the numerous knick-knacks adorning the wall will take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen. Check out all the Townsend history on the walls of the dining room, you’re sure find a few memories if you’re from around here. During the colder months, Riverstone’s fireplace crackles in one corner of the restaurant as everyone gets that warm cozy feeling while enjoying their meal – a touch home that you won’t find anywhere else.

Combine the food with the atmosphere and it’s a memory you’ll want to revisit time and again, literally.  Come for breakfast and dinner, or breakfast and lunch, or all three at Riverstone Family Restaurant, it’s sure to be one of your favorite Townsend restaurants.  We dare you to find a better breakfast anywhere near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  Been hiking all day and need a meal that is going to stick to your ribs? Well, I think you’ve found your destination.

Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center

Want to learn more about life in the Smoky Mountains before the turn of the 20th century?  Then you need to pay a visit to the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center (GSMHC).

This museum and living history location teaches visitors about the people that settled the area and made their homes in the Smokies during the 1800s.  The GSMHC has three separate exhibits:  Native Americans of East Tennessee Museum, Pioneer and Mountain Culture & Tennessee on the Move.

Native Americans of East Tennessee

Before the first European settlers came to the area, native people like the Cherokee dwelled in the mists of the Smoky Mountains.  These people had more then just a hunting and gathering culture.  They had a society that had trade and infrastructure, they had political meetings and communities that stretched from the valleys to the hillsides.  This museum celebrates those people and their way of life before they were moved on by the European settlers that found this area to be so similar to the homes they left in Europe.

Pioneer & Mountain Culture

As the pioneer moved into the Southern Appalachians, they founded farms and homesteads.  They developed small communities that traded with each other and helped each other make it through the good times and the bad.  This part of the museum picks up the story of these mountains after the Native Americans had moved out of the mountains and the settlers and pioneers had made this land their own.  From the type of farming they did to the commerce they practiced.  Included in this part of the GSMHC is a living history farming display.  During the warmer months of the year and the harvest you can go see how these people lived, farmed and harvested their crops.  Included in the living history section are:

  • The Caldwell Log Cabin
  • Granary
  • The Montvale Station
  • Sawmill
  • Set-Off House from the Little River Lumber Company
  • Smokehouse
  • Two Cantilever Barns
  • Underground Still / Shed
  • Wheelwright Shop
  • Wilder Chapel

Tennessee on the Move

This is a collection of various forms of transportation that have gotten Tennesseans on the move since the 1800s.  Included in this exhibit is a freight wagon, a postal wagon, farming vehicles and turn of the century road construction equipment.

Spend a day in Townsend next time you visit the Smokies.  Learn more about the people that inhabited this region before the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Get your kids into history by letting them experience it first hand.  And be sure to check with the GSMHC before you arrive and see what special events they have going on.  You might find that this becomes a place you visit on every visit to the area.

Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center
3/4 miles east of the traffic light
at the intersection of Hwy 321 and Hwy 73
Townsend, TN

Townsend, TN

“The Peaceful Side of the Smokies”

Townsend is known as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies and though it might not have the hustle and bustle of the cities that are in Sevier County, it has plenty of exciting family adventure.  Outdoor activities abound in Townsend along with plenty of history, plenty of great people and lots of down home fun.  Tubing down the Little River and fishing for brown trout are just a couple of the things that brings people to Townsend each year.

Townsend started due to the logging industry and though the Cherokee had certainly been in the area for centuries (especially near Tuckaleechee), once the logging industry came to the area it was a completely different area.  One of the first people to open a logging company was Colonel WB Townsend.  Townsend logged areas that are now in the National Park such as Treemont and Elkmont.  In fact the roads that you travel today follow the Lumber Companies Railroad lines that went into the forest to get the lumber to mill. With the development of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the lumber industry dried up.

With the lumber industry gone, the area did fall on hard times until visitors to the National Park begin to come to the area.  Though Townsend has never achieved the huge amount of success as places like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the fact that it is the quickest way to get to Cades Cove means that people pass through the Blount County entrance to the park all the time.


Most Recent Posts