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The New South’s New Frontier: A Social History of Economic Development in Southwestern North Carolina

Author(s):Taylor, Stephen Wallace
Reviewer(s):Phillips, William H.

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Stephen Wallace Taylor, The New South’s New Frontier: A Social History of

Economic Development in Southwestern North Carolina. Gainesville:

University Press of Florida, 2001. xix + 186 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by William H. Phillips, Department of Economics, University

of South Carolina.

In this book, Stephen Wallace Taylor, assistant professor of history at Macon

State College, has written a descriptive view of economic conditions in North

Carolina’s southwestern tip since 1880. This mountainous region, bordered by

Asheville on the east and Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the north, is identified

today by its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the

modern mind, it is a recreational area that was never affected by American

industrialization. However, Professor Taylor recounts the history of an area

that was actively engaged in timber and mining operations, with local boosters

dreaming of future industrialization based on water-generated electrical power.

This future was sidetracked in the twentieth century by wider national

concerns: the rise of the conservation movement in the early 1900s, and the New

Deal showcase of government regional planning, the Tennessee Valley Authority


Taylor gives an important role in his story to postbellum writers who

stereotyped the region as one of isolated mountainfolk. This included the

popular writings of Horace Kephart, who idealized a pioneer lifestyle that had

disappeared from commercialized America. In fact, the inhabitants of the

mountains were survivors, who rotated between agriculture, mining and timber as

economic opportunities warranted. Of necessity, they were more mobile than the

writers imagined, and the region had many seemingly timeless villages that had

once been boomtowns.

In the early 1900s the booming sectors were copper and lumber. Although the

copper expansion was limited by marginal ores, large scale clear-cutting fed

major lumberyards that required company town housing. The future of the area

seemed to ride on Alcoa and the aluminum industry. With massive power

requirements for plants in eastern Tennessee, Alcoa begin buying land in

anticipation of building a massive dam at Fontana, on the Little Tennessee

River. Although the reservoir would result in the loss of precious farmland,

boosters hoped that surplus power from the dam could fuel a local industrial


The 1920s and early 30s were a critical time for the Smokies. Forest depletion

in the most accessible areas led to timber industry decline. Then the Great

Depression reduced mineral demand. Besides the direct impact on the local

copper mines, concern about over-capacity led Alcoa to put its water power

plans on hold. Into this gloomy atmosphere came a national drive by

preservationists and conservationists to create national parks and forests in

the eastern United States. The fascination with America’s mountain regions

began with the health resorts favored by wealthy industrialists. Attention was

further focused on southwestern North Carolina by Vanderbilt’s estate in


Local boosters argued that the region could get tourism dollars now, while

industrial development would come with the eventual construction of Alcoa’s

dam. The first decision to be made was whether to create a national park,

favored by preservationists, or a national forest, favored by conservationists.

The park option would generate the most tourism, while the forest option would

enable the timber industry to continue operations. Despite significant

opposition from lumber companies, who still had large land holdings, Congress

approved the Smoky Mountains Park in 1925.

The park was not actually formed until the onset of the Depression, by which

time another institution with interest in the area entered the scene. The

Tennessee Valley Authority’s business was regional planning. The key to that

planning was complete control over the water flow of the Tennessee River

watershed. This meant that Alcoa’s control of a future dam on the Little

Tennessee River would permanently hamstring its operations. Alcoa’s monopoly

position in the aluminum market further intensified the hostility of TVA’s New

Deal progressives, who sought to purchase the dam site and run the dam in the

agency’s interest.

Before this political battle could completely play out, World War II raised the

stakes. Aluminum for airplanes was now a critical need, and the power from the

Fontana Dam was needed as soon as possible. A bid by Alcoa to retain ownership

and have the Federal Government pay for construction costs backfired

politically. The result was that Alcoa was forced to sell the Fontana site to

the TVA in return for a guaranteed power supply. Professor Taylor believes that

with the TVA in charge of the dam and its uses, the interests of the Smoky

Mountain region and its inhabitants were inevitably given little weight. TVA’s

main contact with the local area was during the dam’s construction, after which

it concentrated on distributing the power into eastern Tennessee. Even the

recreational use of the reservoir was limited, as annual summer draw downs to

meet power needs left docks and boat ramps stranded.

The perception that Tennessee was getting most of the benefits of federal

policy was reinforced by the actions of the Park Service in the Smokies. Many

inhabitants of land included in the park felt that officials misled them over

how long and under what conditions they could continue to reside there. Some of

this was due to changing views of what the park should be. The final policy was

one that attempted to eradicate traces of the land development that had already

occurred within park boundaries. This created more dislocation on the North

Carolina side, where more development had taken place.

The final battle revolved around the “North Shore Road.” This was a road that

the Park Service had agreed to build along Fontana Lake to replace a route

inundated after dam construction. Such a road would have given Bryson City,

North Carolina immediate entry into the park, enhancing its value as a tourist

stop. Park officials came to feel that such a road would create too much damage

to park land, and they successfully lobbied for abandonment of the original

plan. As a result, the Cherokee Reservation became North Carolina’s entryway to

the park, with the subsequent diversion of tourist dollars. Local civic

boosters especially resented the success of Gatlinburg, whose entryway on the

Tennessee side became the most popular destination for visitors.

The only shortcoming in this well written book is the lack of a critical

assessment of the area’s true industrial potential. In the absence of a

concrete proposal of what industries would have moved into the area had not the

TVA diverted the dam’s power, it is difficult to take the dreams of civic

boosters at face value. Unless an industry was to develop around some unique

mineral resource in southwestern North Carolina, the region was only left with

the standard Southern industrialization strategy: labor-intensive

manufacturing. But if labor is mobile, it is easier for Southern manufacturers

to entice the local population to more convenient locations for plant

operation. In their early years, Piedmont textile firms regularly sent labor

recruiters into the mountains offering train tickets. Perhaps a look at the

North Carolina furniture industry or Dalton, Georgia’s carpet industry might

reveal how the region could have forged an industry built around local craft

skills. Despite this reservation, the book will be very useful to historians

interested in the economic development of the Appalachian region.

William H. Phillips is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of

South Carolina. He is currently researching the development of the Southern

cotton gin manufacturing industry and, more generally, patents issued to

Southern inventors before World War I.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII