After devastating wildfires, Gatlinburg, Tenn., welcomes back tourists
By ALAN SOLOMON | Chicago Tribune | Published: January 26, 2017
The grand opening, in this town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and 5 scenic miles from Gatlinburg, had been in the works for months.
So had the drought.
A marginally successful, for-profit attraction called the National Museum of Crime & Punishment had lost its home in Washington, D.C., the previous year over money issues. (The landlord wanted more of it.)
Which meant John Wayne Gacy's clown suit and John Dillinger's death mask and James Caan's pistol from "The Godfather" might have gone back into assorted collections and attics. But no.
Instead, the museum was to move to Tennessee and reopen as the Alcatraz East Crime Museum. It was to sit comfortably on Pigeon Forge's six-lane, slow-moving Parkway in a neighborhood that already included the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, the Hollywood Wax Museum, Smoky Mountain Opry, Wonder Works, Dolly Parton's Lumberjack Adventure and, of course, Dollywood. And pancake joints and go-kart tracks and hotels and motels and outlet malls and T-shirt emporia.
"I just really felt a visitor to the Pigeon Forge area was our visitor type," said Janine Vaccarello, chief operating officer. "They love our country, they love military, they love law enforcement, love guns -- they embrace exactly what we are."
But Nov. 23, as workers were tweaking and installing and polishing for the planned Dec. 16 opening, came the first report of a wildfire near Chimney Tops Trail, a scenic hiker route in the national park about 7 miles south of Gatlinburg.
Days later, with the fire still feeding, came high-wind warnings. Then, reports of more fire in the mountains, and the fires were spreading. Evacuation notices, first for Gatlinburg and then for Pigeon Forge as well, went out Nov. 28.
"'Please contain it,'" Vaccarello recalled saying to herself. "' Do not enter this Parkway area.' There were already fires in that area. You could smell them. But they were in very rural areas."
The fire didn't enter the Pigeon Forge Parkway area.
"We didn't have any loss of life here," said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. "All of our businesses continued to operate."
It entered Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg lost 14 lives. More than 2,400 structures were destroyed or damaged, including the home of the town's mayor.
The city's oldest hotel is the Gatlinburg Inn. It was built on the city's Parkway (narrower and even slower than Pigeon Forge's) in 1937. Its guests have included Liberace and Lady Bird Johnson. The song "Rocky Top" was written in one of its rooms. Its general manager is Gary Bailey.
"The mountain behind the hotel," he said, "was completely on fire."
For more than a week, this city of 3,900 -- which annually funnels 10 million visitors to the nation's most-visited national park -- was on lockdown.
"You had to show ID to get in," Bailey said, "and you had to be out by a certain time. And that was due to safety concerns, plus I'm assuming there were concerns about people getting in and looting some of the businesses that were closed.
"We didn't have any of that."
What they had was, mostly, a sense of relief.
"When we came into town for the first time, we realized, 'Hey, it was bad, but on the whole, Gatlinburg is still intact.'"
True, some motels were remnants. Many places to stay and shops -- downtown Gatlinburg, more sedate than Pigeon Forge, is primarily shops and little restaurants -- suffered smoke damage.
On back roads, charred houses and cabins were in evidence. Skeletal bicycles and melted stoves and gutted automobiles were grim reminders. Blackened trees and brush told their own stories.
"This was kind of everybody's first rodeo," Bailey said. "It was traumatic to see. And, of course, some people lost their lives -- people that we know."
Diana Wolfe takes reservations at Twin Cedar Cabins in Gatlinburg. The company owns nine rental cabins. Two were lost in the fire. She knows others were less fortunate.
"It's a disaster that we're dealing with," she said. "People call and say, 'Why would we want to come there? Everything is gone.'
"Well, it's not gone. Gatlinburg is open, ready for business. We were all affected, we all lost things, we're all recovering -- but if these people don't come back, then we're really going to be devastated."
Approaching Christmas, most Gatlinburg hotels that stood near-empty during the cleanup were busy again. Almost all shops and eateries and attractions had reopened, and those still closed were expected to be ready soon. Parkway was back to its usual crawl; sidewalks were seasonally busy.
Yes, Gatlinburg was open for business, and people were coming back.
"Generations of families have traveled here and have memories of their vacations here, of throwing rocks in the river and whitewater rafting ... and having pancakes" said Marci Claude, of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And they grieve with you.
"And then they support you."
And there's also this.
"People can look at the bad side, if they want," said Steve Ellis, who handles sales and marketing for Parton properties in Pigeon Forge. "But all the stuff's going to be rebuilt. Carpenters, electricians, you go to get lumber -- it's jobs."
On Dec. 16, authorities declared the fires in Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearly 100 percent contained and stopped issuing bulletins.
Back in Pigeon Forge, all was absolutely normal. Dollywood, the amusement park, reopened the first weekend in December. Other attractions were doing fine despite the inevitable misconceptions.
"I talked to a lady the other day," said Ellis, "and she thought the mountains physically burned. The mountains themselves. She said, 'Is it flat up there now?'
"If people came here before, there's no difference."
Two days before Christmas, thanks to good work by first-responders and a blessed event -- rain -- the national park lifted its ban on campfires.
And Dec. 16, right on time, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum -- like everything in Pigeon Forge and almost everything in Gatlinburg -- was open for business.