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LeConte Lodge holds a centennial of stories

This 1929 photo by Dutch Roth, one of the most prolific early photographers of the Great Smoky Mountains' Greenbrier and Mount Le Conte areas, shows the original LeConte Lodge, built by Jack Huff in 1926. Photo provided by the University of Tennessee Libraries Albert “Dutch” Roth Collection and Charles Roth.

LeConte Lodge will soon celebrate its hundredth year of hosting overnight guests on Mount Le Conte, but the lodge’s actual birthdate (and the spelling of its name) is subject to debate. The centennial celebration could span three summers, depending on who’s counting.

The first log cabin on top of Mount Le Conte, built by Paul Adams, winter 1925-'26. Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Special Collections.
The first log cabin on top of Mount Le Conte, built by Paul Adams, winter 1925-’26. Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Special Collections.

July 16, 1925, marked the arrival of the first overnight guests, a group of people from the Illinois Audubon Society who fixed their own meals and paid $32 to spend the night in Paul Adams’ canvas tent under the shadows of a waning moon. Adams, a naturalist and avid hiker who the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association had appointed custodian of Mount Le Conte, celebrated 1975 as the 50th anniversary, so he would have expected the centennial to be recognized in 2025. The lodge’s current operators agree, with their merchandise advertising 1925 as the year of establishment.

However, Gatlinburg mountaineer Jack Huff, who constructed many of the buildings still in use today, would have dated the founding to 1926. That’s when he opened the original 32-bed cabin and hung a sign over a child-sized door that christened the building “LᴇCᴏɴᴛᴇ Lᴏᴅɢᴇ,” omitting the space from the mountain’s name. Jack and his wife, Pauline, along with their family, operated the lodge until 1960.

But there’s also a case for an earlier date. On August 6 and 7, 1924, Adams led the most auspicious camping trip in Smokies history—a federal delegation that stayed in a lean-to a half-mile west of the lodge location. On the morning of August 7, the commissioners were dazzled by the sunrise from Myrtle Point—a spectacle that convinced them to nominate the Smokies for national park status ahead of other candidates such as the grassy balds of Roan Mountain and the granite walls of Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge.

This 1929 photo by Dutch Roth, one of the most prolific early photographers of the Great Smoky Mountains' Greenbrier and Mount Le Conte areas, shows the original LeConte Lodge, built by Jack Huff in 1926. Photo provided by the University of Tennessee Libraries Albert “Dutch” Roth Collection and Charles Roth.
This 1929 photo by Dutch Roth, one of the most prolific early photographers of the Great Smoky Mountains’ Greenbrier and Mount Le Conte areas, shows the original LeConte Lodge, built by Jack Huff in 1926. Photo provided by the University of Tennessee Libraries Albert “Dutch” Roth Collection and Charles Roth.

Still, the lodge barely reached its 50th anniversary when passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act left the business’s future uncertain. Its survival was assured when park administrators negotiated an exemption that allowed the lodge to continue operating within an area otherwise managed under wilderness rules, but half a century later the lodge entered another moment of peril. It was nearly lost during the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in 2016, which burned 11,410 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and merged with other area fires, sweeping into Gatlinburg, where it caused 14 deaths and millions of dollars in damage. Still, the lodge survived to see its hundredth birthday fast approaching.

When my friend Mike Hembree and I considered the centennial’s significance, we decided to write a book detailing the lodge’s history. We were newspaper colleagues at the Greenville News in South Carolina and first visited the lodge in 1985, the same year Huff died and just two years after Gracie McNicol, who set a record for most overnight stays on Le Conte, made her final hike at age 92.

Mike has written and published more than a dozen books, ranging from quaint community histories to rip-roaring NASCAR classics, including an upcoming book on the rivalry between Richard Petty and David Pearson. Readers of this page may remember him as a frequent contributor to “Trailside Talk” for Smokies Live.

LeConte Lodge. Photo provided by David Brill.
LeConte Lodge. Photo provided by David Brill.

Completing the book required extensive research, including tracking down rarely seen photos, conducting interviews, and sifting through lodge logbooks. The book draws from conversations with folks who have lived the lodge’s history, including Huff’s daughter, Cookie Bowling, who was raised on the mountaintop; Myrtle Brown, whose husband Herrick acquired the contract from Huff in 1960; Huff’s nephew Jim Huff Jr., who brought the business back into the family in 1977; and Tim Line and John Northrup, who have managed the lodge for the past 47 years.

It also delves into the legends surrounding Jack Huff, including his August 1928 hike with his mother on his back and a hurricane on the horizon, his February 1930 expedition to become the first man to drive across Newfound Gap from Gatlinburg to Smokemont, and his April 1934 sunrise wedding at Myrtle Point. “Bride and Groom Take Short Hike Before Ceremony,” was the headline in the Knoxville newspapers, understating the midnight scramble Huff and Pauline Whaling made up Bear Pen Hollow. We tracked down a sweet letter from Jack to Pauline’s family, in which he wrote: “There’s not another girl in the world that I’d ask to live on my mountain with me.” Cabin One, the oldest building at the lodge, was their honeymoon cabin.

Using lodge logbooks going back to the 1930s, we chronicled the accomplishments of Le Conte’s most relentless hikers, including Ron Valentine (the all-time leader with about three thousand climbs from 1946 through 2015), Rev. Rufus Morgan (the oldest climber, on his 93rd birthday in 1978), and several celebrities who have made the trek. The book also includes a link to play “The Legend of Jack Huff,” a bluegrass ballad by Jimbo Whaley, and a logbook that readers can use as a personal hiking journal—perhaps for a hike up Mount Le Conte to see the historic cabins at the top.

LeConte Lodge: The Centennial History of a Smoky Mountain Landmark will be published by McFarland Books of Jefferson, North Carolina, as part of its Appalachian Studies Series. The book is expected to be available in 2025 and can be ordered in advance at McFarlandBooks.com.

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