Prior to 1900, this area of the Little River Valley and the surrounding tributary streams was called Tuckaleechee Cove – a name meaning “peaceful valley” given to the region by the Cherokees who lived here prior to the first white settlers arrival in the late 1700s. And, for more than a century after these first settlements, it remained a “peaceful valley,” with subsistence farming along the valleys being the primary livelihood of the inhabitants. Then for a relatively brief period of less than 40 years it was a beehive of commercial lumbering activity. But since the establishment of the great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s, the area has re-emerged as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies. “
In 1900, Wilson B. Townsend and a group of fellow Pennsylvanians formed the Little River Lumber Company, initially intended to supply tanbark for a tannery located at Walland. They bought nearly 80,000 acres of land, much of which now comprises the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And, in order to log the rugged terrain and move the logs to the mill, they established the Little River Railroad. The headquarters for both the railroad and the lumber company were located in the village which was named Townsend. From here, rails were run deep into the mountains – with workers, equipment, and tools hauled in and logs hauled out by the power of the Shay locomotives, small, powerful, cog driven steam engines which had been developed specifically for working on steep slopes such as these.
Even during this period of intense commercial activity, the scenic mountain country became a popular attraction once the railroads had opened relatively easy access to it. Some of the logging camps, notably Elkmont, began to evolve into tourist hotels. As logging activities began to wane and the railroad tracks removed, the rail beds provided the beginnings of roadways and trails into the Smokies. A prime example is the scenic Little River Road now running from Townsend all the way along the wilds of the Little River to the Sugarlands visitors center. This was originally the rail bed of the Little River Railroad.
In the mid 1930s, most of the forest land originally acquired by W.B. Townsend was sold to the state of Tennessee which turned it over to the National Park Service to form a major part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of its proximity to Cades Cove and the easy access to the scenic Little River portion of the park, Townsend became a major portal for visitors to the national park. The other main park portals such as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Cherokee have seen the development of entertainment and “tourist” centers, many totally unrelated to the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains, which draw crowds of tourists – and the corresponding traffic jams. Unlike these more commercialized portals, the Townsend area has remained primarily an uncluttered, pleasant, scenic destination for those who want to enjoy the natural beauty of the Smokies without undue artificial distractions.