Gatlinburg Tennessee - How to have a famous town named after you.

Gatlinburg Tennessee

Gatlinburg, Tennessee has a population of only about 4000. There is little chance of that number being increased by urban sprawl, because the town is bordered on all sides by the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Smoky Mountains
The town reminds one of a little ski resort in the Austrian Tyrol. Relative to its small size, Gatlinburg is famous. My reason for staying there in the late 1980s had nothing to do with the physical characteristics of Gatlinburg.

Dolly Parton
Instead, the physical characteristics of Dolly Parton, the country singer, were responsible for my journey. I have always been a big fan of Dolly, who hails from this part of Eastern Tennessee. In 1986, Dolly bought into a big theme park which she then renamed Dollywood. She added some attractive features to the original theme park, including much memorabilia from her great career. She also added a theater, where she sometimes performs. Like me, my wife and children were fans of Dolly, so it was resolved that we would all devote a vacation to Dollywood which is located at Pigeon Forge – 8 miles down the road from Gatlinburg, where we stayed.

Gatling gun patent drawing
At first, I assumed that the town took its name from the early machine gun. Perhaps they used these guns to secure the valley in frontier days. But the Gatling Gun has one “g” too many, so it couldn’t be that. Who or what was the “Gatlin”, after whom the town was named? Before I emigrated to America, I always thought how great it would be to have a town named after me – say “Pattenburg” or “Pattenville”. It impressed me that Lyndon Johnson came from Johnson City, Texas. I once saw myself leading a small band of faithful followers into a vast undeveloped part of the USA, erecting the first building many miles from anywhere, and then laying out a street grid for the future of this town named after me. This Gatlin person seemed to have achieved just that. Who was he?

Surprisingly enough, he didn’t found Gatlinburg and he was eventually kicked out of town. Gatlinburg was founded in about 1790 by British settlers from North Carolina. They called the town White Oaks and that was its name when Radford Gatlin arrived in town in 1855. He opened a second store and post office, which were so popular that the area began to take its name from them – Gatlinburg. He was also a preacher and founded The Gatlinite Baptist Church. The town discarded the more generic name of White Oaks. Radford Gatlin enjoyed his fame and popularity until he made a huge mistake. He chose the wrong side in the Civil War. He opted for the Confederacy, while the locals were very much on the side of the victors, the Unionists. After the war, the locals sent him packing and confiscated his property. He spent his old age in Union, South Carolina.

The name of the town continued as Gatlinburg. Surely, it would have been a bigger punishment to change it? Anyone can leave property and possessions, but few have a famous town named after them.

This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on October 11, 2008.