Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee — 6,643 feet above sea level. I suspect that most of the people who read this column have climbed its observation tower and seen the magnificent views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from there.
I recently heard that the 57-year-old tower was getting a renovation. In the process of researching this project, I ran across many facts about the place.
- What’s being done to the observation tower at Clingmans Dome? “The work is mostly cosmetic,” says Brent McDaniel, spokesperson for the Friends of the Smokies nonprofit group. “They are resurfacing parts of its path, jacking up some of the lower parts of the ramp (where it has sunk a bit) and patching up parts of the concrete tower where some of the rebar has become exposed due to wear and tear.” The whole project will cost about $250,000.
- When will the work begin? The national park says the job will start during the next year, but officials aren’t sure beyond that. Curiously enough, the August 2017 solar eclipse, of all things, is affecting plans. Parks officials know that many people will come to Clingmans Dome to see the eclipse and want to make sure views are unencumbered on that day.
- Who is paying for the renovation? It is being funded through a grant by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Clingmans Dome received the money because it was one of the top such projects receiving votes from the general public.
- How was the observation tower funded in the first place? The Clingmans Dome tower was part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 upgrade program — a massive initiative under which roads, visitors centers and other facilities were built in national parks all over the country.
- What was there before the current tower was built? In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a more traditional “fire-tower-style” structure out of tree trunks. The top of the tower was reachable by stairs. However, this tower fell into disrepair by the 1950s and had to be torn down.
- Was the current tower’s ramp design controversial? Very much so. Courtney Lix wrote a long cover story for the spring 2015 issue of Smokies Life magazine about the fact that many people were not thrilled with the tower design because it looked so modernistic. “The Clingmans Dome tower had the dubious distinction of being one of the two most controversial Mission 66 projects; the other was Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park,” the story said.
- Who designed the current tower? Hubert Bebb of the Gatlinburg-based architectural firm of Bebb and Olson. He later had this to say about the idea behind it: “As I studied the site and the beautiful stand of Fraser’s fir with their perpendicular trunks, the idea of a ramp approximately the gradient of the trail supported on vertical ‘trunks’ of concrete began to root itself in my mind.”
- Where does the name “Clingmans Dome” come from? The highest point on the mountain was originally called “Smokies Dome” but was renamed in 1859. Thomas Clingman was the head of the surveying party that measured the height of the mountain on an excursion a year before that time. Clingman was also a U.S. senator from North Carolina — one of 15 Southern senators who either resigned or was removed from the U.S. Senate when the Confederacy was formed in 1861. (The only Southern senator who didn’t leave the senate was Andrew Johnson.) Clingman was a Confederate general during the Civil War.
- Why is it called as a “dome” when it isn’t a dome such as the ones found out West at places like Yosemite and Zion national parks? No one knows (at least I don’t think anyone does). Perhaps the early settlers called it a dome because its summit appears relatively round compared to other mountain peaks in the area.
- What has happened to the trees at Clingmans Dome? The short trail to the tower used to be shaded, but it’s not anymore. In recent decades, a small insect known as the balsam woolly adelgid has killed almost all of the Fraser fir trees that used to live at the high altitudes of the Great Smoky Mountains. Most of the trees on both sides of the trail and at the tower are dead now. National park officials and botanists are very hopeful that trees will one day make a comeback at the high altitudes of the Smokies. But they aren’t sure what will happen.