The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 75 years old this year. But if not for a determined UT alumnus, today’s most-visited national park might not exist.
Colonel David Carpenter Chapman rallied both public opinion and financial support crucial to the park’s establishment in 1934. The native Knoxvillian and former UT football player attended the university from 1895 to 1897 but didn’t graduate.
Chapman was the first commissioner of the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission, which was charged with acquiring lands to create the park. Because most of the property was privately owned, the task proved difficult, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture: “Boosters not only faced a daunting task in raising the estimated ten million dollars needed to buy the necessary land, but six thousand landowners, especially the large timber companies that owned most of the land, resisted acquisition.”
Chapman negotiated hundreds of land purchases, even as he raised money to buy more parcels of the scenic terrain. Fundraising to purchase land for the park began in 1925. The legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee appropriated $2 million each in 1927, and other donations came from individuals, groups, and schoolchildren who gave their pennies.
But that wasn’t enough, and Arno Cammerer of the National Park Service and Chapman were credited with persuading John D. Rockefeller Jr. to give $5 million to guarantee the project’s success.
In the October 1934 issue of Tennessee Alumnus, UT professor and park historian Carlos Campbell saluted Chapman and other alumni who spearheaded the effort. “University of Tennessee alumni furnished the leadership, and most of the work, for one of the greatest movements ever undertaken in—and for—the state of Tennessee,” Campbell said.
Other UT alumni deemed instrumental in the park’s founding were General Frank Maloney, class of 1898; Cowan Rodgers, 1899; General Cary F. Spence, 1886; and General J. W. Cooper, 1899.
But it was Chapman who made it happen, Campbell says: “It was the scrappy colonel who refused to give up the fight when, at so many different times, it seemed hopeless.”
Chapman was rewarded with the naming of Mount Chapman, a 6,340-foot peak near the Tennessee–North Carolina border, in his honor. U.S. Highway 441 in Knoxville—Chapman Highway—bears his name, as well.