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Reconstruction of Gatlinburg after the 2016 wildfires: SkyLift Park bigger than ever

GATLINBURG, Tennessee (WATE) – Five years ago, wildfires spread so rapidly through Gatlinburg and Sevier County that 14 people were killed, more than 17,000 acres burned and more than 2,400 structures were destroyed.

It was a night that no one had seen coming, and it is now a big part of the history of the area.

“You never expect something like this to happen here. You know, you see it in the west, the wildfires you see and you think of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and it’s like it’s a little area, we know everyone. Like, that’s what you see on the news. You wouldn’t expect that to happen here, ”said Marcus Watson, executive director of Gatlinburg SkyLift Park.

The main strip along downtown Gatlinburg has been spared, but nearby buildings and structures have not been so lucky.

Gatlinburg SkyLift Park was one of the only downtown attractions to be damaged by fires and in need of reconstruction.

“The upper terminal, we had a souvenir shop here. Who burned. The SkyLift upper terminal burned down. And we had enough fire damage on our entire elevator that we had to replace it, ”Watson said.

The only part of the park that was left standing after the fires was the ticket office.

Watson said the gift shop at the top of the ride was reduced to ashes, the upper elevator terminal burned down, and the entire elevator itself was damaged enough to require replacement.

He said 90% of the landscape surrounding the attraction had been destroyed by fire. Five of their employees lost their homes.

Once the smoke cleared, Watson said people showed the country what the hardness of the mountain was.

“A lot of people work together and stay positive and just think long term, ‘hey you know we’re going through a tough time right now, but if we persevere keep an eye on what we’re trying to achieve it will be. finally a positive result. And that’s what we’re looking at today, ”Watson said.

Watson said saying goodbye to the 60-plus attraction never occurred to him. The elevator was an iconic part of the city that needed to rebuild and keep going.

“You know, we’ve been providing such a unique attraction to people for 67 years, and people have a tradition of coming here with families. They took the chairlift with their grandfather, now they have grandchildren and want to go up there with them. And now we can even improve the view of what they were going through in the 70s, 80s and 90s even better with the SkyBridge, ”Watson said.

The SkyBridge is just one example of how the park has rebuilt itself and got even better, according to Watson.

The plans for the bridge were in place before the fires. Watson said it was fate not to build it as planned.

“It’s one of those times we’re happy we missed our schedule for opening something because the bridge was actually supposed to open in October 2016. If it had, in theory , it would have burned, ”he added. Watson said.

Watson said the fires were an important part of their history, so history should be included when rebuilding and expanding the park.

“This part of the story helps shed light on the type of people who live here. That when problems arise, when you are faced with adversity, how Gatlinburg just came together and managed to get out of it, ”Watson said.

In much of SkyLift Park, visitors can learn about fires.

In the new gift shop, the original American flag hangs on the wall as a reminder, along with a photo of the 278th Division of the Tennessee National Guard properly removing the burnt flag from its flagpole atop the ‘elevator.

On another wall in the gift shop, there are three photos of SkyLift Park: when the elevator opened, a front photo of the park in 2016, and another photo immediately after the forest fires in 2016.

A new adventure at the park was built specifically to remember the fires: the tulip tower.

“On each level there is a little tulip tree, because there was a little tulip tree that was there that was damaged by the fires, and we were going to integrate it into our attraction, but once we found out that ‘it had fire damage, we had to take it apart,’ Watson said.

On each level of the Tulip Tower, visitors learn about the history of the tree, as well as what happened in the fires.

When visitors walk to and from the Tulip Tower, they have more opportunities to walk through the history of the park and the wildfires on the SkyLift Trail.

“You don’t want to live in the past, but you know, it’s part of our history. And we want all of our guests to understand what we’ve been through, what Gatlinburg has been through and how we’ve come back better than ever, ”Watson said.

From a distance, someone might not be able to see the story. Up close, that’s another story. The charred tree remains and regrowth show exactly what the area has gone through.

It’s also obvious to those who know what to look for along the SkyLift.

“This is what is beautiful in nature. It’s like he’s taking care of himself, you know. I mean we played a big role in planting new trees. Going up the elevator you can see it. We hydroseeded here. Every dead tree we’ve had to cut has been chipped in the soil, so we’re trying to encourage that regrowth, ”Watson said. “It’s symbolic of Gatlinburg and it’s symbolic of us for what we’ve been through and how we’re growing up.”

Watson said more things need to come from SkyLift Park as it grows.


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