Upland Chronicles: Broome never lost enthusiasm for the Smokies

Feb. 11, 2013 @ 12:22 AM

As a child in the early 1900s, Harvey Broome used to gaze out the second-floor window of his parents' house in Knoxville and see a pale blue line of mountains running across the southern horizon. These were his very first views of the Great Smoky Mountains.

As a youngster, Harvey Broome didn’t know exactly what that pale blue line represented, or how it would affect his life. It would be after he grew up and graduated from the University of Tennessee and then Harvard Law School that he’d have the time to devote to extensive hiking and exploring those mountains he saw to the south as a child.

In the process, he developed a deep love for the southern mountains, and being in them became a passion. Over the course of his adult life, this son of East Tennessee would devote almost all his free time away from the legal profession to the preservation of wild lands.

His enthusiasm and commitment led him to become a nationally known conservationist and one of the founders of The Wilderness Society. And even though he was a successful lawyer, his real passion and the work that made him famous was the enjoyment and conservation of wild mountain country, both in the Smokies and elsewhere. By most accounts, that was his true life’s work.

Born in 1902 in Knoxville, Broome wrote, “In this pleasant, peaceful, isolated and self-contained world, I don’t recall when I became aware that there were mountains to the south of the city. But I could not have been very old.”

Those first views of the mountains impressed him deeply. Broome got his first real-time experience in the Smokies when his parents took him along on a church excursion by train from Knoxville to the lumber town of Elkmont in the pre-park Smokies. They took the train to Walland and then transferred to another train to Elkmont, where they spent the day swimming in the Little River and picnicking. Broome recalled that he was “reluctant to leave when the long blast of the locomotive signaled the end of the day.”

That initial train ride into the Smokies led to other outings, one where he got his first look at The Chimney Tops, an imposing rock outcrop.

“Yesterday we hiked again to the Chimneys,” he wrote in his personal journal, “to a spot which in one way or another has become a part of my life. I believe it was 1918 that I took my first trip up the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and caught my first view of the Chimneys. No one had warned me of these precipitous and distinctive peaks. I was hiking along on a fishing trip with relatives, trying to keep up with the others, and glanced up. ‘What are they?’ I cried out, astounded by their sharp points and vertical slopes. Someone said, ‘The Chimney Tops!’ I am sure that I resolved right then and there to climb them, although it was two years before I made the try.”

After finishing high school, Broome graduated from UT and moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School. And even though he attained a prestigious Harvard law degree and could have practiced elsewhere, he returned to Knoxville and made his living there. He later brought a bride from up North named Anna Pursel to Knoxville, who shared his ramblings in the Smokies.

A big part of Broome’s explorations in the Smokies came from his association with avid hikers in the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. These hardy folk were hiking and exploring the undeveloped Smokies a decade before the national park was established, and Harvey Broome fit right in with their interests and served many terms as the group’s president.

Broome’s enthusiasm for the preservation of the Smokies led to meetings with other like-minded people who were interested in protecting wild country across the nation. He worked with people such as Bob Marshall, Sigurd Olson, Howard Zahniser, Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKaye, and Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on wilderness and conservation issues.

This shared interest led many of them to found The Wilderness Society in 1935, an organization still in existence. And Harvey Broome, the East Tennessee lawyer, became so prominent in this national organization that he was elected its president many times, while also writing a column for its monthly magazine.

But even with his rise to the heights in the national conservation movement, Harvey Broome remained a humble man and was always more at home exploring the Smokies with his local hiking friends.

The Smokies were his hermitage, where he and Anna could leave their urban life in Knoxville and spend free time in Sevier County in a one-room log cabin that they called Cobbles Hollow, not far from the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Some of Broome’s close friends remembered that one of his favorite expressions always was: “I have never wanted to leave the top of a mountain.” But Harvey Broome left this world on March 8, 1968 after suffering a heart attack at his home while cutting wood to make a birdhouse.

He left behind writings and a journal that were posthumously published in three books: "Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies"; "Faces of the Wilderness"; and "Harvey Broome- Earth Man."

This son of East Tennessee always had a special feeling for nature and especially the Smokies.

Carson Brewer wrote this fitting summary of Harvey Broome’s life in the Knoxville News-Sentinel: “Though Harvey Broome’s profession was law, he was far more widely known for his love of the wild outdoors and his efforts to preserve it. He had tramped through nearly every wilderness area in America, from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to the Great Smokies.”

— Arthur "Butch" McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains NP ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.