Upland Chronicles: Mystery of national park gravestone solved decades later
One day in May 1975, Park Ranger Glenn Cardwell was called to the front desk of Sugarlands Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
At first, this wasn’t unusual, since Cardwell was very familiar with the cultural history of the Smokies and had handled hundreds of such inquiries over the years. But this particular request on this day would become very special. Little did Glenn Cardwell, a man who was born on land that would become part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, know that this chance encounter with an unknown woman at the front desk of the visitor center would help solve a 60-year old mystery of a vanished boy in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Glenn Cardwell is a modest man, but even to this day — almost 40 years later — he still wonders at the fortunate fact that this woman came into the visitor center on a day that he was on duty.
He’s quick to add that the other rangers on staff were all capable men, but that day he remembered a letter he’d seen several years earlier that would prove crucial to the mystery. And in the end, being on duty at that precise moment would prove to be critical.
The woman Cardwell met at the front desk identified herself as Virgie F. Smith of Knoxville. She was looking for information about her long-lost older brother, who reportedly had vanished in the Smoky Mountains decades earlier. She said the ache of not knowing what had happened to him had eaten at her soul over the years, and at this point in her life she was attempting to bring closure to a family tragedy that had dogged her all her life.
Mrs. Smith said that at the time of her brother’s disappearance her family lived in Blount County. She’d always heard that way back in the spring of 1915 her brother Edward (called Edd) had gotten into an argument with their father.
She said her father wasn’t a cruel man but, like many fathers of the time, did not hesitate to not “spare the rod.” After the argument, Edd took off into the mountains alone with the idea of living with relatives in North Carolina.
That was the last the family ever saw of young Edd McKinley.
Glenn Cardwell has a historian’s mind, and he remembered the letter that had crossed his desk earlier from Lucinda Ogle, a well-known Gatlinburg personality and daughter of the legendary Smoky Mountains’ guide and storyteller Wiley Oakley.
Cardwell was becoming very interested in the compelling quest of this woman seeking closure to a cruel family tragedy. He resolved to find that letter in the park’s files and, as best as he could, help solve the mystery of Edd McKinley.
After a search, Cardwell located the letter. He and Mrs. Smith sat down in a park office and reviewed it. In it, Lucinda Ogle said her husband Earnest had helped dig a grave in the Sugarlands Cemetery when he was about 10 years old for an unidentified boy. Glenn Cardwell phoned the Ogles from his office and asked if Mrs. Smith could come by and talk to them. They agreed, and Mrs. Smith visited the Ogle home.
Earnest Ogle related to Mrs. Smith what he remembered. He said two men named Jim and Joe Cole from the Sugarlands community had found a boy frozen to death when they were returning home from hunting on the North Carolina side of the mountains.
The Coles found the body under an overhanging rock, under which the boy had laid to get some protection from a fierce snowstorm. They rigged up a tripod and laboriously dragged the corpse over the mountains to their community, passing one resident who said the boy had passed his cabin several days earlier and had refused to turn back even in the bad weather.
Earnest Ogle said that for several days the community was all abuzz about the unfortunate lad’s sad fate. But no one knew him or his kin. Reluctantly, members of the community dressed the boy in new clothes and gave him a Christian burial.
And that’s where the story had ended, with an unidentified grave in a cemetery inside what would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
That first meeting led to others as Mrs. Smith and the Ogles compared memories and put two-and-two together. As they talked over several meetings, the feeling grew more and more positive that this unidentified grave was indeed that of young Edd McKinley. They reported their belief to Cardwell, who also could not escape the conclusion that the final resting spot of this unfortunate youngster had indeed been found.
As the realization of the facts became obvious, Cardwell recalled that it was an emotional experience for all. He remembered that Lucinda Ogle was just so happy that her letter had been instrumental in connecting the dots on this seemingly endless mystery.
And Glenn Cardwell recalled that Mrs. Smith earnestly wished her mother were still alive that day to learn the truth. “She would’ve been so happy to know that total strangers in the Sugarlands had taken such good care of her lost boy and respectfully buried him,” Mrs. Smith told him. “It would’ve been such a relief to her,” she concluded.
Several months later, a small group of people including Mrs. Smith and the Ogles drove the unpaved road from Cherokee Orchard to the path to the Sugarlands Cemetery. They were led by Cardwell, who opened the park gate to let the vehicles in. They drove in as far as the road allowed, then walked the remaining distance.
One of them was Mrs. Smith’s son Don, who carried on his shoulder a gravestone with engraved lettering. The stone read:
Born March 10, 1903
Died April 2, 1915
The gravestone and flowers were placed and a respectful moment of silence ensued as all the attendees reflected on the event. For Glenn Cardwell, it was a rewarding day, a day that he vividly remembers.
“That day in the cemetery was an important day of closure for Mrs. Smith, and even for us who were not family. The sense of closure that day was of happiness — not sadness — but happiness for all.”
— 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 email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.