This past May, the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park unveiled its new Sky Bridge. The attraction is 140 feet above the ground at its highest point and spans 680 feet in length across the Great Smoky Mountains, making the bridge the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States.
Upon the attraction, visitors can glimpse a panoramic view of the Smokies, and the peaks of several different particular mountains are visible from the bridge. The site also offers a view of the sparkling, colorful downtown region of Gatlinburg.
However, the center of the bridge, which is composed of several panels of clear glass, gives viewers a glimpse into the seemingly insurmountable disaster that struck the scenic park just three years ago. Look below the bridge, and you will see remnants of the tragedy: the ashes.
In contrast to the stark green of the mountains that are visible from the bridge, the area beneath the structure is littered with the remnants of trees that were burned in the infamous 2016 Gatlinburg fires.
The flames did not only burn the ground surrounding the park, they also deeply impacted the lives of those who work and live around the park.
Randy Watson is a Gatlinburg native, and he has worked at the SkyLift Park for 42 years, serving as general manager for over half of those years. Watson has watched the park transform over the course of his career.
SkyLift Park, the longest-running attraction in Gatlinburg, was established in 1954 as a single chair lift that offered visitors a scenic view of Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains. Later, the attraction was upgraded to a double chair lift and a store was built at the top of the lift. Right outside of the store, an American flag flew high above the town of Gatlinburg.
This is how the park looked when the fires reached the area three years ago.
Watson remembers vividly the day that the disaster struck. He knew there were fires in the mountains near the park, and around noon on the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, Watson decided to close the park and send his staff home because of the ash that was falling from the sky.
“You could literally stand outside and look at the sun and not bat an eye,” Watson said. “It was just an eerily pinkish-orange, smoky color with ash falling all over.”
Despite the remnants from the surrounding fire, Watson did not believe the park was in serious danger; he closed the park simply to avoid any harmful effects from the smoke and other ashy residue.
However, late Monday night, the wildfires attacked SkyLift Park. The flames engulfed the area, spreading from not only the ridge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park but also from the bottom of the mountain. Essentially, the fire approached the park from two different directions.
Accompanied by 87 mph winds and dry weather, the fires stormed on at full force.
SkyLift park had fallen victim to a natural disaster that ultimately burned over 17,000 acres, damaged more than 2,400 structures and took 14 lives.
After the wildfires hit, the park was destroyed. The skylift was completely inoperable, and the gift shop at the top was demolished. The American flag upon the mountain was burnt to shreds.
Growing up, Watson’s father warned him that if the Smokies ever caught fire, the effects would be disastrous. However, Watson never really imagined that Gatlinburg would be the place to be affected by wildfires.
He recalls the shock of realizing what had happened to not only the park that he had worked at for decades, but also his hometown.
“I can’t describe it. It’s just a heart-sinking feeling to see what we’ve seen, and I’m a native here. I’ve grown up here, and it literally just sunk our hearts,” Watson said.
After the disaster, Watson worked to find the positives in the situation — One of which was the tragedy’s timing.
The fires struck the Monday night after Thanksgiving weekend, just hours after thousands of visitors had travelled out of Gatlinburg after enjoying a family vacation in the mountains. Had the fire struck Gatlinburg just one or two days earlier, the number of lives lost in the fire may have skyrocketed.
“If you could only imagine if that fire hit us on Saturday into Sunday, it could’ve been 1,400 lives or even more,” Watson said. “One life is too many, but anyway, we were just so thankful that a lot of the people had already left town.”
The effects of the fire have resonated at the park for years.
Five of the park’s employees lost everything in the wildfire. The park’s parent company Borne Resorts ensured that not a single employee missed a paycheck during the park’s reconstruction, and the company also gave the park extra money to help the employees affected.
The first portion of the park that was rebuilt after the fires was the classic skylift, the feature of the park that had been a staple in the Gatlinburg skyline for over 60 years. A new triple chair lift was installed by Dopplemire, and the lift began operating during Memorial Day Weekend 2017 — six months after the fires struck.
The store and area around the top of the lift took longer to rebuild, so for two years, visitors of the park could not get off of the lift.
However, perhaps the biggest silver lining that SkyLift park has found in this situation is the panoramic view that is offered by the Sky Bridge.
Plans for the bridge were established several years ago, and construction on the project was scheduled to begin in 2016. But, due to engineering complications, the project was delayed. If the bridge had been constructed on time, it would have been destroyed in the fires as well.
The bridge opened on May 17 and, as fate has it, this year is also the park’s 65th anniversary.
By the time the bridge was completed, the store at the top of the lift was rebuilt as well. Visitors to the park can now ride the lift to the top, visit the store, walk around the viewing areas on the mountain and cross the 680-foot suspension bridge.
Many of the trees that were burnt in the fire had to be removed from the mountain due to their extensive damage. However, after the trees near the bridge were removed, a panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains rose to view, like a phoenix from the ashes.
Watson explained that despite the unfortunate need to tear down damaged trees, the new view is a blessing.
“I feel after all my 42 years, when I’m standing on that bridge and looking out, you just don’t get tired of that view, and that was a silver lining for us — that we were able to get a nicer view for our customers to enjoy God’s beauty out in front of them, those beautiful Smoky mountains and our beautiful city down below,” Watson said.
Nowadays, the park is looking to the future.
Marcus Watson, Randy’s son, is also a Gatlinburg native. He has worked at the park off and on for around a decade, and he has served as the park’s marketing coordinator for two years.
The park recently acquired 45 acres of land adjacent to its attractions, and Marcus Watson explained that whatever feature ends up in that space will be monumental and respect the park’s desire to provide viewers with the best view of the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg.
“Whenever the lift first came to Gatlinburg in ‘54, no one had any clue why anyone would build a scenic chair lift in Gatlinburg. It was unheard of. It was unique in its time and unique to the area. The bridge was the next addition, this year. It’s unique in its time and unique to the area, so whatever we put on the other side, it will be unique in its time, unique to the area,” Watson said.
Additionally, the park’s story of revival has resonated throughout the world. Stories about the record-breaking suspension bridge have appeared on national news, simultaneously spreading the word about the attraction and letting the world know that Gatlinburg is back, and Gatlinburg is recovering,“ Watson said.
“It’s the comeback story of ‘hey, this is an attraction that’s been here forever, and it burnt down and now it’s come back better than ever with this new, record-breaking bridge,’” Watson said.
He added that he hopes the story of the park in particular can serve as a symbolic representation of the way that Gatlinburg as a whole has recovered from the fires and persevered through the recent years.
“Not all of Gatlinburg burned down, but it was affected,” Watson said. “But now it’s come back better than ever.”
The parks pays homage to the tragedy with several displays on the second floor of the store. Photographs of the park before and after the fires depict the timeline of the tragedy.
Over the store’s staircase, the tattered, burnt American flag flies on, its shape forever compressed into that of a flag in the wind by a glass picture frame.
The park remembers what happened with these visuals, but the park is moving forward. The park is moving to the future and so is the city of Gatlinburg.