Before there was a Great Smoky Mountains National Park there was the Appalachian Trail; and before there was an Appalachian Trail there was the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The movement to establish the Park and the development of the Trail (to the extent that it traces the skyline of the Smokies) are so intertwined with the earliest activities of the Club that distinctions between the three are often blurred. The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club began inauspiciously as an informal adult hiking program organized by leaders of the YMCA boys camp in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Marshall Wilson, Assistant Boys Work Director, and George Barber, Physical Director, suggested the hike, an overnight excursion to Mount Le Conte on October 19-20, 1924. While on Cliff Top at the summit of Mount Le Conte, enjoying the grandeur of mountain scenery, the participants reached an agreement that a club should be formed for the express purpose of sponsoring trips into the Smokies for any interested persons, especially those whose political and civic influence might help support a fledging interest in establishing a national park in Tennessee. A week later, a meeting was held at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce during which the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club was formally established. A decision was made to extend the scope of the Club's mission beyond that of the YMCA and to broaden membership eligibility. In effect, the initial tie with the "Y" was cut.
There is no known list of charter members from the first meeting, but among membership of the earliest years are distinguished individuals whose respect for the wilderness and whose boundless energies were instrumental in promoting both Ann Davis's vision of "a national park in the East," and Benton MacKaye's proposal for a "along trail over the full length of the Appalachian skyline, from the highest peak wilderness that Horace Kephart had once christened "the back of beyond." Other early Club members, such as Paul Adams, Harvey Broome, Carlos Campbell, Brockway Crouch, Paul Fink, and Laura Thornburgh, were active in submitting to popular journals descriptive essays extolling the scenic beauties of the Great Smokies and arguing the case for the wilderness to be set aside as a national preserve.
Laura Thornburgh's widely acclaimed The Great Smoky Mountains became the first book-length treatise on the history and the people of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, continued in the north to the highest peak in the south." To the outside world, Knoxville photographers Jim Thompson and Albert "Dutch" Roth were perhaps the most widely recognized. Their photographs of the back country of the Smokies, particularly those of Jim Thompson, were used as illustrations in dozens of journals, promotional pamphlets, and government documents.
James (Jim) and Robin Thompson were the most prominent photographers in Knoxville from the 1920s through the 1940s. Jim became particularly well-known for his images of the Great Smoky Mountains. A dedicated hiker and founding member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, he traversed the many peaks of the Smokies, often in the company of fellow photographer Albert "Dutch" Roth. Jim Thompson's photographs appeared in many contemporary publications extolling the beauty of the Smokies, including reports to the federal government urging the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Thompson's began their career together in the 1920s working in the family business founded by their father in 1902 known as Thompson Brothers Commercial Photographers. The strong link with the Smokies was in place early on with Jim Thompson advertising his company as "Still boosting the Smoky Mountains and Making Good Pictures." They split the business in 1927, becoming two individual companies. During the split, Jim continued photographing the Smokies.