It is only fitting that one of Georgia's early environmental disasters is one of Georgia's newest state parks design to preserve and protect the environment that had once been devastated by gold miners and lumber companies. Smithgall Woods is just one of the lasting legacies of Gainesville businessman and philanthropist Charles A. Smithgall and his wife, Lessie.
This was Cherokee Indian country until 1819, when a treaty with the United States ceded all remaining land in the area of the Chattahoochee River. When gold miners first moved in 1829 they began looking for alluvial deposits of the valuable mineral, easily found in Smithgall Wood's Dukes Creek with a good panning technique (panning for gold within the park is strictly prohibited). Along Dukes Creek and other rivers the miners built shanty towns, living a meager existence in hope of finding wealth.
Hydraulic mining was introduced to the area in the 1850's. The land, much of which is now preserved at Smithgall Woods, was destroyed by this mining technique until it looked like the western deserts. Hydraulic mining was so destructive that Georgia led the way in banning the practice, outlawing it in the 1880's.
The land slowly began to recover when lumber companies were enticed to the area by a new railroad, the Gainesville and Northwestern, which allowed access to the Georgia forests. Soon the lumber companies were stripping the trees from the mountains, including those now protected by Smithgall Woods.
Starting in 1911, the U. S. government began to purchase the area land under the direction of Arthur Woody and Roscoe 'Nick' Nicholson, but the 5,500 acres now part of Smithgall Woods was not part of their plans. It was held by "Old Ben" Allison, and local Helen natives called them the Old Ben Fields.
A Georgia Tech alumni who loved the outdoors, Charles Smithgall (.Jr) moved to Gainesville after graduation and began WGGA, a local radio station, in 1941. Six years later he founded today's Gainesville Times. From this point Smithgall began to acquire other media companies and a small piece of property in north Georgia, now a part of the park that bears his name. As he disposed of his media properties he purchased more land adjacent to the White County property, eventually purchasing some 5,500 acres and spent more than $20 million dollars of his own money on a restoration project.
Smithgall was well-known for his generosity throughout north Georgia. He has funded three chairs at Georgia Tech, provided funding for Lambdin Kay Professorship for the Peabody Awards (his wife Lessie had worked with the legendary broadcaster), a major supporter of the Gainesville Arts Council and Zoo Atlanta, among others.
In 1994, Smithgall donated the 5,555 acres to the state of Georgia to protect, preserve, and restore the land. The state has taken its stewardship seriously, only permitting limited access by car and minimizing the impact of visitors. Inside Smithgall Woods are five beautiful mountain homes that the park uses in a bed and breakfast style arrangement (totaling 14 guest rooms). Each of the "cottages" comes with a fireplace or wood-burning stove, cable television, telephone, private baths and central air. They are finely appointed, all in traditional rustic lodge theme. A conference center is available for large groups.
The true story of Smithgall Woods is the effort at preservation. Walk or ride on its 22 miles of hiking and biking trails and you can see that the efforts of Smithgall and the state have paid remarkable dividends. From the trophy trout that now call Dukes Creek home, to the abundant wildlife and native flora, Smithgall Woods is a wonder to behold.
From Helen, take State Road 75 1.5 miles north to State Road 356 (Alternate 75). Turn left and cross the Chattahoochee River. Continue on this road for 2.2 miles. Smithgall Woods entrance is on the left.