Listen To This Article - Click Play
This morning, the National Park Service confirmed the existence of an elaborate network of moonshiner tunnels in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to a press release from park officials, the miles-long subterranean passageways, which are believed to have been used by bootleggers, were uncovered early last week. We have summarized the National Park Service’s official announcement below.
Uncovering the Tunnels
As described in the press release, the first of the tunnels was discovered on Monday, March 25, 2019, in the Greenbrier section of the national park. Bill and Rhonda Pierce of Bethel, OH were hiking the Porters Creek Trail with their 12-year-old son Jake, when they stopped to explore a rocky area near the remains of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead.
In an interview with local media outlets, Bill explained, “Our son Jake is really into science and natural history, and he heard that you can sometimes find fossils in the Smokies. So, we were digging through this big pile of rocks, and we found this small boulder that he wanted to move out of the way.”
Together, Bill and Jake pushed the boulder from its position, which, to their great surprise, revealed a large, deep hole in the ground. Jake noticed that an old rope ladder was visible toward the opening of the hole, so Bill decided to report their unusual discovery to a park ranger.
“Never in a million years did we think we would find something like this on vacation,” Bill told the press. He added, “Jake may not have found a fossil, but we think this is a heck of a lot cooler.”
Mapping the Passageways
Following the Pierce family’s discovery, the National Park Service brought in a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee to investigate. Led by the noted archeologist and historian Dr. Ashiq Khan, the team made a series of expeditions into the tunnel from March 27 – 30.
According to the official press release, the archeologists found that the tunnel extends for roughly 5.7 miles beneath the ground before opening up in a wooded area beside the East Parkway in Gatlinburg, TN. Much like the hole uncovered near the Porters Creek Trail, the opening in Gatlinburg was also obscured by a small boulder.
Remarkably, the Porters Creek-East Parkway tunnel is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather part of a sprawling network of underground passageways. Dr. Khan’s team found that the Porters Creek tunnel is crossed by a longer tunnel that leads from Pittman Center to Grapeyard Ridge. This tunnel, in turn, connects to another subterranean path that links the Roaring Fork area to Copeland Creek.
At the time of the press release, the archeologists from UT had mapped eight tunnels located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Sevier County. It is presently unknown how many tunnels exist in total, but Dr. Khan suspects that there may be at least a half-dozen more.
A Moonshiner’s Paradise
The vast network of subterranean passageways in and around the national park is believed to be a vestige of the moonshine trade that once thrived in the Smoky Mountain region. “Moonshine” refers to un-aged corn whiskey that was secretly distilled under the light of the moon, so as to avoid the attention of law enforcement officials.
While distilling spirits was a time-honored tradition in the Smokies for decades, it was driven underground in the 1860s when a new $2 per gallon tax on whiskey proved too burdensome for local farmers. Rather than pay the tax, some distillers became outlaws; taking their stills into the forest and illicitly selling their product in town. When Prohibition came into effect in 1920, demand for alcohol in the Smoky Mountains skyrocketed, and moonshine became an exceedingly profitable business.
Based on his expeditions into the tunnels, Dr. Khan believes that the passageways were dug by local moonshiners over the course of several years. As he explains in the press release:
“A few of the tunnels appear to have been constructed in the late 19th century, while the majority were likely created during the Prohibition era. Historical records show that the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office ramped up its crackdown on illegal spirits in the 1920s. These tunnels would have provided an ingenious way for the so-called ‘moonshiners’ to sneak in and out of the backcountry undetected.”
The tunnels are roughly 8 feet by 8 feet, providing enough room for moonshiners to transport their stills, jugs, and other equipment. Archeologists found that the walls of the tunnels are affixed with tin mounts to hold lanterns, and some sections are painted with what seem to be coded messages. Local lore suggests that bootleggers had a secret language of symbols and phrases that they used to share tips and warnings with one another.
Many of the tunnels in the national park have exits near bodies of water, such as Porters Creek or Copeland Creek, because access to a water supply is essential for distilling. According to Dr. Khan, smaller moonshiner tunnels have been found in other parts of Appalachia, but “the breadth and sophistication of the tunnel network in the Smoky Mountains are simply unmatched.”
Tours of the Tunnels
Although the tunnels were just discovered, the National Park Service is already planning tours of the moonshiner passageways. In the official press release, Dr. Khan states that the tunnels are “structurally sound and completely safe for visitors.” Calling the passageways “one of the greatest archeological discoveries of our time,” Khan goes on to suggest that one of the modern moonshine distilleries in downtown Gatlinburg could sponsor guided tours of the passageways to help promote the area’s rich history.
For the latest information on the moonshiner tunnels, don’t check back here. This entire story has been an April Fools’ Day joke! As far as we know, there aren’t any secret passageways hidden beneath the Smoky Mountains. To learn real facts about the national park, check out our guide to 9 Things You’ll Only Find in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Did you like this post? Go check out the April Fools Day posts from previous years: