George Masa stood at the peak of Graybeard Mountain and looked east over a vast expanse of wilderness. Below, sugar maples, red spruces, Fraser firs, and American beeches were among
George Masa stood at the peak of Graybeard Mountain and looked east over a vast expanse of wilderness. Below, sugar maples, red spruces, Fraser firs, and American beeches were among the more than 100 species of native trees blanketing the mountain ranges. Birdsong from chickadees and juncos overlapped with the high-pitched calls of hawks and eagles. Salamanders slithered along the banks of creeks below, while foxes and bobcats stealthily tracked prey. Masa had set up his large-format camera on a heavy wooden tripod and waited patiently for just the right light to capture what his close friend Horace Kephart referred to as “an Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled.”
Since meeting in the mid-1920s, Kephart and Masa had bonded over a shared reverence for the Appalachian Mountains and their timeless, soul-stirring beauty. Kephart was a former librarian turned avid outdoorsman who had published Our Southern Highlanders, a portrait of the Appalachian people and communities that he lived among after abandoning his career and family. Masa had also closed the door on an earlier life, leaving Japan as a young man to seek his fortune in the United States. The two spent hundreds of hours together, mapping and documenting the terrain and topography of their adopted home state. Over time, what began as an avocation grew into a tireless campaign to preserve and protect the region from development and destruction. Together, the friends would become key advocates for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — an accomplishment neither man lived to see.
“Not only did they share a passion for protecting the mountains and an appreciation of their importance,” says Janet McCue, coauthor of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, “but their inquisitive natures compelled them to explore and understand their environment.”
While their names may not be well known, Masa and Kephart’s indelible legacy lives on. Hikers along the Appalachian Trail traverse the rhododendron-lined footpaths and clamber up the rock faces that the two men charted, measured, and named. Birders train binoculars on indigo buntings and red-eyed vireos thriving in pristine forests, while gardeners marvel at the more than 1,500 species of flowering plants within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Anglers pull in rainbow trout and smallmouth bass from access points along the park’s some 2,900 miles of streams. And members of the Carolina Mountain Club, of which Masa was a key part in its early history, continue to clear and maintain trails, advocate for forest conservation, and introduce new generations of biophiles to the wonders of the great outdoors.
• • •
Masa arrived in Asheville in 1915, lured by the promise of a job at the newly opened Grove Park Inn. At the time, Asheville was the state’s third largest city, trailing only Charlotte and Wilmington, and increasingly accessible thanks to new roads and train lines. George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, which opened in 1895, had brought Gilded Age glitz to the region, and well-heeled tourists flocked to the cool mountain air, seeking an environment that fostered health and wellness.
Working in the laundry room and as a valet at the inn, Masa became a popular fixture. He pursued his interest in photography by processing film for guests and taking occasional photos to provide them with souvenirs. As his side job turned full time, Masa spent more and more of his hours exploring the forests and valleys. Hiking could be challenging, as there were few maps of the Smokies, so he took it upon himself to become an amateur cartographer.
After leaving Grove Park, Masa eventually established his own photography studio, yet even when working for hire, he would often disappear for days at a time to photograph for personal pleasure. Soon, he became known for capturing never-before-seen views of the Smokies, and his works were used in guidebooks, on postcards, and in The National Geographic Magazine, among other publications. He was even hired by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce as its official photographer.
Paul Bonesteel has been fascinated with Masa’s work for more than two decades. His 2003 film The Mystery of George Masa informed PBS’ The National Parks segment by Ken Burns on Masa’s role in creating Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bonesteel says that the photographer’s quest to capture the Smokies’ transcendent beauty became an almost single-minded pursuit. “George Masa didn’t just love the mountains,” Bonesteel says, “he sacrificed his health and money to preserve and protect them.”
While Kephart and Masa enjoyed one another’s company, there was also an urgency to their partnership. Lumber companies were buying and clearcutting huge parcels of land in the Smokies. One observer noted with dismay that it looked as though much of the land had been “skinned.” With more than 300,000 acres already stripped clean of vegetation, Masa’s photographs — sent to the governors of both North Carolina and Tennessee, and likely shown to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who would donate $5 million via the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund — made a powerful case for preserving the more than 500,000 acres that would define the park.
As the park began to take shape, Masa and Kephart helped establish nomenclature for peaks, streams, and other geographical features in order to create maps and route trails. Hewing closely to local and native references for specific spots, they honored existing names given to the topography by the Cherokee and other inhabitants. In other places, they used humor and expediency. As they traversed the rocky Tennessee-North Carolina border near Sevier and Swain counties, they labored to reach a steep peak where local mountain guide Charlie Connor’s complaints of aching feet inspired Kephart to quip, “I’m going to get this put on a government map for you.” Sure enough, Connor’s foot woes are forever memorialized at Charlies Bunion, a popular vista along the Appalachian Trail that features one of the few bare rock summits in the Smokies.
When the Great Depression hit, Masa lost everything he had. Then, when Kephart died unexpectedly, Masa’s grief was profound. He died penniless in 1933, but his adopted family of friends in the Carolina Mountain Club paid for his coffin and, later, his tombstone. In the 1960s, the club spearheaded efforts to honor him in perpetuity. Today, the small, spruce-covered peak of Masa Knob is adjacent to Mount Kephart, a 6,217-foot mountain close to Clingmans Dome and Mount LeConte along the Appalachian Trail.
• • •
Thomas Wolfe was only about 15 years old when George Masa came to town, but the photographer may have made an impact on the budding writer. In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe later wrote of a man whose life had been defined by the natural world. “The mountains were his masters,” Wolfe’s narrator says of protagonist Eugene Gant. “They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.’”
Standing on the peak of Graybeard Mountain today, hikers may not realize how fortunate they are to gaze out over a vista that inspired Masa and Kephart to devote their lives to its preservation. But in the midst of eternal change, watching the clouds roll through the Great Smoky Mountains is a majestic, moving sight that connects us to the men who made it possible.print it