We will likely never know the full life story of George Masa, yet his contributions in the 1920’s proved critically influential to the development and conservation of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. ‘Masa’ is a name that should be well-known, and not soon forgotten to those who love the natural world and our nation’s parks.
A Japanese immigrant, Masa moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 1915 where he worked as a lowly laundry room attendant at a local inn. His good work and pleasant personality vaulted him into a new role as valet and photographer for the same inn. Masa excelled with his camera, first taking images on behalf of the hotel and its wealthy guests. He quickly became a guest favorite where his clients included notables from the Vanderbilt family.
Eventually, his photography skills grew to a point where he was able to open his own studio, and after doing so he set out to create scenic photos of the nearby mountainous terrain he found so intriguing. He was one of the first, and most influential to photograph places like Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and the Newfound Gap. All well-known locations for photographers of today.
Soon after the opening of his photography studio, Masa met Horace Kephart, a Bryson City journalist who wrote for newspapers and magazines promoting the natural virtues of the Smokies. Masa and Kephart became close friends and worked together over the years to spread the message of the benefits of the conservation and preservation of the area. More specifically, Kephart’s words combined with Masa’s inspirational imagery, were used in concert to convince the public and lawmakers that the area should be set aside as a National Park. An idea that had been simmering since the late 1890’s.
An idea that today might sound a “no-brainer,” was certainly much more complicated at the time. A variety of reasons made setting aside this area as a National Park. The establishment of the older parks out west seemed to be fairly easy in comparison. A place like Yellowstone, for example, was land already owned by the government so Congress could merely set it aside without much backlash.
By the 1920’s and 30’s the land that eventually became Great Smoky Mountains National Park was already owned, settled, and being worked by large timber and paper companies, as well as by a number of small farmers.
The national government was not allowed to buy this land for use as a national park, so it took the combined desires of the public at large, and the efforts of boosters and fundraisers to obtain the money necessary to purchase the land.
In the late 1920s, the Legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina appropriated $2 million each for land purchases. Additional money was raised by individuals and private groups. By 1928, a total of $5 million had been raised. George Masa’s photographs were so compelling the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund matched what had been raised and donated an additional $5 million, assuring the purchase of the remaining land.
The work done by Masa did not end with photography. Along with Kephart, he developed maps with meticulous detail and research. Over a roughly 15-year period of time, Masa became an expert on the trails and names in the Great Smokies. In 1931 he served on the 3-person nomenclature committee for the North Carolina portion of the park, which had the responsibility for accurately naming the peaks, streams, and other features, as well as resolving duplicate names. Masa was the first person to systematically measure many of the trails in the park and to chart the terrain of the Smokies.
Sadly, Masa did not live to see the fruit of his labor as he died in 1933 from complications related to the flu. His wish to be buried near his good friend, Kephart (who died in an automobile crash two years prior) also did not come to fruition as Masa died penniless and without family of note. The local hiking club attended to his burial. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established one year later, yet not formally dedicated until September of 1940 by President Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1961 a 5,685-foot peak inside the Park was named in Masa’s honor. ‘Masa Knob,’ stands, appropriately, adjacent to Mount Kephart, inspiring generations of photographers looking to record the aesthetics of the Park, not all that dissimilar to the work that ‘Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains’ did so many years before them.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14’ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.