Standing only five-foot tall and weighing 100 pounds, Japanese immigrant George Masa, was tiny in stature but the lasting impact he left on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is immeasurable.
Born Masahara Izuka in Osaka, Japan in 1881, it’s believed he came to the United States sometime in the early 1900′s to study mining. He later spent considerable time traveling across the country via rail while keeping meticulous notes about his travels.
In 1915 Izuka arrived in Asheville, NC and soon began working in the laundry room at the prestigious Grove Park Inn. He would later become a bellhop and was eventually promoted to valet. His friendliness and good nature made him very popular with the Vanderbilts and other elite clientele of the Grove Park Inn. It was sometime after his arrival in Asheville that he changed his name to George Masa.
To make some extra money Masa later began photographing and processing images of guests at the Inn. Around three years later, after spending a short time working for a local Asheville photographer, Masa opened his own photography business called Plateau Studios.
During this period the local chamber of commerce bought many of Masa’s photos to use in brochures to help promote the region. Many were also sold as color postcards to tourists. Masa began to be drawn to the mountains more and more during this time and he would often venture alone into the rugged backcountry for days and weeks at a time in search of the perfect photograph.
Masa would soon make the acquaintance of Horace Kephart, a transplanted librarian from St. Louis, who had authored tw0 well-known books about his time in the North Carolina Mountains, “Camping & Woodcraft, ” and “Our Southern Highlanders.” The two became best of friends and together they camped and explored the Smokies extensively. Their shared love of nature and in particular their passion for the Smoky Mountains led to a powerful collaboration that in turn helped lead to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In the 1920s out of control logging was destroying much of the Smokies as entire mountains were wiped clean of lumber. Around 1923, a strong preservation effort began to take shape during this time and the movement to create a national park in the Smokies was born.
A New York publicity firm suggested that the effort be called the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. The title caught on and soon the mountains themselves began to be called the Great Smoky Mountains. George Masa and Horace Kephart became two of the key figures in helping the movement succeed.
To support the cause immense documentation was needed to bolster the efforts. That’s where Masa and Kephart came in. Publications were produced to promote the national park idea with Kephart providing the text and Masa supplying the photographs. The two friends were a crucial element in the eventual creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In addition to providing beautiful photographic images of the Smokies, George Masa is also credited with exploring, measuring and mapping large areas of the rugged mountain terrain. He would often trek into the Smoky Mountain backcountry for days and weeks at a time carrying his heavy camera equipment while donning his trademark red bandana and pushing his self-created measuring device….an odometer that he attached to a bicycle wheel. He would push the device along trails and up mountainsides to get accurate measurements.
George Masa was responsible for scouting and marking the entire North Carolina portion of the Appalachian Trail. During these long trips into the backcountry Masa would frequently place his camera equipment under his shelter to protect it while he slept outside in the elements. Kephart stated that Masa did all of this, “For no compensation. It was out of sheer loyalty to the park idea. He deserves a monument.”
The federal government required that the states of Tennessee and North Carolina raise the estimated$10 million needed to fund the national park on their own. In 1925, a massive fund-raising movement was initiated and thousands of private citizens even donated and raised money to support the effort . In 1927 the North Carolina and Tennessee legislations each appropriated $2 million towards the project which pushed the total to around $5 million. However, another $5 million was needed to make the dream a reality.
Arno Cammerer, assistant director of the National Park Service, and Colonel David Chapman of Knoxville, approached John D. Rockefeller Jr. to request his assistance in obtaining the remainder of the funds needed. The Rockefeller family was known for its support of other national park projects and this time would be no different as Rockefeller pledged the remaining $5 million needed to fund the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the things used to help convince Rockefeller to support the idea was George Masa’s photos.
Unfortunately, neither Kephart nor Masa would live to see the official designation of the Great Smoky Mountains as a national park. Kephart died in an automobile accident in 1931 and Masa was devastated at the loss of his friend. He kept a walking cane that had belonged to Kephart which he called, “Kep.” Masa would frequently carry the cane with him in later walks in his beloved Smokies. In 1933, shortly after an organized hike to commemorate the second anniversary of Kephart’s death, Masa became ill himself and on June 21, 1933 he passed away penniless in the country hospital due to complications of the flu.
One of Masa’s wishes was to be buried next to his devoted friend Horace Kephart in Bryson City, NC. His hiking club put together a funeral service in Asheville, NC but there wasn’t enough money to fulfill his wish of being buried next to his friend. Masa was laid to rest in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. One year later the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established.
While George Masa may not be a widely known name to most visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains, his talent, dedication, hard work and immense love for the Smokies are some of the main reasons that the national park movement was successful.
In 1961, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park officially recognized George Masa when they named Masa Knob, a peak of 5,695 feet in his honor. It stands adjacent to Mount Kephart….