by Sarah Jones Decker

Coming into Focus: George Masa’s Legacy

April 8, 2022
Above: the view from Charlies Bunion (formerly called Fodderstack) on the A.T. — Smokies. While cataloging peaks, and the distance between them, Masa was careful to use the names given to them by the local settlers and the local Cherokee tribes.

Often referred to as the “Ansel Adams of the Smokies,” photographer George Masa was known for spending long days high up on exposed ridges, waiting for the right clouds to roll in — holding out for the perfect light to capture his shot. He would lug his bulky large-format cameras, heavy wooden tripod, and coated 8×10 glass plates up and over North Carolina and Tennessee mountain tops. Unlike Adams, Masa was a Japanese-born immigrant and was not allowed to become a U.S. citizen—but his photography was an integral part of establishing two of America’s most-visited natural spaces, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Appalachian Trail.

Much of Masa’s life is unknown, with his complicated and intriguing story pieced together by his surviving photographs, scattered interviews with friends, and handwritten letters spread through different archives and collections; but it is still not a complete picture. He was, by all accounts, a gentle and kind person who was incredibly enthusiastic and loved by his Trail club — the Carolina Mountain Club — and had a way of bemusing and befriending almost everyone he came in contact with.

Masa dedicated the last eighteen years of his life to turning his passion for photography into a legacy of environmental conservation.

Masa’s images, along with the words of his close friend and frequent hiking companion Horace Kephart, author of the acclaimed Our Southern Highlanders, were instrumental in the early stages of the Smokies’ formation. That was only part of their contribution to the Trail. Masa worked closely with legendary ATC chairman Myron Avery (a founding force whose intense dedication and hard work put the vision of the A.T. truly on the ground) helping chart the route of the Trail in western North Carolina, and collaborating with Avery to found the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club, which later merged with the Carolina Mountain Club.

In addition to his camera, Masa hiked with a measuring wheel not unlike Avery’s and sent him meticulous notes, map notations, and prints of ranges with the peaks written in—all in the process of selecting the best route for the fledging A.T. through North Carolina, into Tennessee, and even to Mount Oglethorpe, which was not yet selected as the southern terminus. Those heated routing discussions (more accurately, arguments) went on for years among three or four factions, and Masa and Kephart were keys to their resolution. Kephart had a seat on the ATC’s board from 1929 until he died, and then Masa briefly had that seat until he died (the only person of color on the board in its first 80 years). Both men are now in the A.T. Museum Hall of Fame.

Masa’s legacy lives on in the park he helped create. His images and studies helped to beautifully present this special place to the eyes of many who had not seen it for themselves and bring the importance of its protection to the forefront.

Creating a park spanning two states was no small task. It was a complicated process with no financial support from the federal government. The almost half-million acres were eventually bought and then donated by North Carolina and Tennessee. Industrialist John D. Rockefeller, an occasional guest at the Grove Park Inn, donated $5 million to preserve the park after seeing Masa’s images, the story goes. The sustained efforts of many people in both states led to the establishment in 1934 of the first national park in the eastern United States. Several of those on a federal committee making that decision also were involved in the creation of the A.T. and the ATC, including its first chair, Major William A. Welch.

Masa’s legacy lives on in the park he helped create. His images and studies helped to beautifully present this special place to the eyes of many who had not seen it for themselves and bring the importance of its protection to the forefront. In addition to his photography, Masa would carry his measuring wheel (a homemade bicycle wheel odometer) and take meticulous notes on everything he saw along the way for those who officially named landmarks. For example, he and Kephart are credited with naming Charlies Bunion, a friendly jab at another hiking companion. The range through the park today is known for its plant and animal diversity and its importance goes far beyond its ridgetops. It supports a large number of endemic species, including 100 native species of trees and 1,500 types of flowering plants (more flowers than any other national park), making it one of the most important natural areas east of the Mississippi River.

Sadly, neither Masa nor Kephart would be alive to know the outcome of all their hard work and the park’s establishment. Kephart died in a car crash in 1931, and Masa followed two years later at age 54 after becoming ill on a planned memorial hike for Kephart. He died destitute in a sanitorium from influenza without the means to be buried next to the friend he admired.

In 1961, a 5,685-foot peak in the park was named Masa Knob in his honor and is appropriately located on the shoulder of the 6,217-foot peak that bears the name Mount Kephart. The naming of Masa Knob was made possible by the continued efforts of the Carolina Mountain Club almost 30 years after his death — and 30 years after a peak was named for Kephart. That slight was not the first. Masa was the co-author of the first Guide of the Smokies, but his name was removed from the credits only two years after the book was in print. And while Kephart recently had a biography published, he alone of the pair appeared in Paul Bonesteel’s documentary, The Mystery of George Masa — the source for much that is known about Masa today.

A single photograph — a permanent capture of a moment in time — has the power to transport and inspire the viewer. It also has the immense power to bring physical change. In Masa’s case, his legacy lives on in his photographs and the tangible places he helped protect. His images take us back to those ridges, waiting for the clouds to move so the mountains he loved could make their grand entrance. Hopefully, over time, more of his vision will come to light.

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of A.T. Journeys, the official membership magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Become a member today to subscribe to A.T. Journeys, support future articles like this one, and advance our mission to protect, manage, and advocate for the Appalachian Trail.