A Passion for the Parks and A Gift for Photography
In 1961, Great Smoky Mountains National Park named a 6,217-foot peak Masa Knob after one of the park’s greatest admirers — George Masa. Though conservationists have increasingly sought to share Masa’s story, much of his life remains a mystery. What we do know about the photographer and outdoorsman has been collected by accounts from his friends and colleagues.
George Masa was born Masahara Iizuka in Osaka, Japan. He arrived in the U.S. in 1901 to study mining in California. Little is known about his life during this period, but he ultimately boarded a train in San Francisco and headed east, settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 1915.
With a loose grasp on the English language and very little money, he began work in the laundry room of the Grove Park Inn, before quickly being promoted to a valet position. His pleasant smile and upbeat attitude made him a favorite among guests. Taking pictures on behalf of the hotel and wealthy visitors, his photographic skills soon became evident. He eventually opened his own studio and began creating scenic photos of the area.
During this time, George met and became close friends with Horace Kephart, a local journalist and fellow nature lover. The two worked closely together and were passionate about their mission to create and preserve the beautiful landscape they so admired. Together, they helped develop maps for what would later become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail.
Masa would often be seen trekking through the mountains, carrying his camera or pushing a wheel to track the area. As a member of the future park’s “nomenclature committee,” he helped to record everything that existed in the area. He took meticulous notes of the land and helped to track the terrain, a tiring and exacting job that did not provide any compensation.
Masa also created images to stand beside Kephart’s texts in promotional materials for the park. His pictures remain some of the most beautiful renderings of the area. With tireless patience, Masa would spend long hours on cold ridges to catch the perfect lighting or view.
Masa’s photographs were so compelling that John Rockefeller Jr. donated $5 million to help purchase the park land. Masa also sent a book of his photos to the First Lady, Grace Coolidge, who also appreciated his work. At this time, photographers and artists like Masa were instrumental in showing the American public and legislators the importance of preserving national land.
Sadly, in 1931, Kephart was killed in a car accident, leaving Masa devastated and alone. Two years later, having recently planned a hike to commemorate the death of his friend, Masa fell ill. Destitute, he was unable to pay for proper medical attention and died from complications of the flu in a county hospital. He passed away penniless, without means to be buried next to Kephart as he’d wished, and with no known relatives.
Considered the Ansel Adams of the Smokies, George Masa’s devotion to the mountains of North Carolina played a crucial role in the official creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though he did not live to see its establishment, his legacy, like that of other Asian Americans, is increasingly honored as park enthusiasts and conservationists re-visit the park’s full history and recognize the importance of his work.
Next time you #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque, remember to take a minute to learn a little more about its history and the men and women who helped protect the many parks we still enjoy today.