Smokies Among Oldest Mountains? Join Our April 5th Lecture to Find Out.

For generations, we’ve all been told that the Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world. But research by UT Knoxville geologist Robert D. Hatcher Jr., published in a new book by John E. Ross, Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time, reports that the mountains we see today are only 5 to 10 million years old, not 260 to 300 million years old as commonly stated.

Geologist and UT professor emeritus Robert D. Hatcher Jr. and author John E. Ross will jointly host a lecture and book signing at John C. Hodges Library on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The talk will take place in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of Hodges Library. Ross will be available to sign books after the presentation, and light refreshments will be served.

Pre-registration is suggested, and a portion of book sales will be a tax-deductible contribution to the UT Libraries. Tickets are free for members of the John C. Hodges Society of the University of Tennessee Libraries and for university students; a $5 donation is suggested for other attendees. To learn more about the event or reserve your space, visit

For more than 40 years, Hatcher has studied the evolution of the Great Smokies and the adjacent Blue Ridge. Periods of continental collision, beginning around 300 million years ago when the North American and African plates were driven together, pushed the mountains up to elevations similar to the Alps. Yet over the following eons, the plates drifted apart, earlier iterations of the Smokies eroded, and newer ranges were uplifted.

The first upthrust of the Smokies may have reached around 30,000 feet, and today’s Smokies were likely about 10,000 feet in elevation before being reduced by erosion to their present height of 6,643 feet. Sediments from the first range have been identified as far west as Kansas.

For his research, Hatcher was awarded the Penrose Medal by the Geological Society of America. “Were there one, the Penrose Medal would be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in geology,” Ross said.

The French Broad rises near Rosman in western North Carolina and joins the Holston at Knoxville to form the Tennessee. Spanning some 5,124 square miles, the watershed includes the Little Pigeon River which drains the Sevierville–Gatlinburg corridor and the Nolichucky, Pigeon, and Swannanoa rivers.

Raised in Knoxville, Ross became fascinated with the Smokies and the region’s Native people. As a child, he and a friend collected arrowheads and pot sherds while his friend’s dad documented prehistoric town sites on the Little Tennessee River. Later, as a college student, he worked on a TVA team exploring the geology of dam sites in the French Broad’s headwaters.

Now residing in Asheville, North Carolina, Ross reread Wilma Dykeman’s classic The French Broad, a natural and cultural history of the French Broad River’s watershed. Since its publication in 1955, two generations of scholarship have revealed new facts about the watershed Dykeman knew so well.

Native people began living in the watershed as early as 14,500 years ago. With petroglyphs on Paint Rock on the French Broad at today’s North Carolina line, Archaic era people likely told others of hot springs just upstream. Tourism has been a mainstay of the watershed’s economy since the late 1700s. Enslaved and free African-Americans, literally build many of the cities in region. Electricity was first generated by a dam on the French Broad at Newport in 1886, half a century before TVA.

Ross learned how citizens’ campaigns created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, restrained corporations from polluting the rivers, and transformed Asheville’s riverfront from an abandoned industrial wasteland into today’s vibrant River Arts District.

The April 5th event is presented by the University of Tennessee Press, publisher of Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time. For more about Through the Mountains, visit or

The John C. Hodges Library is located on the University of Tennessee campus just off the Tennessee River in Knoxville. Hodges Library is the largest academic library in the state of Tennessee and serves millions of students, faculty, researchers, and community members each year through its extensive physical and digital collections.