George Masa: A Biography of a Preservationist

May is National Historic Preservation Month!  Thank you to Freshman Historic Preservation major Aly Nahra for sharing this biography she recently wrote on George Masa who inspires her with his commitment to preservation.

George Masa

George Masa

George Masa was an influential person in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Little is known about him before he came to the United States except that he came from Japan in the early 1900s. When he first came to America, he was going to school. Later, he moved to North Carolina and worked a few different jobs there until he opened his own photography studio. He spent much of his time there exploring the Smoky Mountains, which were the subject of many of his photographs. After this, he began promoting the preservation of the Smoky Mountains by selling photographs from his studio. He spent the rest of his life working to preserve the Great Smoky Mountains through his photography, hoping that his pictures would move others the ways the mountains did him.

Masa was born on January 20, 1881 in Osaka, Japan with the name Masahara Izuka (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). He studied Mining Engineering at Meige University in Tokyo and then continued his education in America at the University of Colorado (Thomas). Although it is not known when George Masa came to America, it is known that he came to Asheville, North Carolina in 1915 (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). Here, he worked several different jobs at the very prestigious hotel, Grove Park Inn (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). He was first working in the laundry room, but his friendly demeanor kept getting him promoted; he became a bellhop and then was promoted again to valet (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). This is where he truly began to use his talent as a photographer; he would take portraits of some people at Grove Park, develop them, and then sell the pictures to the individuals (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). He began to work at a local photographers and then was eventually able to open his own photography studio in Asheville called Plateau Studios (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Masa spent much of his time exploring the Great Smoky Mountains, searching for “the perfect picture” (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). He became known for his many mile hikes around the mountains, being gone for days, to find the perfect spot for a picture and then wait there for hours for the lighting to be just right (Neufeld). He wanted to capture the divine presence he felt was there (Neufeld). Spending so much time in these mountains brought him appreciation for their beauty and the need to protect them from the loggers in the area (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”).

As it turned out, he was not the only one that had fallen in love with the mountains; Horace Kephart, a writer, loved the mountains and had become concerned with the deforestation taking place as well (“People Behind the Parks”). The two Preservationists quickly became friends and dedicated much of their lives to the preservation of the Smoky Mountains (“People Behind the Parks”). They found themselves being two of the main leaders of a new movement, The Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, whose goal was to protect the Smoky Mountains from destruction by making them a National Park (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). Although they did not love the potential of having their beloved mountains filled with tourists, they understood that the only way to prevent loggers and others from destroying it was to make it a National Park (“Great Smoky Mountains National Park”).

Together, they made maps of trails that would be in the park and in addition to that, they also mapped out the Appalachian Trail (“People Behind the Parks”). In order to promote and gain support for the making of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they made advertisements (“People Behind the Parks”). Masa took pictures all over the mountains to put on the advertisements and Kephart, since he was a writer, did the wording for them (“People Behind the Parks”). They really were the perfect pair for this.

As if hiking mountains for advertisement pictures was not enough, Masa also would also travel with his own measuring device to get the lengths of potential trails for the maps (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). The measuring device he used was a bike wheel attached to an odometer (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”).

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’. (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains” and Horace Kephart).

Though both men put forth so much work into making the Smoky Mountains a National Park, there was still more to be done in order to do that. One thing being that the movement needed to raise ten million dollars to actually purchase the land (“Legend of the Great Smokey Mountains”). With the help of both Tennessee and North Carolina, the two states the park would be in, they managed to raise half of the needed amount (“Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains”). In order to gain the second half, they went to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was known for his interest in preservation, for, hopefully, the other half. It is said that originally, Rockefeller was going to donate one and a half million to the project, but then he saw some of Masa’s photos and decided to donate the entire five million needed (“People Behind the Parks”).

Now that everything seemed to be heading in the right direction, the movement lost one of its leaders; Horace Kephart was killed in a car accident in 1931 (“People Behind the Parks”). Needless to say, Masa was devastated (“People Behind the Parks”). Another issue they realized was that by buying the land and making it a park, they would have to force the Native Americans living there to sell their land (“Great Smoky Mountains National Park”). On top of that, the loggers, even after the land was bought from them, continued logging on the land they just sold (“Great Smoky Mountains National Park”). It became even clearer that they desperately needed to make the land a park as soon as possible.

Two years after the death of Kephart, the movement lost George Masa (Neufeld). This talented, dedicated man, died of influenza without a penny to his name (Neufeld). He wanted to be buried next to his friend, Kephart, but there was not enough money to make that happen (Neufeld). Neither of the two men most dedicated to making the Smoky Mountains a National Park would live to see their dreams become a reality (Neufeld). Their beloved Smoky Mountains became a National Park in 1934 when the federal government, for the first time in history, donated the one and a half million needed in order to make the Great Smoky Mountains a National Park (“People Behind the Parks”).

In honor of George Masa and Horace Kephart, two peaks in the park, adjacent from one another, were named after them in 1961: Masa Knob and Mount Kephart (“People Behind the Parks”). Whether or not George Masa’s name is well-known, he gave most of his life to something that Americans can appreciate and enjoy for many years to come. And though he did not live to see his wish come true, he is forever remembered by those that do know of him and honored at Masa Knob.

Works Cited:

2013.  George Masa, Legend of the Great Smoky Mountains. March 11.

2009.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. PBS.

Neufeld, Rob. 2013. George Masa, photographer and Great Smoky Mountains explorer. May 6.

2009.   People Behind the Parks: Horace Kephart and George Masa. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. PBS.

Thomas, Mike. 2009. The View From Above.


“1933 George Masa 800px”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikipedia –


Great Smoky Mountains By Aviator31 (English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons at

About Bari Oyler Stith, Ph.D.

Director, Historic Preservation Program, Ursuline College

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