George Masa historical marker

George Masa d. 1933 (P-99)

Japanese photographer. Born Masahara Iizuka. Advocate of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Appalachian Trail. His studio was nearby.

Location: Patton Ave., just west of Pack Square, Asheville
County: Buncombe
Original Date Cast: 2021

George Masa was born Masahara Iizuka in Osaka, Japan. There is no known definitive record of his birth--the years range from 1881 to 1890. He arrived in Asheville in 1915 and was working at the Grove Park Inn in the laundry and as a valet. He borrowed a camera from Fred Seely, son-in-law of the Inn’s founder, and took photographs of Grove Park Inn guests. He processed film for himself and guests, developing a side business.

Masa worked off and on for the Grove Park Inn and later as a woodcarver for Biltmore Industries until 1918. Following a few months of travel, he returned to Asheville and secured employment with Herbert Pelton, a prominent local photographer. When Pelton moved away, Masa took over the studio, which he renamed Plateau Studios. He maintained a photographic business, operating under different names, until his death. His photographs appeared in promotional publications, magazines including National Geographic, newspapers, guidebooks, and on postcards.

In the mid-1920s Masa befriended Horace Kephart and joined him and others in the movement to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Already familiar with the mountain trails from his hiking and photography work, Masa measured them with his self-designed odometer made from the front end of a bicycle. Due to his extensive knowledge of the trails, Masa was a reliable authority for the National Park officials, whom he accompanied on their trips into the mountains.

Also in the 1920s, Masa and Kephart worked with Myron Avery to unravel the nomenclature along the proposed Appalachian Trail (AT) in North Carolina. Avery ultimately relied heavily on Masa to route and mark the trail on either side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1931 Masa, with Kephart’s assistance, formed the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club. In the first year the club scouted, measured, and marked 104.3 miles of the trail. Masa served as Avery’s regional consultant regarding AT routing, photographing landmarks, resolving nomenclature questions, and proofing the official AT guide. The 1933 Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, featured many of Masa’s photographs and trail descriptions.

For both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail, Masa worked tirelessly to research, measure, map, and photograph the landscape to support the causes to which he was firmly committed and to promote his adopted home—the North Carolina mountains.

Horace Kephart, in a letter in 1931, wrote of Masa, “he…labored long and earnestly on his maps. It is astonishing that he…should have done all this exploring and photographing and mapping, on his own hook, without compensation but at much expense to himself, out of sheer loyalty to the park idea and a fine sense of scenic values. He deserves a monument.” George Masa died penniless in 1933 and was buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. In 1961 the Carolina Mountain Club succeeded in having a landmark in the Smokies named Masa Knob and in 2018, Masa was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame.

Paul Bonesteel, director, The Mystery of George Masa, 2003.
George Ellison and Janet McCue, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, 2019.
William A. Hart, “George Masa: The Best Mountaineer,” in May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina, Vol. 1, 1997.
Rose Houk, Pictures for the Park: How Photographers Helped Save the Great Smokey Mountains, 2016.
Susan Shumaker, Untold Stories from America’s National Parks, “George Masa,” pp. 97-113, 2009.
Jim Casada, “Masa, George,” in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, William S. Powell, ed., 1991.

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