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Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, Adam Lau
Retired National Park Service Ranger Glenn Cardwell recounts the story of 12-year-old Edd McKinley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Wednesday, July 15, 2015, near Gatlinburg, Tenn. McKinley, a runaway who froze to death in the mountains in 1915, laid in an unmarked grave until 1975 when Cardwell's chance encounter with McKinley's sister brought closure to the boy's family.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — In 1915, after a heated argument with his father, a 12-year-old boy ran away from his home in Blount County, determined to reach his grandparents who lived on the other side of the Smoky Mountains.

Following an old wagon road that roughly traced the route of today's U.S. Highway 441 through the park, the boy crested the mountains at Indian Gap, then began his descent into North Carolina. It was late March and still winter in the higher elevations.

Caught in a snowstorm, the boy froze to death. Some hunters found his body and carried him all the way down the Tennessee side of the mountains to the Sugarlands community , where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Arthur "Butch" McDade knows this story by heart. A retired National Park Service ranger, McDade is all too familiar with cases of children disappearing in the Smokies without a trace.

In researching the story of the 12-year-old boy, McDade has uncovered a tale tragic and uplifting. Over the years he has led hikes along the Old Sugarlands Trail to the mountain cemetery — now inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — where the boy was buried. A blank slab of fieldstone marks the 1915 grave site, but so does a handsome piece of marble added 60 years later when an unlikely series of events led to the discovery of the boy's identity.

Etched in the stone is the name "Edd McKinley," and this is his story.

Butch McDade retired from the National Park Service in 2009 after serving five years as a ranger with the Smokies. Over the years he has conducted extensive research on the mystery of Edd McKinley. He says unlike the case of Dennis Martin — the 6-year-old who famously disappeared from Spence Field in 1969 while on a family picnic — the relatives of Edd McKinley died at least knowing the fate of their long-lost boy.

"The beauty of this story, as opposed to other mysteries of people vanishing in the Smokies, is that this brought closure, at least for some family members," McDade said. "It's a compelling human interest story with a nice ending."

In his research, McDade uncovered a series of coincidences that led to the proper identification of Edd as the occupant of the unmarked grave. A key source of information was Glenn Cardwell, who was raised on a farm inside what is today the park, and served as a ranger for the Smokies for 34 years.

Today Cardwell is the mayor of Pittman Center, just east of Gatlinburg. At 84, he's the oldest serving mayor in Tennessee — and the only living link to this story.

In May 1975, Cardwell was working at the Sugarlands Visitor Center when a lady in her late 60s named Virgie Smith, of Knoxville, came in and related the tale of her brother who had run away in 1915, never to be heard of again. She asked if by any chance anyone at the park had any information. The volunteer working the desk responded that if anyone would know, it would be Cardwell, who happened to be at the visitor center that day.

Cardwell came to the front desk and listened as Smith described her family's attempts to bring closure to the disappearance. Her story brought to mind a letter he had kept on file from Gatlinburg resident Lucinda Ogle, daughter of legendary mountain guide and storyteller Wiley Oakley. Ogle had a deep interest in the park and had written Cardwell a note in response to news of a recent search in the Smokies for a lost boy.

In her letter, Ogle made a passing reference to an unidentified boy who had been brought to the Sugarlands community in the early 1900s after he was found frozen to death under an overhanging rock not far from today's Appalachian Trail.

Cardwell called Ogle and handed the phone to Smith. Realizing she likely was hearing a firsthand account of her long lost brother, Smith burst into tears.

To this day, Cardwell considers that moment the high point of his park service career.

"I give thanks to God I just happened to be at the visitor center that day," he said.

From the Suglarlands Visitor Center, Cardwell and Smith visited Ogle at her home so Smith could hear the full story. Her runaway brother, she learned, was found by two men returning from a hunting trip. They brought him home to Sugarlands, where the community tried unsuccessfully to have the body claimed.

After several days they prepared the boy for burial by dressing him in a white shirt and fresh-pressed overalls. Since there was no evidence of foul play, there was no investigation. The 12-year-old boy was given a Christian burial, his body laid to rest at the corner of the cleared hillside. All the community members contributed flowers, making it the most decorated grave site in the cemetery.

The details of the story pointed to the body being that of her brother, but Smith wasn't absolutely convinced until Earnest Ogle, who was 10 years old at the time and had helped dig the grave, mentioned the boy had red hair.

Edd McKinley had red hair, too. Six months later, in September 1975, a small group including Smith, her son Don, and the Ogles drove up the old road — now called the Old Sugarlands Trail — to the mountain cemetery.

Leading the procession was Glenn Cardwell. The newly minted marble slab bearing Edd McKinley's name and dates of birth and death weighed about 200 pounds.

Don Smith, Edd McKinley's nephew, carried the slab to the grave site, where it was laid at the foot of the nondescript chunk of fieldstone that had marked the wandering boy's final resting place for 60 years.

"Mrs. Smith wanted to make one last stab at solving her brother's mystery before she died," Butch McDade said. "She wanted to tie up loose ends. I'm sure she had been a searcher all her life."

Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com