Knoxville, TN

Missing in the Great Smoky Mountains: The Trenny Gibson Story

Where are they? Podcast
Where is Trenny Gibson?Photo byWhere are they? Podcast

On October 8, 1976, Mr. Wayne Dunlap was excited to take his students on a field trip. This was going to be a trip to the Clingman Dome area of the Great Smoky Mountains. The class was going to hike and see the sights at the Dome, spend the day exploring, and head back to their school, Beardman High School, that afternoon.

Mr. Dunlap didn’t tell his students where they were going. He wanted to surprise them. In 1976, permission slips weren’t as commonplace as they are today.

The 38 students arrived by bus mid-morning and split off into two groups. 16-year-old Trenny Gibson went with one group, which included her friend Robert Simpson, whom she also sat with on the bus ride.

They were specifically taking the hike to Andrews Bald, a moderately difficult hike, about 1.8 miles long.

When they started to head back, Robert said he wanted to look for bears. Trenny ran up and joined another group of students.

Just about ½ mile from the parking lot, Trenny noticed something in the woods and crouched down to look. Her friend group decided to stop for a rest. Trenny was looking at something off to the right of the trail.

Another group of students joined up and the students resting started talking with the others. By the time they turned back towards Trenny, she was nowhere to be found.

In fact. Trenny would never be seen or heard from again.

Where is Trenny Lynn Gibson?

Trenny Gibson School PhotoPhoto by

Trenny was 16 years old and attended Bearden High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was a very friendly and outgoing girl, played the cello, and was working a job in the mall to save money for a car. She had recently received her driver’s license and was excited to almost have enough money for her very own car.

On September 25, 1976, Mr. Dunlap, a teacher at Beardon High, was taking his students on a field trip but wasn’t telling them where. 38 students would join this trip and Mr. Dunlap was the only chaperone.

About halfway to their destination, an hour into the bus ride, Mr. Dunlap told the students they were headed to the Clingman’s Dome area of the Smoky Mountains to do some hiking, specifically to look for plant life and wildlife.
Clingman Dome TrailPhoto

On the ride, Trenny sat with her friend and classmate, Robert Simpson. Robert was a year older than Trenny, but Trenny had known him for a while because he was a friend of Trenny’s older brother. While they were known to be quite friendly, it was never established if they were indeed a couple.

When they arrived, the students split into two groups. Trenny’s group, which included Robert, took off on the 1.8-mile hike to Andrews Bald. The hike can be a moderately difficult one, and the kids were known to take several rest breaks during their hike.

They stopped for lunch, I’m guessing each student had packed a lunch, and then were going to head back down the trail. Trenny told Robert she was cold, and he gave her his jacket to wear.

Robert decided he wanted to walk slower and try to track a bear. Trenny said she would run ahead and walk back with another group of students. She caught the group of kids and together they all made their way back to the parking lot.

About ½ mile from the parking lot, the students wanted to take a rest. While doing so, Trenny jumped up and took a few steps ahead to look at something on the trail. Some of the students witnessed her crouching down and looking off to the right as if something had caught her attention. She must have heard or seen something.

Another group of students had caught up with the kids who were resting and everyone began chatting. When they were ready to start walking back to the parking lot, they noticed that Trenny was nowhere to be seen.

Thinking that she might have just kept walking, they continued their walk back to the bus.

Around 3:30 p.m., they made it back to the bus and realized that Trenny wasn’t there. Mr. Dunlap now also realized that Trenny wasn’t there, and he took a student with him and they headed back out on the trail to search for her.

After an hour of searching and finding nothing, Trenny Gibson was reported missing.

Now, since this case took place so long ago, the details of the actual search aren’t well documented.

We do know that volunteer searchers came out and dogs were brought in as well. The dogs led the search and would stop at a spot where their trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail.

The dogs also followed a scent through the thick woods, that led to an area near the Clingman’s Dome, and then ended up by a road where the trail suddenly stopped.

Searchers also found empty beer cans and cigarette butts near that spot on the road, and they had found the same ones on the trail as well.

Nothing really made sense. Would Trenny run away? No one believed that, and she didn’t take anything with her out of the ordinary that day.

Could she have been abducted? If so, no one in or around the trail remembers seeing anything suspicious that day.

Could she have wandered off and gotten hurt? Also a possibility…but why? And where did she go that she hasn’t been found in 46 years?

Police begin investigating and two names come up early on.

First, was Robert Simpson, Trenny’s friend that she had spent most of the day with. His story of going to track a bear raised some eyebrows…but then Trenny was seen with another group after leaving him.

Could it have been Robert that Trenny saw in the woods before she vanished?

Some students came forward a day or so after Trenny disappeared and said that Robert had Trenny’s comb in his car, sitting on his dashboard. A comb that she always kept in her back pocket. These other kids thought that was really weird, but Robert said she just left in his car the day before their field trip.

Robert also made some odd comments to Trenny’s family, saying that “If Kelvin Bowman has Trenny, he will kill her. If he does not have her, I think she must have run off with some horny hitchhiker.”

So let’s talk about Kelvin Bowman.

It was actually Trenny’s parents that would tell authorities they should look at Kelvin Bowman. Just a year earlier, Kelvin Bowman had broken into the Gibson home, presumably because he had a crush on Trenny. Trenny’s mother, Hope, heard him in the house and would actually shoot him in the foot. Kelvin was arrested and during his trial, he made threats directed at Trenny.

Kelvin did 6 months in jail but was out by the time Trenny disappeared.

Authorities however did rule Kelvin out, saying they were able to confirm that he was in school at the time of the field trip.

Throughout the years there would be some unconfirmed sightings of Trenny. Once a group of hikers swore they saw her sitting at the entrance of a cave. Another time, a couple said a young woman came to their home asking for money or to make a phone call. She was in a car full of young men. They were unable to help her and the girl, angry, stormed off and got back into the car with the others. The couple swore up and down that it was Trenny after seeing her photo, but law enforcement does not believe it was her.

So, I’m curious- what are your thoughts on what happened to Trenny Gibson??

Trenny was last seen on October 8, 1976, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She was wearing a blue blouse, a pastel blue striped sweater, blue jeans, and blue Adidas shoes. She had on a brown and orange plaid wool jacket, which she had borrowed from Robert Simpson. She has long brown hair, and green eyes and is 5’3 and 115 pounds.

If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of Trenny Lynn Gibson, please contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at 615–744–4000.

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