Centennial Spotlight: Exploring Grandfather Mountain in the 18th and 19th centuries

Early 20th century explorers with Grandfather Mountain in the background. Photo courtesy Michael Hardy

Every week in 2011, The Avery Journal-Times is celebrating the 100th birthdays of Avery County and Banner Elk with a Centennial Spotlight compiled by members of the local community. This week, we continue to provide answers to the 100 questions about Avery County posed in our print editions in January and February. 

An anonymous Civil War soldier once wrote from Richmond, Va.: “I’d ruther be on the Grandfather Mountain/ A-taking the snow and rain/ Than to be in Castle Thunder/ A-wearin’ the ball and chain.” There have been countless others who have expressed the same sentiment. Grandfather Mountain has been an attractive location since European settlers first set eyes upon its lofty spires. The Cherokee undoubtedly had their own stories, but few came down through their oral history.  

The first explorer of whom we have verifiable record was English Naturalist Mark Catesby. He is believed to have explored Grandfather Mountain in 1722, bringing back species that had not previously been encountered. Catesby encountered herds of elk that “usually accompany buffaloes, with whom they ranged in the upper and remote parts of Carolina.” Some believe that the famed explorer William Bartram climbed Grandfather Mountain in 1775, making notes and gathering plant and animal specimens. A Scottish botanist, John Fraser, came in 1787, collecting more than 30,000 plant specimens from all over the South. The Fraser Fir still bears his name.  

Of course, Daniel Boone undeniably explored the mountain in the 1760s and 1770s. He tramped everywhere else in the High Country and it would be unlikely that he could have ignored one of the most prominent features on the skyline. For many decades there was even a spot that locals said was a Boone campsite. 

Frenchman Andre Michaux came in 1794. In July of that year, Michaux ventured out from the North Carolina piedmont village of Charlotte toward the mountains in the western part of the state. He traversed the Black Mountains on Aug. 11, and Yellow and Roan mountains on Aug. 21 and 22. On Aug. 26, he set out for Grandfather Mountain, which he believed to be the most elevated of all those which formed the chain of the Alleghenies and the Appalachians. Michaux reached the foot of the highest mountain on Aug. 27, and on the next day, climbed as far as the rocks. On Aug. 30, he climbed to the summit of “the highest mountain of all North America, and, with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise Hymn,” and cried “Long live America and the French Republic! Long live Liberty!”

University of North Carolina Professor Elisha Mitchell climbed Grandfather Mountain in July 1828. He left this description of his travels: 

We passed on over one ridge after another, winding through the woods over logs and rocks, and through laurels, walking when we could not ride, passing some mountains and knobs with very indecent names ... crossing the head of the Linville River which flows into the Catawba and arrived at the foot of Grandfather, where we were obliged to leave our horses, about one o'clock. The Linville and Watauga head up under the mountain, and from the place, where we took our dinner, we could get water from either, within two or three hundred yards ... The ascent of the mountain is rough, thickety and disagreeable. Steep, perpendicular cliffs in places but in general not very difficult ... The summit of the mountain is moist and wet, producing carexes which I wished to but could not study. [Henry] Holtsclaw had been often upon it but only in search of bears of which it is the favorite winter retreat.Botanist Asa Gray, a member of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and later a professor at Harvard University, came in 1841, working on his comprehensive plant survey of the eastern United States. Gray was also trying to find Shortia galacifolia, commonly known as the Oconee Bells, a flower known to grow only in selected locations in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Gray had learned about the flower while visiting a flora collection gathered by Michaux while on a trip to Europe. Gray is considered the most important botanist of the 19th century. Gray was followed in the late 1850s by Moses Ashley Curtis, a botanist, mycologist and Episcopal minister. Curtis, while pastoring a church in Hillsboro, also worked with the North Carolina Geological Survey and was working on a book entitled “Geological and Natural History Survey of North Carolina,” published in 1860. 

A different group of people explored Grandfather Mountain during the Civil War years. These men, and at times, women, used the mountain as a means of protection and escape from local militia and home guard companies. Keith and Malinda Blalock are said to have utilized a hog pen on Grandfather as shelter after being chased by the Caldwell County militia. 

After the war, many came to Grandfather Mountain for different reasons. Gold was discovered on Grandfather Mountain in 1870, and mined for seven years, but it was never found in large enough amounts to start a gold rush. In 1885, Shepherd M. Dugger and J. Erwin Callaway constructed the Grandfather Hotel near Linville Gap to facilitate the constant stream of tourists. The hotel faced Grandfather Mountain, with the veranda looking out onto a perfect wilderness of the gayest flowers. There was a path that led to the hotel spring that produced water that was a year-round temperature of 42 degrees. A 30-by-30-foot room in the hotel was used for dances, and Dugger himself frequently guided trips up Grandfather for visitors. Dugger sold his interest in the hotel in 1891, and the building ceased to be used as a hotel in 1901, burning sometime between 1912 and 1914.

Famed naturalist John Muir visited the area in 1898, visiting not only Grandfather, but also Cloudland in Tennessee and Cranberry in the future Avery County. Muir considered Grandfather “The face of all Heaven come to earth.” 

Others also came: Scientists exploring the unique ecological communities on Grandfather and tourists discovering spectacular views, native animals and unique hiking trails. 

In 1870, a group set out from Lenoir towards the mountains, a popular pastime with those who had leisure time. We are all better for the description that they left, something that we get to see here in Avery County almost every day. 

Starting from Lenoir in the morning, you can go to the top of the Blue Ridge long before nightfall; some very fine lookouts already rewarding the traveler ... Resting for the night at one of the several houses you can start fresh [the next morning] and ascend the grand old Grandfather. This mountain, as seen from this side, has the profile of a giant face-the forehead, nose, mouth and flowing beard strongly defined, and there it lieth, ever looking up to the sky in calm and passionless repose.

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