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Tour of Roan Highlands

Tour of Roan Highlands Carver's Gap; Trail on Roan Mountain leading to Appalachian Trail

Approximately 12 miles from Spruce Pine on U.S. 19E, you come to the community of Plum Tree. The road takes a sharp right turn in front of the Vance Toe River Lodge, built in 1919 to house the Vance General Merchandise store. The current owners moved here in 1996 and transformed the historic building and its surroundings into a lodge, restaurant, and campground.

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In 1989, this area provided most of the sites for the film adaptation of John Ehle’s novel The Winter People. The movie, which starred Kelly McGillis and Kurt Russell, used the log cabin and the storefronts just around the curve from the lodge.

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Beyond Plum Tree, the landscape opens into an expansive valley. An old Indian trail connecting the lands west of the mountains with the Yadkin and Catawba river valleys once passed through the valley. One of the earliest settlers in the area was Samuel Bright, a rather rough and lawless man but also one with a reputation for kindness toward strangers. Another early settler was William Wiseman, who served as the local justice of the peace. The story is told that Samuel Bright’s wife was brought before Wiseman. She was charged with stealing a bolt of cloth from a traveling peddler. After the lady was convicted, Wiseman passed a sentence of “thirty-nine lashes, well laid on.” The only problem was that Bright was so thoroughly feared that no one could be found to carry out the sentence.

Demanding justice, the peddler threatened to report the state of affairs to Judge Samuel Spencer in Salisbury. The peddler’s threat apparently promised more trouble than did any scenario with Bright, so Wiseman resolved to carry out the sentence himself. Before he could do so, Bright and his family escaped over the mountains by way of the old Indian trail, which subsequently became known as Bright’s Trace. The spring near the bald atop Yellow Mountain was called Bright Spring. Ironically, Wiseman eventually came to own part of Samuel Bright’s original farm. The Overmountain Men traveled past Yellow Mountain over the same Bright’s Trace.

In 1785, Waightstill Avery of neighboring Burke County took out hundreds of grants covering the entire valley. Today, parts of the valley are still owned by the Avery family, who were early leaders in the region’s venture into the Christmas-tree industry. The vigor with which local residents pursued that industry is evidenced by the considerable acreage currently in various stages of cultivation.

It is approximately 3.4 miles from Plum Tree to a historical marker describing Yellow Mountain Road. Roaring Creek Road turns to the left and follows Roaring Creek to the base of Yellow Mountain; it also follows Bright’s Trace and the course of the Overmountain Men, though the marker would have you believe that the historic route continues on U.S. 19E. The reason for the discrepancy is that the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail was designed as a route that could be driven, and U.S. 19E was the local road that replaced Bright’s Trace in transporting people from North Carolina into Tennessee.

If you are looking for a good day hike or a short route to the Appalachian Trail, drive up Roaring Creek Road for 3.6 miles to where the pavement ends. Continue on the gravel for 1.2 miles to the end of the road. On the right is the trailhead for the actual Overmountain Trail. The hike up to Yellow Mountain Gap takes only 30 to 45 minutes, but it is straight up the mountain, so be prepared for a gain of 800 feet in elevation in less than a mile. The trail follows a creek for the first part of the hike, then turns left at the bottom of an open field that goes to the top of the ridge. At the corner of that field is the road grade that will take you to the gap at the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. If you turn right at the gap and hike about 1.6 fairly level miles, you will find yourself at Little Hump Mountain, one of the most scenic balds in the whole mountain chain.

 

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[View of Appalachian Trail shelter from Yellow Mountain Gap]

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Once you either return to or continue on U.S. 19E, it is 4.2 miles from the historical marker to Minneapolis. In the 1930s, this community was noted for having the largest deposits of amphibole asbestos in North Carolina. The material was once used in fireproofing but has since gained a notorious reputation as a health hazard, so the industry has died out.

Continue 0.7 mile to the community of Cranberry. In 1826, Joshua, Ben, and Jake Perkins fled to North Carolina to escape arrest in Tennessee. In A History of Watauga County, John Preston Arthur wrote that the three brothers had been involved “in a rough play at a night feast and frolic. . . . After a log-rolling, [they] had attempted to remove the new flax shirt and trousers from Wright Moreland, and had injured him sufficiently to arouse his anger and cause him to take out a warrant for them.”

That was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to the Perkins brothers. They decided to support themselves while in North Carolina by digging for ginseng. Joshua Perkins set to work along the banks of Cranberry Creek, named for the abundance of berries in the vicinity. The Cherokees had come to the creek for centuries to collect cranberries for dye and war paint but had never eaten the fruit because the area was sacred to them. After the arrival of white men, the Cherokees changed their practice and began to use cranberries in their cooking.

It was iron ore—not ginseng or cranberries—that Joshua Perkins discovered. He and his brothers learned of a North Carolina statute that allowed any person who found ore on vacant land to build a tilt-hammer forge. When the person could prove that 5,000 pounds of iron had been produced at his forge, the state would grant a bounty of 3,000 acres covering the site. The statute was designed to encourage new mines, and it worked well.

Cranberry Forge was built in 1828. Zeigler and Grosscup quoted a state geological report describing the mine: “ ‘The steep slope of the mountain and ridges, which the bed occupies are covered with blocks of ore, some weighing hundreds of pounds, and at places bare, vertical walls of massive ore, 10 to 15 feet thick, are exposed. . . . The length of the outcrop is 1500 feet, and the width, 200 to 800 feet.’ ”

 

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[View of Cranberry in 1896. Photo by Cy Crumley]

The mine was eventually sold to the Dugger family. The Harden family managed it during the Civil War, when iron bars used in the manufacture of axes were hauled to Camp Vance, below Morganton. Peter Harden was said to be the son of a Creek Indian brought to the Harden family after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, though others believed him to be John Harden’s illegitimate Negro son. Most months during the war, Peter Harden drove a four-horse load of iron bars to Morganton. When the mine was sold after the Civil War, he remained as caretaker. He was also the keeper of the local hotel—located near the old Cranberry High School—as well as postmaster, though he could neither read nor write. His wife did all the clerical work. 

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[Cranberry Forge in 1923. Photo by Cy Crumley]

It is 0.7 mile to a junction with N.C. 194. The old Cranberry High School is on the right. You can turn left and follow U.S. 19E/N.C. 194 North. N.C. 194 North splits off from U.S. 19E after less than 1 mile and goes to Banner Elk. U.S. 19E continues to Elk Park. It is 1.5 miles to the Tennessee line. Continue 4.3 miles to the community of Roan Mountain, then turn left onto Tenn. 143, heading south. Just after crossing the bridge, turn left onto Stratton Street and go two blocks.

The two-story white house on the corner of Stratton and Main streets was built in 1883 by General John Thomas Wilder for his family. Wilder was an industrialist, an inventor, a Civil War hero, and an influential figure in the development of East Tennessee. At age 19, he left his New York home to seek his fortune in the West. Eight years later, in 1857, he owned his own foundry and millwright establishment in Greensburg, Indiana. He also married the daughter of one of the town’s founders.

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When the Civil War began, Wilder closed his foundry and organized a company of local militia. Within a month, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. His cavalry troops established such a reputation for speed and toughness that they came to be known as Wilder’s Lightning Brigade. The brigade helped hold off victorious Confederate troops at the Battle of Chickamauga until the Union army retreated to Chattanooga. By the end of the war, Wilder was a brigadier general.

After the conflict, Wilder moved to Chattanooga. But he was not a carpetbagger. In 1867, he erected the first blast furnace in the South to use coke. He also started several successful manufacturing companies in the Chattanooga area.

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Sometime around 1870, Wilder purchased 7,000 acres along the top and sides of Roan Mountain at a cost of $25.15 per acre. He also acquired the Cranberry mine in nearby North Carolina.

When Wilder’s company began construction of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad from Johnson City to his mine in Cranberry, Roan Mountain Station became a thriving community. He built the Roan Mountain Inn and a home for his family in the town. He also constructed the Cloudland Hotel atop Roan Mountain in 1885. For the same rate, guests could divide their time between the Roan Mountain Inn and the Cloudland Hotel, with horses and hacks providing transportation from the train station to the mountaintop.

The financial losses Wilder suffered in the panic of 1893 were so severe that his daughter was forced to drop out of college. Nonetheless, she went on to marry Arthur Hoyt Scott, who played a part in the development of the paper towels and tissues that made the Scott Paper Company known world-wide.

Despite Wilder’s financial difficulties, his popularity remained high. He was chairman of the Chickamauga National Park Commission. He also intervened to prevent the arrest of former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest on charges of parole violation. For this act, he was later rewarded honorary membership in the Nathan Bedford Forrest Post of the United Confederate Veterans. As one post member phrased it, “No man has done more than General Wilder in bringing order out of chaos.”

Return to Tenn. 143 and drive 2 miles to an open field on the left. This is Shelving Rock Encampment National Historic Site. The property includes “the shelving rock,” an overhang where goods were stored to keep them dry. Approximately 1,000 volunteer Patriots known as “the Overmountain Men” camped here on September 26 and 27, 1780, while en route to the Battle of Kings Mountain.

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Continue less than 0.1 mile on Tenn. 143 to Roan Mountain State Park’s visitors’ center, on the left. The excellent facilities at the park include a swimming pool, tennis courts, and cabins with rocking chairs on their porches.

For centuries, the 6,285-foot Roan Mountain has been an area landmark not only because of its height but also because of the distinctive appearance of its treeless summit. Generations of scientists have tried to explain why certain mountaintops in the 2,000- to 6,000-foot range in this part of the Appalachians will not support trees. Altitude and timberline are obviously not the answers, since nearby Mount Mitchell, at almost 7,000 feet, supports tree growth all the way to the top. 

In 1938, a professor from Louisiana State University advanced the theory that wasp eggs laid in the trees were responsible for killing them off. Unfortunately, his theory failed to explain why the infestation did not spread and why eradication of the wasps did not result in reforestation. A botanist from North Carolina State University suggested that Indians had created the “balds” by continually burning off the mountaintop foliage for their settlements. But evidence from archaeologists and anthropologists showed that Indians preferred valleys near streams and never chose the tops of ridges for their villages.

As usual, where science failed, legend entered. In 1898, James Mooney recorded in his report to the Bureau of American Ethnology that the Cherokees had a mythological explanation for the origin of the balds. A Cherokee village was terrorized by a giant yellow jacket called Ulagu that swooped down, snatched up children, and quickly flew off into the distance. The ever-resourceful Cherokees posted sentinels on the tops of the mountains in order to track Ulagu to its lair, located in an inaccessible cavern. In this alternate version of the tale that appears in “The Nantahala Tour,” the Indians prayed to the Great Spirit for aid. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning split off the side of the mountain where Ulagu hid. The Indians then quickly fell on the monstrous insect and destroyed it.

According to Mooney, the Great Spirit was so pleased with the Cherokees’ “initiative in uncovering [Ulagu’s] hiding place, their piety in appealing for Divine aid in their extremity, and their bravery in the final combat, that it was His decree that in the future the tops of the highest mountains be bare of timber, to better serve as stations for sentries should another such visitation occur.”

The Catawba Indians, who also frequented the area, had a different explanation. In 1849, Charles Lanman recorded the following in Letters from the Alleghany Mountains:

There once was a time when all the nations of the earth were at war with the Catawbas, and had proclaimed their determination to conquer and possess their country. On hearing this intelligence the Catawbas became greatly enraged, and sent a challenge to all their enemies, and dared them to a fight on the summit of the Roan. The challenge was accepted, and three famous battles were fought. The streams of the entire land were red with blood, a number of tribes became extinct, and the Catawbas carried the day. Whereupon it was that the Great Spirit caused the forests to wither from the three peaks of the Roan Mountain where the battles were fought; and wherefore it is that the flowers which grow upon this mountain are chiefly of a crimson hue, for they are nourished by the blood of the slain.

The Catawba legend is particularly accommodating because it accounts for another characteristic that helps draw thousands of visitors to Roan Mountain each year. On the top of the Roan are 600 acres of natural rhododendron gardens that put on a brilliant display of color each June.

In 1784, Scottish botanist John Fraser came to the area in search of rare and exotic plant life. In 1787, he joined forces with French botanist André Michaux, who was sent by the French government in 1785 to explore the United States and gather the seeds of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation for planting in the Park of Rambouillet. But there seems to have been some competition or jealousy between the two. Michaux parted company with Fraser, using the excuse that his horses had strayed and that he needed to search for them. Though it is hard to envision now, the race among nations to find unusual plant species greatly resembled the space race of the 1950s and 1960s.

Fraser discovered the sturdy evergreen that now bears the name Fraser fir, a tree that has changed the economy of the mountain counties in northwestern North Carolina. The Fraser fir has become the Christmas tree of choice among consumers for several reasons—its sturdy branches can support heavy ornaments; it retains its needles long after it is cut; and it bounces back to its original shape after being wrapped for shipping. The Fraser fir grows only in areas of high rainfall (70 to 90 inches annually) at elevations above 3,500 feet. Given such a limited growing area, the trees bring a hefty price. Because much of northwestern North Carolina meets the criteria for growing the Fraser fir, local farmers quickly learned to plant every spare inch of their property with this lucrative crop.

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[Fraser fir farm near Grandfather Mountain]

n 1786, Michaux established his central nursery in Charleston, South Carolina, then set about covering the entire country. He explored the area around the Roan in 1794. Some sources say it was Michaux who named the peak, after the Rhone River of his native France. Though this is doubtful, he did leave his mark on the area, teaching local settlers the value of the ginseng plant and showing them how to prepare it for the Chinese market. Still valued in Asia for its medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, ginseng has provided supplemental income for the people of the mountains ever since Michaux’s visit.

In 1799, Fraser, now under the patronage of the Russian government, made his third trip to the North Carolina mountains. During his journey up the Roan, he discovered a new plant, which he designated Rhododendron catawbiense. But there is controversy over who saw it first because Michaux supposedly recorded its discovery in 1796. It is this plant with its crimson-colored blooms that attracts so many sightseers. Roan Mountain also boasts an 850-acre forest of Fraser fir and spruce.

A third well-known botanist who traveled to the Roan was Dr. Asa Gray, who visited twice in the 1840s. When Gray returned from one expedition, he called the Roan “without doubt, the most beautiful mountain east of the Rockies.” While exploring the area, he discovered the unique species of lily that is still known as Gray’s lily in his honor.

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Just past the visitors’ center, the road begins its steep ascent to the summit. The route hasn’t changed much since Charles Dudley Warner described it in his 1889 book, On Horseback: “For six miles the road runs by Doe River, here a pretty brook shaded with laurel and rhododendron, and a few cultivated patches of ground and infrequent houses. . . . We mounted slowly through splendid forests. . . . This big timber continues till within a mile and a half of the summit by the winding road. . . . Then there is a narrow belt of scrubby hardwood, moss-grown, and then large balsams, which crown the mountain.”

When Charles Lanman reached the summit, he offered an observation that still rings true: “It commands an uninterrupted view of what appears to be the entire world. When I was there I observed no less than three thunderstorms performing their uproarious feats in three several valleys, while the remaining portions of the lower world were enjoying a deep blue atmosphere.”

It is almost 11 miles from the visitors’ center to Carver’s Gap, where the crest of the ridge marks the Tennessee–North Carolina line. A parking area is on the right. Most visitors make the climb along the section of the Appalachian Trail that leads to the top of the Roan’s bald, to the left.

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If you turn right at the gap onto the forest-service access road, you can drive to the former site of the Cloudland Hotel and the rhododendron gardens. A small access fee is charged.

Traces remain of the foundation of General Wilder’s Cloudland Hotel. Although accounts vary, the hotel had somewhere between 166 and 266 rooms. Guests could sleep in Tennessee and eat their meals in North Carolina without ever leaving the premises. The hotel was famous all over the East Coast, though guests had to endure a difficult journey to the summit by stagecoach or carriage. The Cloudland even ran a hack three times a week to the railroad in Johnson City, Tennessee. In 1885–86, the hotel sent out advertisements reading, “Come up out of the sultry plains to the ‘land of the sky,’ magnificent views above the clouds where the rivers are born, a most extended prospect of 50,000 square miles in six different states, one hundred mountain tops, over 4,000 feet high in sight.”

Many visitors at the Cloudland Hotel witnessed strange happenings atop the mountain. Stories abounded of ghostly music and circular rainbows. The reports grew so widespread that Henry Colton, a scientist from Knoxville, Tennessee, came to investigate. Upon his return home, he reported his observations and conclusions to a Knoxville newspaper. “The sound was very plain to the ear . . . like the incessant, continuous and combined snap of two jars,” he claimed. Colton offered the explanation that “two currents coming together in the open high plateau on the high elevation, by their friction and being on different temperatures, generated electricity. . . . The music was simply the snapping caused by this friction. . . . The heated air of the valley rises from eight in the morning until three or four in the afternoon. . . . As night comes on the current turns back into the valley, almost invariably producing a very brisk gale by three or four o’clock in the morning, which in turn dies down to a calm by seven o’clock and commences to reverse itself by nine o’clock.”

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Despite Colton’s argument, the hotel’s mountain neighbors continued to insist that the sounds came from angels, and that the circular rainbows that frequently appeared atop the Roan after thunderstorms could only be God’s halo.

If you are in the area when the blooms are at their height in June, be sure to visit the natural rhododendron gardens. After viewing the gardens, return to Carver’s Gap and turn right to continue down the North Carolina side of the mountain. Tenn. 143 becomes N.C. 261. The route travels through a scenic farming valley for 23 miles to Bakersville, the county seat of Mitchell County. From Bakersville, follow N.C. 226 for approximately 10 miles back to U.S. 19E near Spruce Pine.