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Tour of the Month: New River Tour

Tour of the Month: New River Tour Stone Mountain State Park

The area encompassed by this tour has been known historically as “the Lost Provinces.” When the earliest settlers in Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga counties were building roads and railroads, the most practical routes took them into southwestern Virginia. While Ashe and Alleghany were officially part of North Carolina, many of the counties’ trade and business connections were with Virginia and Tennessee.

The unusual features of the New River also contributed to the area’s unique development. The New is the only river in the eastern United States that flows northward to the Midwest. Development proceeded in the same direction. The fact that the path of commerce was westward instead of eastward created a growth pattern different from that of the rest of the North Carolina mountains.

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The New is the oldest river in America. At one time, it held the headwaters of the mighty Teays River; hard to believe as it is, scientists say that the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were once tributaries of the prehistoric Teays. Scientists also say that the New has changed little since it was first seen by settlers, a claim that seems to be supported by the writings of Bishop August Spangenberg, an early traveler sent by the Moravian Church to find land for a settlement. In his account of his journey, Spangenberg recorded his impression of a river that was undoubtedly the New. His December 14, 1752, entry stated,

"We virtually lost ourselves in the mountains, & whichever way we turned—we were literally walled in on all sides. . . . We had nothing but bleak mountains, & dry valleys to traverse, & because we followed the river several days in hopes of escaping from the mountains, we were only getting down deeper all the time, for the river flowed N. & S. & E. & W., in short all points of the compass. At last we determined to keep a course between E & S., to scramble across the mountains as well as we could. One mt. rose up beyond the others, & thus we pursued our way, between fear on one side—& hope on the other."

Spangenberg’s remarks ring true to anyone who has ever traveled the backroads along the New.

Many of the original settlers along the river were Revolutionary War soldiers who were given grants. Much of the land in the area still remains in the hands of the descendants of those early grantees. As a result, the region has had one of the most stable populations in North Carolina for 200 years.

Drive south from Sparta on U.S. 21 for 4 miles. It is 0.2 mile past the entrance to the Roaring Gap Club to signs for Liberty Knob Baptist Church and the John P. Frank Parkway on the right. Turn right onto Old Gap Road (S.R. 1100) just past the sign marking the Eastern Continental Divide (elevation 2,972 feet); the turn comes up quickly, so be alert. The road becomes Oklahoma Road in about 1 mile. On the right is Liberty Knob Baptist Church, formed in 1884. After approximately 2.3 miles, you will reach a church and the intersection with the John P. Frank Parkway. Turn right into the entrance to Stone Mountain State Park.

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If you start the tour from Elkin at I-77, you may want to skip the uphill drive to Roaring Gap and go straight to Stone Mountain State Park. It is 10 miles from the U.S. 21 exit off I-77 to Traphill Road, on the left, where you will see a sign for the state park. Travel 4 miles on Traphill Road to the right turn onto the John P. Frank Parkway. It is 3 miles on the parkway to the park entrance.

You can pick up a park map at the visitors’ center, located 0.7 mile from the entrance. It is then 2.3 miles from the visitors’ center to the parking lot for the actual mountain. Visitors who arrive early in the day can park closer to the base of Stone Mountain than those who arrive later. But even those who have to use the lower lot and walk up find it worth the hike.

Stone Mountain, elevation 2,305 feet, is a dome-shaped granite mass that rises 600 feet from base to summit. Since most of the surrounding valleys have elevations of 1,400 to 1,600 feet, the huge, sheer wall seems even more impressive. The circumference of the base of Stone Mountain is nearly 4 miles. Permanent maps directing visitors to a series of first-rate hiking trails are located at the base of the mountain. The valley at the base is an excellent vantage point from which to watch rock climbers negotiating such colorfully named routes up the rock as Electric Boobs, Grand Funk Railroad, and Purple Daze. It seems the routes must have been named during the late 1960s or early 1970s.

After viewing Stone Mountain, take a left out of the bottom parking lot and continue on Stone Mountain Road. It is 0.9 mile to a marker for the Widows Creek Trail, on the right. The hike to a small, sheltered waterfall is a relatively short one, but be forewarned if you decide to cross the stream—the slippery rocks may be the reason for the name Widows Creek.

The pavement ends 1 mile past the Widows Creek trailhead. Continue 1.1 miles to an intersection with S.R. 1737 (Longbottom Road). Turn left and drive 2 miles to Roaring River Baptist Church. You can park in the lot to view the white two-story farmhouse next door. This was the house built by Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins.

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Born in Siam, now Thailand, in 1811, the twins began touring the world at age 16. In 1829, they came to America. When they decided to retire after 10 years of touring, they chose to settle near Wilkesboro, one of the towns where they had been exhibited. They arrived with $10,000 and purchased a retail store. They subsequently gave up the store and began farming on land near where the farmhouse stands.

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In 1839, they became American citizens and adopted the last name of Bunker. About the same time, they met Sallie and Adelaide Yates. The couples courted for several years before marrying and moving into the farmhouse. Nine months later, Eng and Sallie had their first daughter. Six days after that, Chang and Adelaide had their first daughter. Eng and Sallie eventually had 11 children; Chang and Adelaide had 10.

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Eventually, things fell apart. Eng and Chang built two separate houses in Surry County. The wives lived apart; the twins would spend three days with Sallie and three with Adelaide. In 1874, Eng woke to find his brother dead; he passed away a short time later. They are buried in Surry County.

Return to the back entrance of Stone Mountain and continue straight on Longbottom Road. It is 2.6 miles to Double Creek Baptist Church, on the left. You will enter a scenic, pastoral valley dotted with fairly new homes. The road makes a 90-degree turn in front of a beautiful, well-maintained, late-19th-century white farmhouse with two-tiered porches and decorative woodwork.

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One mile from the farmhouse, you will see a trail entrance for Doughton Park on the right and a parking area on the left. Doughton Park is one of the most popular attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway, though most visitors see only the upper part of its 6,000 acres. The trail entrance provides access to the lower half by way of several of Doughton Park’s hiking trails. Visitors can enjoy short hikes up some relatively deserted routes or plan a longer trek that takes advantage of the loops throughout the park. The park offers primitive back-country camping areas. Interested visitors should check with park officials to reserve one of the popular campsites.

Doughton Park was named for Robert L. Doughton, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1911 to 1953, during which time he was the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee. Doughton is credited with being the power behind the passage of the Social Security Act, which he considered the hallmark of his career. In 1953, Doughton Park was dedicated to the man who was largely responsible for bringing the parkway through this part of North Carolina.

From the parking area for the hiking trails, continue 6.5 miles to an intersection with N.C. 18. Turn right, heading north. It is 2 miles to an “N.C. Gamelands” sign, which directs travelers to Thurmond Chatham Wildlife Management Area. The 6,403-acre game refuge is well known by deer hunters.

Continue 4.4 miles to an intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Continue north on N.C. 18 for 1.7 miles to Doughton-Hall Bed and Breakfast, on the left. The Queen Anne-style house was the home of Congressman Robert L. Doughton. It was built in 1898 and became a national historic landmark in 1972.

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It is 0.1 mile to the Laurel Springs post office, on the right. Turn left onto N.C. 88. You will pass the Upper Mountain Research Station, established in 1944. The station has 454 acres of land at an elevation higher than 3,200 feet. The research focuses on Christmas trees, burley tobacco, small fruits, small grains, organic vegetable production, mushrooms, and a vineyard.

After 4.3 miles on N.C. 88, you will see a historical marker on the right for the Ore Knob Mine. Just past the marker, turn right onto Little Peak Creek Road (S.R. 1595). You may be able to see the remains of the famous Ore Knob Mine on the left after a little less than 1 mile. The area is overgrown, and the shafts have been closed down and fenced off, but the mound of earth is still there.

The Ore Knob Mine had a rather inauspicious beginning. In 1800, a French mining engineer came to Ashe County in search of iron. Though his undertaking was quite successful, his judgment failed him where the 300 acres at Ore Knob were concerned. He bought the tract thinking it showed promise of bearing iron, only to abandon it after determining that whatever iron was there was so badly adulterated by copper as to be virtually worthless. The property was therefore sold. After he paid his taxes, the Frenchman was left with a balance of $11, which was split equally among his 11 children. In 1870, two capitalists from Baltimore purchased the tract and began to make a huge profit once copper started bringing a high price

In January 1982, news of a sensational murder involving the notorious Outlaws motorcycle gang hit the media. An undercover informant told police that in December 1981, he had unwillingly participated in the murder of a man whose body was thrown into a deserted 200-foot shaft at the Ore Knob Mine. A second body was also believed to be in the shaft. Investigators examined the vicinity but were unable to corroborate the informant’s story. It was proposed that someone be lowered into the hole for a closer look, but mining officials judged the shaft to be too unstable.

In one of those cases where fact is stranger than fiction, it just so happened that a man who called himself “the Nashville Flame” learned of the dilemma while watching television in a motel. The Flame was performing as a stunt man on a local thrill-show circuit. Finding himself in the right place at the right time, he offered his climbing talents to the authorities, who eventually accepted his offer. One of his quirks was that he allowed the media to photograph him only when his face was covered by a helmet or a ski mask.

When the Flame really did find two bodies at the bottom of the shaft, one of the most sensational series of murder trials in the history of western North Carolina was launched. It ended with the murder conviction of four men, including the original informant. The Flame continued to insist that more bodies were in the mine, but the attorney general of North Carolina made the wise decision to permanently seal the dangerous shaft, and the final chapter in the saga of the Ore Knob Mine was officially closed.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been active in determining the extent of contamination from the mine and in preventing its expansion.

Continue on N.C. 88 for 14.1 miles. N.C. 88 runs conjunctively with Business U.S. 221 as you enter the town of Jefferson, heading west. The huge mountain on the left is Mount Jefferson. Stay on U.S. 221 South as it bears left, bypassing Jefferson’s business district. After 3 miles, you will see a sign on the left for Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. Follow Mount Jefferson State Park Road (S.R. 1152) for 2.1 miles to the summit.

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[Photo above shows West Jefferson in 1916.]

In 1827, Dr. Elisha Mitchell climbed Mount Jefferson and recorded in his diary that he had never seen anything more beautiful than the view from the big rock near the summit. For more than 100 years after Mitchell’s visit, the summit remained inaccessible except by difficult trails. Then the Work Projects Administration came to Ashe County in the 1930s. Local citizens hoping to attract tourists proposed that a road be built. When supporters of the project learned that federal funds could not be used to construct a road to private property, they set out to acquire the 26 acres at the top for use as a public park. The land was donated and the road built. Due to a lack of maintenance funds, it soon fell into disrepair. In 1941, local citizens petitioned the North Carolina government to accept the acreage as a state park. The effort was unsuccessful at first, but the group finally convinced the government to designate the Mount Jefferson land as a state recreation area. When North Carolina later passed a law requiring a minimum 400 acres for state-supported parks, local citizens once again set out to meet the challenge. They secured financial contributions and land donations of the necessary acreage, and Mount Jefferson State Park was born. It has since been changed to a state natural area. In recent years, budget woes have threatened the continued existence of the park. It would be a true loss, as the views from the summit on clear days are magnificent. Displays at the various overlooks help visitors identify the mountains in the distance. If visibility is good, guests can see far into Virginia and Tennessee and view much of the Blue Ridge range.

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Even the naming of the mountain was the subject of controversy. For a long time, Mount Jefferson was known locally as Nigger Mountain or Negro Mountain. In his book Ashe County: A History, Arthur Fletcher credited tourism, not racial enlightenment, for the change. He stated that the members of various committees were afraid that potential visitors would get the idea that the new park was for blacks only and stay away. It was finally suggested that the mountain be named for the two towns at its base, which were themselves named for a great president. The issue was thus resolved.

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The reason for the original name is also a subject of debate. Most sources say the mountain served as a station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War and that it was named for the runaway slaves who hid there. Historians have discredited that view, since land grants predating the Civil War carried references to Negro Mountain. The most likely explanation for the name comes from the fact that the mountain is a solid black color during winter. Because of the high elevation, most of its trees are stunted. When their foliage is off, the bare black rocks are all that can be seen.

Return to U.S. 221 and turn left, heading toward West Jefferson. It is 1.3 miles to an intersection with N.C. 163/194 at a stoplight; remember this intersection, as you will return to it later in the tour. Turn right onto U.S. 221/N.C. 194 and head into West Jefferson. It is 1.5 miles to the third stoplight, located at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets in the center of town; the Ashe County Visitors’ Center is on the corner. Turn right on East Main Street. The Ashe County Cheese Company’s factory and outlet store are half a block down East Main. A tour of the factory reveals how cheese is made. Freshly made samples are available at the outlet store.

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In the early 1900s, Ashe County farmers learned that raising dairy herds could be a profitable industry. Upon the increase of milk-producing herds in the area, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture promoted the establishment of cheese factories. Cheesemaking demonstrations were met with enthusiasm. The first factory opened in 1915. Soon, small operations began throughout the county. Unfortunately, the widely scattered locations of the factories and the poor mountain roads prevented cheesemakers from reaping much of a profit. All but one of the plants is now closed. The Ashe County Cheese Company carries on the longstanding tradition alone.

Retrace your route to N.C. 163. Just before the intersection, you will see a McDonald’s on the right and a sign indicating the route to the “Church of the Frescoes.” Turn right onto Beaver Creek School Road just before the intersection, following the signs for the frescoes.

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It is 0.8 mile to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Though this small, picturesque mountain church houses one of the area’s main tourist attractions, it was not always the focus of community pride. Milnor Jones was an Episcopal minister and active missionary who organized the first Episcopal church in Ashe County, the Church of St. Simon the Zealot. On June 21, 1896, Bishop Joseph Blount Cheshire came from Raleigh to conduct services. He was met at the church by an unexpected greeting committee. He wrote, “I was assaulted and forcibly prevented from entering this building by a mob of between fifty and one hundred men which had been gotten together for the express purpose of preventing our service that day. And the reason they gave for this action was that they ‘did not like Mr. Jones’ doctrine’ and they understood that I taught the same doctrine.” Cheshire further noted that he “met with the most violent opposition, accompanied with bitter abuse from Methodists and Baptists, especially the latter.” Milnor Jones went on to organize a school at Beaver Creek. His quaint Church of St. Simon the Zealot, later renamed St. Mary’s, was eventually abandoned for lack of funds until a different sort of notoriety came its way.

In the summer of 1980, artist Ben Long returned to the United States to train others in a dying art form. For seven years, he had studied fresco painting in Italy with a master of Renaissance technique. Long relocated to Ashe County, where he took on as many as 20 apprentices at one time and used two Episcopal churches in the area as his studios.

Fresco painting is a tedious and complicated process, which explains its rarity in today’s world. Natural ground pigment is mixed with distilled water, thinned with lime, and painted onto damp plaster. As the plaster dries, the lime and pigment bind chemically, so that the wall literally becomes the painting. This unusual technique produces an interesting effect; many say that fresco walls seem to glow. The drawback is that the pigment is absorbed the moment brush touches plaster, so a mistake can necessitate the removal of an entire section of wall.

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Long imported lime from the same site in Florence, Italy, that Michelangelo used for the Sistine Chapel. He mixed the lime with North Carolina sand to make his plaster. Local people served as models for the characters in his frescoes; Long himself took the role of Doubting Thomas. The results are so impressive that over 200,000 people a year visit the out-of-the-way chapels to view Long’s frescoes. Mary, Great with Child; John the Baptist; and The Mystery of Faith are featured at St. Mary’s. Despite the possibility of encountering a busload of tourists, St. Mary’s is a worthwhile stop. Since gaining prominence with his Ashe County work, Long has created frescoes throughout the state. There is even an official Ben F. Long Fresco Trail, which includes frescoes in seven counties in western North Carolina.

Return to the intersection where N.C. 163/194 and U.S. 221 meet. Turn onto N.C. 163 and travel south for 9.1 miles. Turn left onto N.C. 16 and travel north for 2.5 miles to Glendale Springs. You will start to see a new set of “Church of the Frescoes” signs. Turn left onto J. W. Luke Road (S.R. 1162).

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At the intersection is the historic Glendale Springs Inn, built in 1895 by Daniel W. Adams. On July 30, 1998, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore showed up with a group of dignitaries to proclaim the New River an American Heritage River. While they were in the area, they chose this inn for their weekly, private “Thursday lunch.” The inn has been closed and for sale since late 2008.

Continue on J.W. Luke Road. On the right is the Church of the Holy Trinity, the second Episcopal church housing Ben Long frescoes. Long’s interpretation of the Last Supper occupies the entire front wall.

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Around the side of the church is the entrance to a new facility in the basement. It is called the Chapel of Christ the King. The name comes from a large mosaic created by architectural sculptor John Early in 1920. The mosaic was given to the church by a visitor. The chapel also features The Departure of Christ, a fresco created by Ben Long student Jeffrey Mims in 1984.

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Another interesting, if unrelated, portion of the basement is the columbarium. If you’ve ever contemplated having your remains cremated but can’t decide what should be done with your ashes, the columbarium at the Church of the Holy Trinity provides one unusual alternative.

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The tour ends here. If you return to the intersection with N.C. 16 turn south, it is approximately 24 miles to U.S. 421 just outside North Wilkesboro.