100 candles for a park that history created
A mountain millions of years old is celebrating its 100th birthday next week.
North Carolina is commemorating
Mount Mitchell State Park's centennial in a celebration Aug. 27-28 that pays tribute to the mountain’s role in creating North Carolina’s state park system. The state's first park, Mount Mitchell State Park was created out of an environmental crisis – rampant logging – and continues to contribute to environmental awareness throughout the state.
The centennial is especially poignant to Black Mountain. Dwarfed by the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, Black Mountain owes much of its history and character to the Black Mountains, of which Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the tallest. From the 1790s to 1939, the town was the first gateway to Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains, according to local historian and hiker Wendell Begley.
“During the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, the Mount Mitchell Railroad and later Mount Mitchell State Park were one of the nation’s top tourist destinations,” Begley said. “This made the Southern Railroad passenger ticket office for the depot in Black Mountain one of the busiest in North Carolina.”
During the centennial celebration, there will be lots to do on top of Mount Mitchell. There will be traditional mountain music and modern bluegrass, as well as dancers, folk artists and musicians playing mountain dulcimer.
Craftspeople will create the brooms, baskets and other household goods that mountain residents made since before Mount Mitchell was a park. The Swannanoa Valley Museum and the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort will have displays. Expect to hear a lot of local history from storytellers and historians. Food trucks will keep everyone fed.
What people won’t find a lot of is parking. Visitors are asked to use one of the free shuttle buses in Black Mountain, Asheville, Burnsville and Marion. Pickup in Black Mountain is at Bi-Lo Grocery – the bus leaves at 9:30 a.m. and departs Mount Mitchell at 3:45 p.m. To make reservations there and for the other pickup sites, go to the event’s website, ncparks.gov.
Mount Mitchell and the other Black Mountains were extensively logged in the early 1900s. In 1915, North Carolina legislators, at the urging of Gov. Locke Craig, launched an effort to protect the mountain’s summit. By the end of 1916, 795 acres had been acquired to create what would become Mount Mitchell State Park. The first state park in the Southeast and one of the first in the nation, the park and the environmentalism it fostered initiated the state’s park system, one that now includes 41 units open to the public, as well as a network of protected state natural areas, state lakes, rivers and trails, all of which encompass 230,591 acres. During 2015, the parks system served a record 17.3 million visitors.
“We should all be incredibly thankful that our state legislature had the foresight to protect this ‘island in the sky’ for future generations,” said Dottie Shuman, a Montreat professor of outdoor and environmental education who takes her students there. “Not only does Mount Mitchell provide incredible views to be seen but there are also unique ecosystems to be explored.” The state park’s being contiguous to the federally protected Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest makes for “unbelievable wild lands for investigation and recreation,” she said.
Elaine Boone, the president of the Yancey History Association, lives in Eskota in the house built in 1915 by the Browns, two brothers from Pennsylvania who bought 13,000 acres of Mount Mitchell to log them. The Browns built the railroad that carried spruce from the mountain to Kona in Mitchell County, where it was sent on to be made into frames for World War I fighter planes.
Boone’s husband David is the great-great-grandson of Big Tom Wilson, the famed bear hunter and guide who found the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who died in his attempt to prove Mount Mitchell as the highest point east of the Mississippi. During the centennial celebration, David Boone, a relative of Daniel Boone, will present two statues he carved, one of Mitchell and another of Big Tom, upon whom Mitchell relied to explore the mountain. The house that David and Elaine Boone live in, at the foot of Mount Mitchell, is in the headwaters of the Cane River near where Big Tom’s house was, making the mountain’s history even more personal for the Boones and other Yancey County residents.
"When people ask about Yancey County, we always say it’s home to Mount Mitchell," Elaine Boone said. "Our citizens from Yancey County saw a need to preserve Mount Mitchell as a state park because they never again want the timber to be cut in a way that the mountain was destroyed” more than a century ago.
Mount Mitchell is integral to the soul of Yancey County, said John Whitehouse, who coordinates the volunteers who maintain the trails for the North Carolina High Peaks Trail Association and Friends of Mount Mitchell State Park. “For Yancey County, Mount Mitchell is a significant economic boon because it attracts people from all over. When we’re out hiking, we run into people from all over the country, if not the world."
Whitehouse will lead a public hike during the celebration on Aug. 28 The hike leaves from the park at 10 a.m. and goes along the Black Mountain Crest/Deep Gap Trail (the highest trail east of the Mississippi) and descends into the old Camp Alice to consider its history. The six-mile hike is “moderately strenuous,” Whitehouse said, but shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who hikes regularly.
Along the way, hikers will encounter, in Begley’s words, “one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country.”
The three distinct climatic zones on the slopes of the Black Mountains nurture more than 50 types of trees and “a thousand species of flowering plants,” Begley said via email. The climate of the Black Mountain range is similar to those in southern Canada and northern New England. The range has averaged more than 130 inches of snowfall each year in the past five years, he said.
“No major city in the U.S. can grab that title,” he said. “Mount Mitchell averages over twice the annual snowfall of Green Bay, Wisconsin and almost 2.5 feet more than Anchorage, Alaska. Wow!”
The state owes a debt to the park, according to Begley’s research. Created as a result of the stripping of balsam and spruce on the Black Mountains, it initiated the East Coast’s first environmental movement in the mid-1910s, he said. The first pieces of U.S. Forest Service lands purchased east of the Mississippi River were Potato Knob and Clingman’s Peak, part of the Black Mountains.
“Wildlife studies on the range led the N.C. legislature to establish the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Program/Department in the early 1920s,” Begley said. “The first lands designated as such were located on the slopes of the Black Mountains.”
When: Aug. 27-28
Where: Mount Mitchell State Park