From Depot to Mountain House, explore the trail intrepid travelers did
More than a century ago, travelers heading for the top of Mount Mitchell - travelers like Mrs. S.P. Taber Willets - went through the North Fork Valley via the Old Mitchell Trail. Intrepid visitors who arrived in Black Mountain on wagon would proceed to the mountain on horseback, stopping to rest and refuel at a cabin known as the Depot before continuing on to the Mountain House, a remote inn of sorts near the top of the highest peak east of the Mississippi.
In celebration of Mount Mitchell State Park’s centennial this year, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will help hikers experience firsthand the journey that those before them made to Mount Mitchell’s peak. The museum has permission to small group of hikers on daylong hikes through the off-limits Asheville Watershed along the Old Mitchell Trail to the Mountain House. The hikes will be on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4-5.
The strenuous, 6-mile round trip will ascend almost 2,000 feet to an elevation of 5,240 feet at the Mountain House. That’s a steep climb, especially on a rocky trail that hasn’t been kept up in 113 of its 180 years.
One early account of the trek to Mount Mitchell was recorded in 1901 in a journal by Mrs. S.P. Taber Willets. Mrs. Willets came from New York City to the “wild backwoods” of Western North Carolina specifically to take a trip from Black Mountain to the top of Mount Mitchell.
To begin the journey up the Old Mitchell Trail, many tourists stayed with Jesse Stepp and his family. Mrs. Willets was no exception. Stepp, a local farmer with a good deal of land, built cabins in the 1850s on his property at the upper end of the North Fork valley to accommodate the many tourists to the area.
Mrs. Willets was greeted by the Stepps with “generous hospitality,” she wrote, adding that the “traditionary courtesy of the Southland had not vanished. … After the generous supper of biscuit and new butter, applecrust and apple jam, fried chicken, and coffee, we sat upon the front steps watching the stars and exchanging views of matters and things until the chilly night air warned us into the house.”
As Stepp’s visitors acquired guides and horses to make the strenuous trek up the mountain, Mrs. Willets wrote, “My host had kindly offered to furnish me with a sure-footed mule and himself as escort to conduct me to the foot of Mount Mitchell, five miles beyond — from which place the ascent is made.”
From the Stepps, Mrs. Willets traveled to a cabin known as the Depot. The museum will start its hike there, among its ruins. The cabin was one of two erected in 1850 by William Patton, a merchant from Charleston, South Carolina. To reach the cabin by horse and buggy, Patton had his men – most likely slaves from his South Carolina plantation - extend the primitive road cut through the North Fork Valley. Enslaved people, such as Samuel Drymond, also served as a tourist guides for Patton.
Past the Depot, the road became a trail only wide enough to accommodate horses. Two miles up the steep, switchbacked trail on a spur ridge off Potato Knob, Patton built his "Mountain House” in 1851 at an elevation of 5,200 feet. Here the temperatures were cooler and the views more distant and dramatic.
The 20-by-50-foot, two-story cabin was a rustic structure built from rock and balsam logs readily available around the property. Though the cabin was most likely originally built for his personal use, by 1854 Patton had opened it to tourists. Over the course of a summer and early fall season, several hundred guests would pass the threshold and secure a bed for 35 cents a night. For a time, French champagne and Scottish salmon were popular menu items.
William Patton died in 1858 and the Mountain House fell into disrepair. Years later, Alf Tyson would take over operations. The Tysons were famous for the variety, quality and quantity of their “vitals” most of which were homegrown and processed on the place - canned, dried, preserved or salted down.
“Mr. Tyson, the proprietor of the Mountain House," Mrs. Willets wrote, "furnished me a guide on short notice, as I was anxious to reach the summit in time to see the sunset, remain overnight for a view of the sunrise, and return to the Mountain House next day in time to reach Black Mountain Station for the return to Asheville.”
For several years, the trail from the Mountain House extended only to Clingman’s Peak. But the trail was extended an additional three miles to Mitchell’s summit in 1855, when the peak was beginning to be discussed as perhaps the highest peak in eastern North America. It was this trail that Mrs. Willets followed in 1901.
“Guide Joseph Allison and I had been joined in our upward climb by two gentlemen, who had intended spending the night on the summit,” she wrote. “One was Senator Vance’s stepson, Mr. Martin, owner of Gombroon (in the North Fork valley), the other Mr. Bryant from a Charlotte, NC, paper. So they shared with us (a) cave-like shelter across whose front were laid the fir logs that crackled and blazed and sent showers of sparks against the black rock ceiling.”
Unlike the Mountain House, food on the mountain was brought and prepared by the visitors, and though Jesse Stepp built a small, primitive cabin in the late 1850s to accommodate guests near the summit, many travelers chose to instead sleep under a large overhanging cliff like Mrs. Willets and her companions.
She continued, “The coffee pot steamed over the coals, and its contents soon added comfort to the inner man, for the night dews were falling and made us draw near the campfire. Guide Joseph laid the resinous balsam limbs across the ground for beds.”
Sleeping near the summit was necessary for visitors to awaken at dawn to journey the short distance to the peak to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains that could be seen to the north, south, east and west.
“After seeing the sunrise the next day, the descent was made,” Mrs. Willets concluded. “It was high noon when we emerged from the cool shades and dewy height ... We soon after alightened on the broad stone horse blocks at Tyson’s Mountain House. The return to Asheville was by railway from the town of Black Mountain.”
Preregistration is required for the hike both days.
Mountain House Hike
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 4-5
Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St.
Difficulty: Strenuous, 6 miles
Cost: $50 museum members, $75 nonmembers
Register: swannanoavalleymuseum.org, 669-9566