This year marks the 100th anniversary of the North Carolina State Parks system. On March 3, 1915 a bill passed the state legislature to establish Mount Mitchell as the first state park in the Southeast (and one of the oldest in the nation). At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States.
Today, thousands of visitors travel to the summit via the Blue Ridge Parkway. But when the park opened, tourists came by railroad along the legendary Old Toll Road. On Saturday, April 2, the Swannanoa Valley Museum will host a hike enabling participants to travel back in time on the historic toll road.
Each year, the Swannanoa Valley Museum organizes an exclusive four-wheel drive caravan from Black Mountain up the historic Mount Mitchell Motor Road to Camp Alice. Led by volunteer historians, the day-long driving tour will include stops for historical interpretation and photo opportunities. The museum will cater lunch at the former site of Camp Alice and provide snacks along the way. The caravan departs at 7:30 a.m. from Black Mountain Savings Bank at 200 E. State St., Black Mountain.
The cost is $75 for museum members and $100 for nonmembers. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit Swannanoa Valley Museum. Drivers with high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles who can carry other passengers will be able to attend for free. Registration and prepayment for the trip is required at swannanoavalleymuseum.org or 669-9566.
“Now open!... the motor road to the top of the world!” proclaimed an early 20th Century brochure for the Mount Mitchell Motor Road. Prior to the opening of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939, the toll road was one of the only routes to Mount Mitchell from Buncombe County.
The mountain was named for geologist and educator Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death attempting to prove the peak was the highest east of the Mississippi. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell’s measurements in 1881-1882 and officially named the mountain for him.
In Mitchell’s days, travel to the summit was treacherous and required the aid of mountain guides along a trail that was said to have curved like a sinuous reptile. Despite the difficulty of the journey, the marvel of the soaring peak enticed tourists throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the decade thereafter, transportation improved markedly when the Dickey and Campbell Logging Co. laid a 21-mile railroad from Black Mountain to the Clingman Logging Camp, located just below Clingman’s Peak near the trestle at the head of the right prong of the South Toe River. Eager tourists hitched rides on logging cars to the peak.
Fred A. Perley and W.H. Crockett purchased the railroad in 1913 and completed the final 3.5 miles of the railroad from the Clingman Logging Camp to Camp Alice. They added three passenger cars by 1914 and even hired Sandford H. Cohen to boost tourism to what was then quickly becoming known as the “Land of the Sky.”
Civic boosters and business leaders in nearby Black Mountain were also ardent promoters of tourist access to the mountain. An advertisement in a 1915 Asheville Citizen newspaper invited visitors on “America’s Greatest Scenic Trip” to Mount Mitchell at the cost of $2.50 round-trip. Between 1915 and 1916 alone, more than 15,000 passengers traveled to the summit on a bumpy three-hour-long train ride to the peak, followed by a 3.5 hour long trip downhill.
To accommodate tourist needs, promoters constructed Camp Alice in 1914 or 1915 and it was opened to tourists in May 1916, three-quarters of a mile from the mountain’s apex. The bustling tourist destination featured a kitchen, 250-person dining hall, lunch counter, souvenir stand and cabins and tents for overnight camping. By this time, logging activity had denuded much of the Black Mountain range. Visitors voiced alarm about the environmental destruction. Gov. Locke Craig listened to these concerns and endorsed a bill to designate Mount Mitchell as the first state park.
Passenger rail service ended in 1919, when World War I increased the demand for lumber. The war depleted timber resources, and logging ceased in the Black Mountains. Cashing in on the tremendous growth of automobile ownership, tourist boosters in 1922 smoothed, straightened and paved the railroad bed with rock and cinders into an 18-mile toll road from Black Mountain to Camp Alice.
Once a major tourist attraction, the “Old Toll Road” made the “apex of Appalachia accessible” for the cost of $1 per person. As many as 150 cars drove the road each day. The single-lane road required motorists to depart for the mountain before noon and begin their descent by 3 p.m.
The opening of the modern, paved Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939 provided free access to Mount Mitchell and led to the road’s closure. Today, the remnants of the former toll road remain undisturbed and the lands around them undeveloped.