On Saturday, Nov. 4, hike part of the route traveled by people who ascended to the top of Mount Mitchell before the turn of the 20th century.
The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center has special permission to take a small group of hikers into the closed Asheville Watershed to hike the Old Mitchell Trail near Mount Mitchell down to the Mountain House.
The difficult, four-mile, out-and-back route begins at museum chairman Wendell Begley’s cabin near the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park, proceeds to Potato Knob, and then continues down to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to Deer Gap. At Deer Gap, the hike enters the restricted city of Asheville property and continues downhill via the historic Old Mitchell Trail to the Mountain House ruins.
Almost everyone making the trek in the 1800s and 1900s stopped at the Mountain House to rest and refuel on the long journey from Black Mountain through the North Fork Valley and up the steep path to Mount Mitchell. One of these hikers was a Mrs. S.P. Taber Willets, who came to the “wild backwoods of western North Carolina" from New York City in 1901 specifically to take a trip and recorded her memories in a journal.
Like many others before and after, Willets began her trip with an overnight stay at the Stepps in the North Fork Valley followed by a stop at the depot at the foot of the great mountain before continuing on horseback to the Mountain House.
Leaving the depot, the wagon road narrows to a horse path. This steep, switch-backed trail continues for two miles to a spur ridge off Potato Knob where William Patton built his “Mountain House” in 1851.
The small, two-story rustic cabin was constructed with rock and balsam logs from the property. Though most likely built for his personal use, by 1854 Patton had opened to tourists. A 1860 newspaper ad reads, “Highest Hotel in the United States will be open for the accommodation of visiters [sic] on the 1st day of June. The best of servants always in attendance to render every service needed ...”
Over the course of a summer and early fall season, several hundred guests would secure a bed at 35 cents a night. Popular menu items included French champagne and Scottish salmon.
Years later, Alf Tyson would take over operations. The Tysons were famous for their “vitals,” most of which were grown and processed on site — canned, dried, preserved or salted.
Mrs. Willets wrote, “Mr. Tyson, the proprietor of the Mountain House, furnished me a guide on short notice, as I was anxious to reach the summit in time to see the sunset.”
At first the trail from the Mountain House extended only to Clingman’s Peak, but in 1855 when the peak now known as Mount Mitchell began to receive attention for possibly being the highest in eastern North America, the trail was extended an additional three miles to Mitchell’s summit.
It was this portion of the trail that museum hikers will follow on Nov. 4 and 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.” Mrs. Willets wrote. “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.”
In the late 1850s Jesse Stepp built a small, primitive cabin to accommodate guests near the summit; however, many travelers still chose to sleep on balsam limbs under a large overhanging cliff like Mrs. Willets and her companions.
Visitors would wake at dawn to make the short trip to the peak to watch the sun rise over the surrounding mountains.
“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 heights … 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, as there are limited spaces on the hike.
Mountain House Hike
When: 8 a.m. Nov. 4
Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St.
Cost: $50 members, $75 nonmembers
Register: email@example.com, 669-9566.