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Wednesday, 27 February 2008 00:00

Alum Cave for a breath of fresh air

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I recently happened upon an interesting article that described an excursion made in 1860 to the Alum Cave on the Tennessee side of the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Titled “A Week in the Great Smoky Mountains,” it was published in the Southern Literary Messenger, which during an impressive 30-year run (1834-1864) was the South’s most important literary periodical. Published in Richmond, Va., the monthly magazine was edited in its early years by Edgar Allan Poe.

Although the descriptions in the article were closely observed and well written — as might be anticipated in a periodical like the Southern Literary Messenger — the identity of its author, “R., of Tennessee,” is unknown. His primary reason for making this excursion into the Great Smokies 74 years before the park was established are clear enough. Due to a condition R. described as “hemorrhage of the lungs,” his physician initially recommended “vigorous out-door exercise in a cold, bracing climate” like that to be found in Minnesota.

Not wanting to travel so far, R. chose instead to sojourn in the nearby Smokies and visit the Alum Cave as well as Clingmans Dome. Praising his physician for being one of the few men “in the healing profession who believes in God and nature,” R. “tried in vain to get anyone to accompany me to the mountains.” Unable to locate a companion, he determined to go alone. I have inserted several notes in square brackets to supplement R.’s narrative.

•••

“Upon Thursday, 3rd of November, 1859, I left Knoxville, the capital of East Tennessee, upon horse-back, taking with me two blankets, an over-coat, in one pocket of which there was a pint flask of the best brandy, a pair of saddlebags, in one side of which I had stuffed two or three pairs of socks and as many shirts, and a copy of Dr. Draper’s Physiology, and in the other side, to make the balance even, a quart bottle of the same article with which the pint flask was filled. Of course I did not mean to use the quart of brandy, for then the saddlebags would have lost their balance and fallen off ....

“Sunday, 6th Nov — Jack Bradley [R’s locally-hired guide] made his appearance this morning breakfast, and of course before sunrise, ready to start to Alum Cave with me. Jack carried his gun and a blanket, a hand axe and a sack filled with provisions — for you see we planned to stay all night and next day in the mountains .... It is useless to attempt to describe the wild and romantic scenery through which we passed. We spent the whole day through laurel thickets, with no path to guide us, passed over rapid mountain torrents by springing from rock to rock, many times at places where I should have never thought of attempting, had not Jack gone before, and at about two o’clock arrived at Alum Cave, thoroughly and utterly exhausted by our toilsome climbing and walk of seven miles. The last half mile was nearly perpendicular. I do not believe I could possibly have held out to climb one hundred yards more. I threw myself on the ground in the entrance of Alum Cave. As I lay there panting, Jack took one of the blankets and threw it over me, reminding me that it was very cold up there, and that I would certainly make myself sick if I cooled off too rapidly ....

“Well here we are at Alum Cave! Some five or six thousand feet up in the air. A wilder, grander spot I never saw before. It is not strictly a cave, it is what is called in the mountains “a rock-house,” — that is, a precipice so far projecting over its base, as to shelter the space beneath from rain and snow. At Alum Cave the projection is so great that it may well be called a cave. On the brow of the overhanging cliff above there are quite a number of eagle’s nests. They live there all the time, Jack told me. I saw several careering about, and heard others screaming among the rocks above .... I hope they may never be disturbed or driven away—‘twould almost be treason to our flag to do so. [R’s “eagles” were no doubt peregrine falcons, which nested at Duckhawk Ridge in the vicinity of the Alum Cave until the early 1940s. They did not return to breed there again until the spring of 1997.]

“At the lower edge or end of the cave is what is called “Devil’s Leap.” This is a cliff which, though not quite perpendicular, must be one thousand feet to the bottom. The very thought of taking such a leap almost makes one’s hair stand on end. At the upper edge of the cave, the precipice closes quite down to the side of mountain below, so that progress in that direction is impossible. Just to the west of the cave arises another rugged mountain peak, whose sides are so steep no one has yet been able to climb to the top of it .... Through the sides of this beetling cliff are great holes, and give the cliff a very peculiar and grand appearance ....

“Having wandered about for an hour or two in the cave, I left, with regret, just before sun-down, to find some water at which to camp for the night. We had intended to stop in the cave, but could not do so without water. We found water in about half a mile, and making up a large log-heap fire, we cooked our evening meal — that is, we cooked our meat by frying it stuck on the end of a stick . . .

“Supper over, we wrapped our blankets around us, and threw ourselves on the ground before the fire to sleep.

“How clear and beautiful the stars look to night,” said I.

“Yes,” answered Jack, “but how cold and distant.”

“Monday, Nov. 7th. — Up early and mending our fire, we discussed our frugal meal ... To-day we mean to go to the top of Quonacatoosa [Clingmans Dome], the highest peak of the Smoky, and to get back to Mr. Huskey’s by night — a distance, in all, of sixteen miles. So we started. After going about three or four miles, we crossed the path by which we would return to Mr. H.’s, and there left all of our baggage, taking with us nothing but a piece of bread and meat for our dinner.

“Within two miles of the top of the gap through which the path leading to North Carolina goes, we came upon five most beautiful falls or cascades, made by the headwaters of the Pigeon, tumbling over the cliffs. Jack informing me they had no name, I determined to christen them, telling Jack their names, so that he might inform future visitors, which he most religiously promised to do. [R. proceeded to name each of the five waterfalls after young ladies of his acquaintance.] .... It would be difficult to decide which is the most beautiful of these charming cascades. Just by the ‘Ella Falls’ is an overhanging rock, under which a young man from South Carolina, of the name of Psatter, lost his life by freezing to death. He endeavored to cross the mountains against the urgent remonstration of the people at Mr. Huskey’s, who told him a snow storm was coming on. The storm came, and to protect himself from it, he crawled under that rock. A week after, he was found sitting there dead with both eyes pecked out by the birds. The hunters dug a grave for him where they found him, and there buried him — requiescat in pace.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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