Archived Mountain Voices

Early book gives vivid descriptions of WNC

Those who read this column regularly are aware of my interest in the early descriptive literature of Western North Carolina. Whenever possible, I like to collect copies — first editions or reprints — of these often rare books. And I like to share some of the descriptions via this column from time to time.

In past Back Then outings, we’ve taken a look at George W. Featherstonhaugh’s A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay Sotor: With an Account ... of the Gold Region in the Cherokee Country (1847), Henry Colton’s Mountain Scenery (1859), John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (which took place in 1867 but wasn’t published until 1916), Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies — Or Western North Carolina (1883), and Bradford Torrey’s A World of Green Hills (1889).

My most recent acquisition of this sort was made several weeks ago at The Captain’s Bookshelf, an excellent used and rare bookstore in downtown Asheville. It’s a 1972 re-issue by the Louisiana State University Press of Edward King’s The Great South (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1875) that was published simultaneously in England under the title The Southern States of North America.

King was born in Middlefield, Mass., in 1848 and became a journalist, poet and novelist. By 1871 his newspaper and magazine work in Europe had earned him the reputation of being “one of the ablest of the younger American journalists."”

In the early 1870s he was bankrolled by Scribner's Monthly to the tune of $30,000 to travel throughout the South via train, river boat, coastal steamers, wagon, horseback, stagecoach, and on foot to compile the magazine articles subsequently collected as The Great South. King died in 1896.

In the introduction to the LSU Press reissue, Fletcher M. Green (a former Southern history professor of mine at UNC) is quoted as describing The Great South as the “fullest and at the same time one of the accurate and revealing” of the postbellum travel accounts of the South.

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From a historian’s viewpoint, King’s 820-page tome is most rewarding in regard to his observations on race relations in the South after the Civil War; indeed, the book helped heal some of the old wounds by providing a positive picture of Southern culture and racial matters for northern readers. That particular issue was not so significant here in WNC at that time, of course, but King did journey through the region in 1873 when he was 24 years old. And his vivid observations regarding mountain life and scenery are interesting to read.

King’s party, which varied in number throughout the trip, entered WNC from eastern Tennessee in the spring of that year. They crossed the Smokies at “Mount Starling” (present-day Mt. Sterling in the national park in Haywood County) and visited “Bennett’s” in “Catalouche” (present-day Cataloochee Valley in the park). Traversing Jonathan’s Creek, they came on into Waynesville. Crossing the Balsams they visited Webster and Franklin and then proceeded up the “Sugar Fork” (the present-day Cullasaja River Gorge that U.S. 64 follows) to Whiteside Mountain. (Neither Highlands nor Cashiers are mentioned.)

They then descended the Tuckaseigee River to the present-day Cullowhee area. The last leg of their journey in WNC was from Asheville to Mt. Mitchell and along the upper French Broad into South Carolina.

Here are three descriptions culled from The Great South, with this writer’s additions in square brackets.               

“Bennett’s folks [in Cataloochee Valley] called to us at that moment, ‘Won’t you light, strangers, ‘n come in?’ We sat long in the little porch, gazing at Oconoluftee’s height [apparently a former name for a peak in that area], and the Balsam mountains, dimly shadowed beyond the point where the valley was lost in the breast of the hills. The grandeur of the sentinel mountain, standing alone at the end of the chasm; the reflections of the high rocks and mighty tree-trunks in the far-away stream; the dizzy precipices which overhung the rarely frequented valley, lent a charm ....”

“On the plain of Waynesville, 2,756 [2,635] feet above the level of tide-water, and in the shadow of the great Balsam range, stands Waynesville town. The approaches to it are lovely, but the view from the town itself is lovelier still. On all sides rise the mountains; the village nestles between the forks of the Pigeon reiver, nowhere more beautiful than within a few miles of this nook

“...The dry and pure air of Waynesville gives new value to life ... The town is composed of one long street of wooden houses, wandering from mountain base to mountain base. It has a trio of country stores; a cozy and delightful little hotel, nestling under the edge of a huge tree; an old wooden church perched on a hill, with a cemetery filled with ancient tombs, where the early settlers lie at rest ... There is no whir of wheels ... the country is as orderly as a community of Quakers.”

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a July 2002 edition of The Smoky Mountain News

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