Archived Mountain Voices

Keith was among best early geologists to visit this region

mtn voicesNumerous geologists have visited the Smokies region. None was more observant than Arthur Keith.

The Murphy Marble Belt is an elongated, lens-shaped mass of marble and related sedimentary materials up to three miles wide that extends in a crescent from northwestern Georgia into Cherokee and Swain counties. This lens also contains talc, limestone, soapstone, and calcareous soils. The first two materials are still mined at the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Co. in the Nantahala Gorge. But it was marble that was once the linchpin of the area’s mining interests.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the marble industry declined and ultimately ceased to exist in southwestern North Carolina. It was apparently more feasible in economic terms to extract and transport marble mined down in the Georgia end of the belt. At about the time the marble industry was phasing out in the early 1970s, the whitewater industry arrived on the scene. And it, too, was based on geology.

In 1907, Arthur Keith of the U.S. Geological Survey had observed the abnormal, almost right-angled bend to the east that the Nantahala River makes as it enters the lower portion of the Nantahala Gorge (where the power plant and raft put-in areas are presently situated.) Keith theorized that the river originally ran northward from the Georgia line directly through a water gap (just east of present Topton) into the Talula Creek watershed in present Graham County, and on into the Little Tennessee below where Fontana Dam was built.

The situation represents a textbook instance of “stream piracy,” whereby a small creek eating back westward through the soft, limestone strata of the Murphy Marble Belt in the lower gorge captured the original Nantahala, causing it to change course and flow back to the east, thereby creating the dramatic Nantahala Gorge as we know it today. Like the marble mines, the whitewater setting upon which the lucrative rafting industry is totally dependent is an outgrowth of geological processes that took place millions of years ago. From hard marble blocks to soft rubber rafts in less than a single generation.

Who was Arthur Keith? According to a biographical memoir written by Chester Cromwell for the National Academy of Sciences in 1956:

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   “The name of Arthur Keith (1864-1944) is inseparably connected with Appalachian geology. During most of his mature life, over a period of nearly 50 years, his chief efforts were devoted to field study, mapping, and written description of selected areas distributed from the Carolinas to Maine. Sixteen folios of the United States Geological Survey, most of them under his name alone, a few prepared jointly with other workers, are in themselves a monument to his skill and industry. In June 1887 [after graduating from Harvard], he became assistant in a field party of the United States Geological Survey, and spent the summer mapping in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. That experience determined the pattern of his later life. He went to Washington at the end of the field season, and became a regular member of the Federal Survey, which was still in the first decade of its vigorous early growth. For several decades Keith’s geologic folios in the Southern Appalachians were accepted as models, and three contiguous sheets — the Mount Mitchell, Roan Mountain, and Bristol1 quadrangles — were widely used as the most satisfactory geologic cross section of the Appalachian belt. His maps published between 1891 and 1907 represent detailed study and description of nearly 15,000 square miles, largely in areas with intricate bedrock structure. For nearly 20 years Keith spent his summers contentedly in strenuous field work, his winters in writing; and his high productivity continued unbroken. He served as president of the Geological Society of America.”


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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