Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Discovering Forgotten History in the Backcountry of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Few times in ones life do you have the opportunity to go to a remote place and find history all around you in living color. For some people, they pursue it for a living, such as a treasure finder looking for a sunken ship out in the Gulf of Mexico. For historians, they read the history and then go seek the facts on location. For adventurers, they stumble into something of historical value and realize it later! That was exactly what happened to us. On this yearly trip going to a familiar place in the Smokies, we discovered secrets that had been around us for years hidden in the woods and we simply had no clue.

One of my favorite views every time we kayak into the GSMNP from Fontana Marina.
The location I am talking about is in the backcountry woods of the Eagle Creek area in North Carolina. I was introduced to this beautiful area by my friend Charlie in 2002, and have not stopped coming here every year. Little known to many, the southern side of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park yields nothing but pure beauty without all of the commercialization. It has been this way for years, partly because you are in a U.S Forest Service area and a U.S. National Park area all together in one spot, thus, little to no commercialization is in place. The area I am talking about is Fontana Lake. Fontana Lake has what many come here for, and that is nothing but beauty. They come to see the mountains in it's natural form. Fontana Resort, formed after the area was a large community to support the construction of the dam during WWII, took on the tourist role when the dam was completed. Fontana Dam by the way, is the tallest dam on the east coast and well worth seeing, at over 480 feet high. On the southern side of Fontana Lake, it is ran by the U.S. Forest Service with it's Cable Cove Campground right beside the lake. On the northern end of the lake, it is all National Park Service territory. It can be the quietest vacation trip you have ever taken if you want it to be. The closest town away is Robbinsville or Bryson City.

With all of those facts in hand, lets head out on our trip! We are heading out on a 3 day trip into the back country woods of the Smokies. As I have stated on blogs here before, we just basically head out across the lake over to one of about 3 remote back country campsites. You are totally on your own. There is no cell phone, very little radio contact, and nothing but wilderness. A permit is required to do this, so with the necessary paperwork complete, we all start our journey. You had better have your stuff together in this place. Help is NOT that fast and easy.

Boats parked at Eagle Creek Campground or Campsite #90
We depart the Fontana Marina with 4 kayaks loaded with camping gear and two canoes with more camping gear. One person for each boat. We paddle Friday morning out across the lake to an area called Eagle Creek camping area, back country campsite #90.  I have been doing this again and again since 2002. We either camp at Proctor or Eagle Creek. I have always known that Eagle Creek has a rich history with the timber industry BEFORE the construction of the Fontana dam from 1942-1945. It basically flooded the area and washed away an area deep in history. What I just did not realize was how important the area was and truly how much of a central "beehive" of progress and activity the area had from 1920-1938. The Great Smokey Mountain National Park or GSMNP for short, was started in 1938. When the Park Service took over, they basically cleared everyone  out! The area was basically "frozen" in time if the lake did not consume it.

Further research on the internet reveals S. Flory Mfg. made lots of steam engines.

An old boiler is left to tell the stories of history here.

 In 2010, my good friends Steve and Thomas, along with myself, began an extensive search for a mine operation near the mouth of Eagle Creek. My handheld GPS several years ago was showing  a mining symbol less than 1 mile from where we camp, so the 3 of us looked and looked for it with no luck. We decided the mine did no exist or the way point on the map of it was incorrect in it's location. This year, all 6 of us agreed to help look for it again on this trip. After setting camp up on Friday, we set out in our boats. Paddling along the shore looks like "looking for a needle in a haystack" as the old southern saying goes. After all, it all looks like woods! My camping buddy and close friend Thomas had a great ideal. Paddle along the shore and we might find some kind of trail possibly where others have been to the mine site. Using the symbols on the GPS, studying the maps on the GPS, and looking at a paper map I had of the area, we slowly move along the banks. After about 30 minutes of searching, finally, we found a trail! All of us park our boats and start slowly looking for snakes as we inch up the small trail. May of 2012 seemed to be the year of the snakes, because after parking to set up camp just a few hours earlier, there were water snakes everywhere! One of our guys while at camp went over in the weeds to relieve himself and almost stepped on a baby rattlesnake! The weather was absolutely perfect with crystal clear blue skies. That may well be why all the snakes were out, the warmth of the sun.

As we make our way up the trail slowly, John points out hey!, railroad tracks! Bingo! We are hot on to something. The railroad metal is gone, but the ties are still down with a small stream bed running over the top of the tracks. We ease on up the slew/hollow and look and see a massive what we later determined was a steam boiler, seen here on the blog pictures. About 300 feet up, we hit the jackpot! 3 mine shafts with fencing around them! The park service has some fairly new fences up and some pretty stout warning signs about NO entrance is allowed due to the declining bat population. So we stand in amazement  wondering about the mines and what is down in them. We can only speculate since the fines far exceed the amount of money I can afford to pay, not to mention jail time. John, Sam, Thomas, and Justin ease on up to explore all three mines while Eric, my nephew, stays with me snapping pictures and shooting video left and right. After about 10 minutes, someone yells out "awesome!". Eric and I look up and see this massive roughly 15 foot wide by 12 foot high cable assembly right straight across from the main mine or largest opening. It has massive 2 1/2 inch wide cable on the spool. Further inspection of it (see picture) seems to point that it was steam powered instead of motor powered. Words on this page cannot describe the feeling of seeing something that very people have seen and seeing items literally out of the 1920's to 1940's era left just as they were used. It is a moving experience for me, and a trivial event for some. My mind starts to wonder 10 thousand things about this place. We ease on down from the spool and head over to the boiler we saw when first coming up. There are numerous concrete pillows and foundations as part of the copper mining operation. If this blog fascinates you like it did my friends and me experiencing it, I invite you to click on the links at the bottom of this page and read further. You will quickly see that much of the history of this site is hidden in the water of Fontana Lake! When they dammed up the area, it killed out a lot of history. Be sure and check out the old pictures of the site. You can see that the lake engulfed much of it on it's creation. It must be pointed out that this area was already a massive timber operation, so life in those times and living in this would be a mixed blessing/curse. I am sure it provided hundreds of jobs and a good living, but pictures and history have told that this area was absolutely raped of timber and minerals. The industrial revolution had put everything as "free for grabs" back during these times, and management and proper stewardship of the land were about as Greek as the word "iPod" would be used back during that time. Upon reading further history of this mine AFTER I got back, at least one person died at the mines, and many were injured. 4 miles of narrow guage track and two locomotives, along with 10 ore cars were used. The "cable" assembly we found out lowered men and ore carts 2000 feet at a 45 degree angle into the main mine. There were also different levels and shafts of the mine. The research I read told of a boiler house and a shower room just down from the mine. I think that is what we may have found with the thick steel boiler drum out (see picture). Further reading yields a school, a doctors office, and homes all around the area. Some of this is buried in the lake and some of the foundations still exist on the other side of the hollow from the mine up in the woods. Thomas and Steve, my camping friends did find that 2 years ago, but we had no ideal what was hidden in the woods on the other side of the water!

The next day, my nephew Eric and I hiked up to Shuckstack abandoned fire tower and took pictures. I wrote about this trip a year ago here on this blog, so I will not bore you with that. I will share a picture of a mother bear and her cub that we shot pictures of just 50 feet down from the base of the forest tower. They were not the least bit afraid of Eric and I as we snapped pictures on our descent down. It just topped off a second amazing day at this beautiful place that God made and man visits. John and Sam, two of my other friends kayaked over to Proctor, another remote back country area rich in history. It was once the largest town in the Smokies. It was a massive lumber mill and town. We will save that writing for another trip. I have visited this place many times before I started my blog, so I hope to cover that area down the road in a future blog. It has a cemetery that tells the story of this place, of short life spans of families, and all the trials of hard times back then.

Bears in trees about 100 feet below the base of the forest tower. Not a care in the world towards us as we snap this picture.
Our third day, we woke up to rain, rain, rain, and more rain. We broke down our hammocks and tents down in the rain, we paddled in the rain back to the marina, we loaded boats in the rain, and drove over 5 hours in the rain. It was all good though and very much worth it. I would do it all again in a New York second. One of the many things I learned from this trip is this: Sometimes you just look and see a mountain with trees, and that is all you think of. What you don't realize is what wildlife, and more importantly for this article what treasures of the past it hides.

As we wind up this trip, I thought I would leave you with a video clip taken from the over 4,000 foot high at Shuckstack tower overlooking Fontana Lake, Fontana Dam, and the Smokies. It was taken with my head band HD camera or "nerd cam" as I call it. I hope you enjoy the view as we did.

Until another day of adventures, we go back to the grind of work and the routines of life. See you on the next trip! Below are some resources and history of the Eagle Creek Mine if you are interested in reading more.



FOOTNOTE for history buffs: 
It was pointed out to me that one of the pictures that shows the cable spool manufacturer- "S. Flory Manufacturing"  on the side of it, is a very old company that produced steam locomotive engines for trains and other steam powered industrial equipment for years. This verifies that indeed, the mill equipment was ran by steam powered equipment rather than gas engines.