Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Key Mill Branch-Bankhead National Forest-A Historical Site of Tradegy, Beauty, and History Little Known to Many

Preface to late 2012-2013 adventures:
Before we start this adventure, a little note to pass on to you. Since you share adventures with me, you might of noticed the adventures have been a little less lately. That's because in late August of 2012, I was told at my full time job for almost 13 years, that everyone in the department was being put on temporary 20 hours per week with no benefits. The economy going south in the United States has hit me in the gut! When you have worked all of your life without the slightest worry in the world about a job and the trap doors are pulled out from under you, it puts a new perspective on things. My attitude has to be readjusted on a regular basis, or else you fall into a pessimistic view of life. Fortunately, my parents taught me long ago to never count on anything permanent, and so years ago I started a part-time business. Thanks to it, I am getting by and can focus back on the good life in the outdoors again and the values I cherish with my family. My budget to explore and travel has been cut in half, but my passion is stronger than ever to explore and enjoy life in the outdoors. The 2012-2013 winter camping season is here, so lets get going!

A view on one side of the massive shelter looking back towards the other side of the shelter just down stream from the Key Mill site.

Located back in the back of one of the rooms in the massive bluff shelter, we find 1909. The 9 is backwards, as we find so many times with tree and rock carvings. All we can gather is lack of knowledge on spelling and letters  back then.

An extremely large bluff shelter just down from the Key Grist Mill Site. This is on one side of the shelter. The picture above shows the other side of the shelter.

A beautiful swimming hole just up the branch that feeds the old Key Mill Site. How many kids swam in this hole while there fathers were at the mill waiting on the corn to be ground at the mill site. Time only knows.

A very cold morning causes water to lock it's grip on some grass by a small waterfall.

One of several waterfalls from branches that drain into Key Mill Branch.

I have been blessed to have made a couple of trips before this writing, but just did not have the frame of mind to write and share them with you. I apologize for that. One of those trips though, has been a true blessing and I want you to discover it with me. It has opened up my mind of areas we walk and think little of. If those areas could talk to you, you would sit down, laugh, cry, and wonder about past times of those before you. We walk this earth sometimes thinking we are the only creatures to do so. We live only for now, thinking all that has been discovered is discovered by us. If we be truthful with ourselves, we are one of thousands walking the same paths on this earth. With those thoughts in mind,   I want you to take a trip with me to a very neat and untraveled area of the Bankhead National Forest in Northern Alabama, rich in history, and sadly, a site of tragedy in the last few years. It is a historical site in many respects, and reflects many years of human stories worth telling. Before it was engulfed into the United States National Forest program, it was an area where a family raised children and operated a grist mill for years. It is a site where the founder of the grist mill, died from injuries at this site. His father fought in the American Revolution, and he fought in the civil war. It is also the site of a very tragic helicopter crash in 2007 that claimed a young man's life. The stories that make up this site are interesting and sad, all combined with beauty in a small area called Key Mill Branch.
The historical Key Grist Mill Site. Notice the Iron Ore seeping from the rocks.

Worn gears that could tell some stories of days gone by. The gears left from the Key Grist Mill.
Another view of the gear cogs left at this site for explorers to enjoy and for time to hold on to.
Key Mill Branch, named after an area of land owned by Joseph Francis Marion Key, a very colorful character that served in the Civil War and married several times, bearing children with each new wife. He homesteaded this area around the early 1890's. The story of this man is very interesting, and a link to the full story of this colorful character is below. He served in Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, and other key battles of the civil war. His dad served in the revolutionary war. Time does not allow me to slide off into family history here, but I encourage you to read about this man and his family. As mentioned above, Joseph Francis Key had 3 wives. The last wife was one tough women they say. Mary Jane Key, was half a Cherokee Indian and died in 1962 at the age of 101. She operated the grist mill at this site where we are exploring until she was 92 years old. Her husband Joseph, died of injuries from the mill in 1918. Remnants of the mill are still there as you walk the small but beautiful canyon of Key Mill Branch. The canyon is again small but again, extremely beautiful. The site where the grist mill was, still has the gear cogs of the mill, the holes in the rock where the mill perched on the top of the falls, and you get a sense of an area that is extremely rich in history. Iron ore (orange color) seeps out of the walls of this grist mill canyon area. Even the old road bed is still there with ruts in the wagon wheel tracks indicating a heavily traveled road. If you like history, this area is very odd in that you sense this was a hub of activity for many years for many family members. It is all abandoned and left for the elements of time to consume now. Most people passing by have no clue of the history that has happened on the grounds they walk. We hope we can change some of that as you read.

Part of the Instrument Panel of the Hughes 369A Helicopter
As we first enter into the canyon, little did we know we were stepping into such a gold mine of history and later to find out, tragic area of history. We will share this story with you as you read on. It is captivating. After about 15 minutes of walking into the canyon, we come across a shiny burnt piece of metal laying on the ground. Closer inspection yields it is part of an instrument panel out of some type of aircraft. Wow! What the devil is this about? Looking around further, we find what looks like either a door handle or a tie down point used on some aircraft. Wow, there must have been an aircraft that crashed here some time ago? We take pictures of the instrument panel part, the handle or tie down point, and we move on. As we walk down the canyon, we notice that apparently the U.S. Forest Service burned the area off some time back, because we saw elements of trees burned years ago, and even the aircraft parts were burned. As we move down into the canyon, we are stunned to find a massive shelter near the Key Mill branch. It has two rooms in it. Further inspection yields carvings on a rock inside one of the dark rooms! It has 1909 carved on it, with a 9 backwards. So strange. We come across this all the time on trees in the Bankhead. Is it illiteracy back during those times? Was it a fad? Who knows. Also beside it was the letters KE. Either it is a sorority letters from a college or letters of someone?  The shelter is amazing in it's size, and is well worth the trip to see it. We knew there was one there but had no ideal of it's size. It is just across on the other side and down from the actual Key Mill site. We take tons of pictures, look in amazement at the size of the shelter, and then move on up stream to the mill site. Justin who is with us, has already seen all of this, so we hinge on him on where to go. When we arrive at the mill site, it was a little disappointing in some respects. It appears to be just this small little canyon area that has a rather small 15-20 foot high waterfall. As we approach the waterfall, Thomas, one of my hiking buddies points to the ground. There are gear cogs from the mill! Awesome! We have hit the jackpot! We take tons of pictures of the gears and the area. There are even holes cut into the rock up on top of the falls, indicating where the foundations of the mill were planted to hold the massive gear water wheel and grist mill components. As you listen to the waterfall sounds and enjoy the beauty, you cannot help but think back and imagine a building on top of the waterfall with the gristmill. Wagons bringing corn to the mill, it was a bee hive of activity I am sure in it's time. All of this is now silenced by the sounds of water and forest undergrowth of times gone by. As we decide to venture on upstream from the mill site on the branch that feeds the site, we hit another awesome find! A beautiful and tall cascading waterfall with a deep green/blue water hole at the base of it. Pictures, pictures, pictures. What a place! These kinds of sites make you wish you could come back in the summer and take a dip in the clear pool of water, but then again you think about the ticks, chiggers, snakes, and mosquitoes you would have to contend with. OK, enough of that thought! At any rate, what a place to visit! We discover old road beds that lead to the mill with deep ruts, indicating again, this place was heavily used over the years.
Our camp overnight is rather uneventful other than a few hoot owls and coyotes in the night, but the area we are in is unbelievable! After our return trip home, Thomas digs up the history about the mill, and Justin uses the internet to trace the aircraft crash parts. WOW! What a story to tell on both sides! If you want to read about the family history of the place, then use the link at the bottom and read an article from the Moulton Advertiser Newspaper from 2005. You have got to read it to believe it. This family, and this place are quite a story to tell!
Now, lets focus for a moment on the tragedy of this location in more modern times. Justin's research on this aircraft reveals a very, very, sad, but interesting story. The following has been taken from FAA crash investigation reports. Turns out, this site was the impact area of a helicopter that crashed on May 13, 2007. The story behind this accident is both tragic, but interesting at the same time. Records viewed online about the crash submitted by the FAA are highlighted below. My heart cringes when I read this report and while you read it, your heart sinks to your stomach. This had to be a horrific crash at the Key Mill branch area.

Part of a tie down point on the bottom of the Hughes 369A helicopter.

On May 13, according to various news sources on the internet, a 26 year old pilot by the name of John Scott departed Merkel Field in Sylacauga, Alabama with a newly purchased but used Hughes 369A helicopter that came from Lakeland, Florida. Scott had been flying helicopters since he was 18 according to news reports from the internet. The helicopter he was piloting this day was a 1968  OH-6A Army helicopter that had been refurbished and renamed as a Hughes 369A. It had been purchased in Florida and it was his job to fly it back home. He departed at 4:45 p.m from Merkel Field. He was headed for Muscle Shoals, Alabama/Northwest Regional Airport to refuel and work his way back to his home town in Kansas in "hops", as many helicopters do on long journeys. He checked in with Birmingham airport via aircraft radio as he moved up Alabama. He notified Northwest Regional  Airport by radio as well that he was headed that way. At about 6:30 p.m. over Bankhead National Forest, something horribly went wrong while in the air. He crashed at Key Mill Branch in the Bankhead National Forest. It was not until a couple of days later on May 15th that locals discovered the wreckage, and part of that was due to a massive fire set off by the impact. The story of this pilot is tragic even more so. Apparently, the rotor blades of the helicopter just ripped apart and separated in mid-flight, and the helicopter descended from over 1,000 feet up, dropping like a rock from the sky. The impact was so severe it set off a major forest fire that burned a large part of the forest area, so that is the reason we saw so many trees and evidence of a fire in the area. It was not from a planned burn by the forest service as we presumed, it was from the tragic crash! Here is where the story gets a little more strange and interesting at the same time.  Amazingly, NTSB/FAA officials found near the impact, the pilots personal GPS hand held unit that revealed even more clues to this horrific event along with personal property that was returned the family. The hand held GPS was not severely burned or damaged from the crash and apparently fell far away from the impact and fireball of  the main crash area and fuselage. After examining the data from the hand held unit, the GPS shows the helicopter was traveling towards Muscles Shoals at around 110 mph when the blades apparently separated. The helicopter he was piloting was traveling at 1,314 feet when the event apparently happened. Because of the in flight separation of the rotor blades, it basically broke the helicopter in many pieces. They are scattered all over and around Key Mill Branch area and will be there for many years to come. The U.S. Forest Service  had to build a road back to the crash site for the remains of the helicopter to be removed. Remnants of the road still exist and to this day, the Forest Service employees coin that road "helicopter road". The helicopter apparently burst into flames while in the air because there are two separate areas on each side of the canyon that as of this writing, still show where fires burned around the area. One area is on the south side of the canyon where these parts shown were found. The other main impact area of the fuselage  was on the north side of the canyon and pine trees exhibit fire damage as high as 8-10 feet high up on them. According to the FAA/NTSB report, The exact cause of WHY the blades on the helicopter separated could never be fully determined and  the report also stated aircraft doors, blades, and other parts were scattered in a wide area from the break up in mid air after the blades came off the helicopter. This leads me to believe that as time goes by, other explorers of this area will find pieces and parts left from this tragic day and wonder as we did. The log flight book of this aircraft was never recovered. Did it burn in the crash, or is it scattered into this remote area for someone to find one day? Only time will tell that.  So as I held that piece of aircraft in my hand, truly, sadness pours over me now. Remnants of a horrific helicopter crash that claimed the life of a very young 26 year old pilot one afternoon in 2007 at Key Mill Branch. Life is always full of twists and turns as we walk it's pathways. Bankhead is always full of surprises.As I have always said on my journeys to Bankhead National Forest, you just never know what you will find or experience.

Until the next journey in God's outdoors, we will see you later!

For more fascinating reading about Joseph Francis Marion Key and the colorful character of his last wife, Mary Jane Key, go to this website:

The full accident report of the helicopter accident is quite interesting for those that might be interested in this: Go the the website and search accident records for a May 13, 2007 aircraft crash in Moulton, Alabama and read the full report. Your heart will cringe as you read the report. What a horrible way to pass from this earth for a very young pilot.