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Mount Pisgah, North Carolina

[This article appeared in Appleton’s Journal, December 27, 1873]

MANY of our readers have learned, from the careful measurements of Professor Arnold Guyot, of Princeton-prosecuted as they were through three summers-that there are in North Carolina about thirty designated mountain-peaks that surpass in altitude Mount Washington, of New Hampshire. The elevated area of North Carolina is more than two hundred miles in length, by an average breadth of fifty miles. Its eastern boundary is the Blue Ridge, which separates the waters of the Atlantic from those falling into the Mississippi. It attains its greatest elevation at the Grandfather Mountain. The western boundary of this plateau is the great Alleghany chain, which, though cut by the rivers through several passes, has a greater general elevation, and many higher peaks, than any in the Blue Ridge.

Through North Carolina this range is known in its course by the several names of Roane, Unaka, Iron, and Smoky. The last name indicates that portion which, from its extent, large mass, great altitude, and the number and height of the ridges connected with it, has been pronounced by Professor Guyot the culminating point of the Alleghanies. Its highest peak, as measured and named by him, appears on the maps of the Coast Survey as Clingman’s Dome.

Besides these great ranges, there are a number of cross-chains, the most prominent of which are the Black and the Balsam. The last of these, from its extent, and general altitude, and the great number of its peaks, sur passed only by those of the Black and Smoky, is the most important of all the cross-chains. It extends from the Smoky, across the State, to the border of South Carolina, and, for the distance of nearly fifty miles, it is covered by the balsam -trees from which it takes its name.

On some of the old maps, at a point in its course, one may see marked “Devil’s Old Field.” This spot must not be confounded with the “Devil’s Supreme Court-House,” in which the devil, according to Cherokee lore, was to try all mankind at the last day. This Devil’s Court-House, situated twenty miles west, on the border of Jackson and Macon Counties, is an immense precipice, nearly a mile long, and eighteen hundred feet high, being so curved as to form a part of the arc of a circle. When one in front looks at its concave surface, he sees, half-way up, an immense opening, which constitutes the throne of the author of evil, where bad spirits are to hear their doom.

But the Devil’s Old Field is an opening of several hundred acres on the top of the Balsam range. The Cherokees regard the treeless tracts, at various points on the mountains, as the footprints of Satan, as he stepped from mountain to mountain. This old field, however, being his favorite resting – place, was more extensive than were his mere footprints. In fact, this was his chosen sleeping-place. Once, on a hot summer day, a party of irreverent Indians, rambling through the dense forests of balsam and rhododendrons, suddenly came into the edge of the open ground, and, with their unseemly chattering, woke his majesty from his siesta. Being irritated, as people often are when disturbed before their nap is out, he suddenly, in the form of an immense serpent, swallowed fifty of them before they could get back into the thicket. Ever after this sad occurrence, the Cherokees, as the sailors say, gave this locality a wide berth.

After the whites got into the country, a set of hunters, known by the name of Q_____, either by daring or diplomacy got on better terms with the old fellow. As their reputation was any thing but good, envious people used to say that they escaped injury at the hands of Satan upon the same principle that prevents a sow from eating her own pigs. These Q_____s spoke in favorable terms of the personal cleanliness of his majesty, and his regard for comfort, asserting that they had often gone to the large, overhanging rock, in the centre of the field, where he slept, and, out of mischief, in the evening had thrown rocks and brushwood off his bed, and that next morning the place was invariably as clean as if it had been brushed with a bunch of feathers. Of late years no one has seen him in those parts, and it is believed that, either tired of the loneliness of the place, or because he could do better elsewhere, he has emigrated.

Near the southern end of the Balsam Mountain, two spurs leave it on the east side and run out for a dozen miles toward the north. As one goes along the most westerly of the two, he comes to the Shining Rock, an immense mass of quartz so white as to resemble loaf-sugar. Though the lightning for thousands of years has with furious anger launched its bolts against it, the mass, standing like an immense edifice of snowy marble, glitters in the distance, and is not unaptly termed the Shining Rock. A few miles farther along, the ridge rises into an angular eminence more than six thousand feet high, and known as the Cold Mountain. The name was applied on account of this occurrence: Several hunters were on the top of the mountain when it was covered by a thick sleet. The heels of one of them, to use a skater’s phrase, “flew up,” causing him to sit down very suddenly. Instead, however, of his remaining quietly thus at rest, the merciless action of the force of gravity, conspiring with the inclination of the ground, caused him to slide rapidly for a couple of hundred yards down the mountain-side. When finally he did bring up in a bank of snow, he was decidedly of opinion that this mountain was the coldest one he had ever seen. In fact, when afterward questioned if he was not very cold, he said: “Yes, as cold as Cicero in his coldest moment!” He had doubtless heard some local orator pronounced as eloquent as Cicero, and thus concluded that the old Roman was a man of superlatives generally. Since that day the peak has rejoiced in the name of Cold Mountain.

The twin-ridge, which, leaving the Balsam near the same locality, gradually diverges to the east, terminates in the beautiful peak, Mount Pisgah, of which we give a view. It stop, five thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven feet above the sea, is a triangular-shaped pyramid. Standing alone as it does, it affords a magnificent view for a hundred miles around. It forms the corner of the four counties of Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, and Haywood.

The view presented is from the valley of Hommeny Creek, at a point a little to the east of north from the mountain. From whatever direction it is seen, its outline is not less pointed than it is in this picture, and is always a striking object before the eye of the spectator. Though one must travel twenty two miles from Asheville to reach its summit, its distance in a direct line is under fifteen. Its beautiful blue on a summer evening is sometimes changed into a rich purple by the rays of a red cloud thrown over it at sunset. In winter it is even a still more striking object. Covered by a fresh snow in the morning, its various ridges present their outlines so sharply that it seems as if they had been carved by a chisel into innumerable depressions and elevations. After one or two days’ sunshine, the snow disappears on the ridges, but remains in the valleys. The mountain then seems covered from summit to base with alternate bands of virgin white, and a blue more intense and beautiful than the immortal sky itself presents.

While there are many views to be seen from Asheville and its vicinity, that from McDowell’s Hill, two miles south, is the best. When there, one sees in the west Pisgah, the Cold Mountain, and some of the highest peaks of the Balsam, with many intervening ranges; while to the northeast rises the great mass of Craggy, with its numerous spurs crowned by its pyramid and dome, and the southern point of the Black in the distance. The beautiful Swannanoa makes a handsome curve as it passes through the green carpet, two hundred feet below, to unite with the French Broad, which seems to come afar from the base of Pisgah. One who has not been there, has yet to see the finest scene in North Carolina, probably not equaled by any east of the Mississippi.

Thomas Lanier Clingman