Yesterday James and drove out to Brown Mountain, having read about the area in Carolyn Sakowski’s book, Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads . This book was suggested to us by some guests two years ago. It was originally written in 1990 and our edition was revised in 1995 so it’s not exactly up to date but it is surprisingly accurate. I guess that since these are the “backroads” of WNC not much is ever done to change them. Ms. Sakowski has well researched the history of each area and we always learn something, often something even the locals don’t know.
Anyway, we were intrigued by her description and, as it was a lovely sunny afternoon, we were happy to drive the hour south to the beginning of the route. As James drove, I read to him about Brown Mountain and Wilson Creek. The area is notable for two things: in 1916 a great flood wiped out a number of small towns along the creek bed leaving behind ghost towns of foundations and broken walls, and visitors to Brown Mountain have seen mysterious lights hovering above ground going back to at least 1770 and probably earlier.
Shortly after the route began, we entered Pisgah National Forest, following signs to Brown Mountain Beach. Until I moved to Asheville I thought beaches were only found alongside oceans and sounds. I was wrong. A beach is any sandy land-form alongside a body of water. And the mountains in the area around our Asheville bed and breakfastabound with them. Brown Mountain Beach has been a resort for at least 100 years and the lovely cabins of the existing resort are built around the ruins of cabins from the 1916 flood.
About that flood…
In July of 1916, this area of North Carolina was hit with what seem to have been two back to back Category 4 Hurricanes. The mountains were drenched with rain for three days on July 8-10, leaving the rivers at high water marks with some flooding. Before the land had time to dry and the waters to recede a second hurricane arrived on July 14. This storm stalled directly over the mountains of Western North Carolina and July 14-16, 1916 recorded the heaviest rainfall in any three day period in the history of North Carolina as well as the largest rainfall in a single day ever recorded in the United States. Logging was the predominant industry of the area at that time and the mountains had been heavily deforested. The resulting landslides caused by the unprotected slopes clogged the Catawba River and Wilson Creek but these dams did not last for long and when they gave way, houses, bridges, factories and train tracks were swept away in a matter of hours.
As James and I saw, this is an area of great natural beauty, with startlingly clear water running through canyons and past glades. Some towns were rebuilt and industry started again, only to suffer another hurricane and flood in 1940. There is little left in the area now and much of it is a dedicated wilderness area. (We looked for bears but didn’t see any!)
Among the only buildings still standing are the railway depot and baggage house in what once was Edgemont, and Coffey’s General Store. According to our book, the railroad depot was turned into a private home and the baggage house became a guest cottage. But the house is shuttered now and the “guest cottage” has suffered from vandalism.
From what I have been able to find out, Coffey’s General Store was still in operation in 2007. It was closed however when we were there and a sign advertised the store and all of its belongings for sale. We really wished we could have gone inside as peering through the windows showed us a store stopped in time. I found a website with pictures of the store from the past and it doesn’t seem to have changed much. We could see even see an old pot belly stove in the back
After leaving what was left of the town of Edgemont, we turned onto F.R. 464 and began to climb out of the gorge. This narrow, one-way, dirt road is not for the faint of heart. There are no guardrails on the side and a steep drop down. Of course, James commented that the trees would probably stop you before you fell too far!
Because it was winter we were able to see wonderful views of Grandfather Mountain as we climbed. And honestly, I don’t think I would want to do this drive in the summer. Traffic would make it very slow and dirty. This land around F.R. 464 is private land, although there are hopes to have it dedicated as a wilderness area. Clearly there are a great many trails going off the road as the car parked in pull-offs seemed to indicate.
After we reached the top we began the drive back down Rte 181. In short order we passed a viewing spot where one could look back at Brown Mountain. This is one of the prime spots for people to park who hope to see the Brown Mountain Lights. These mysterious lights have been spotted for 100’s of years without any explanation of what causes them. They appear as globes or orbs in the sky, sometimes changing color before moving off. Indian legend has it that they are the lights of the widows of braves fallen in battle looking for their mates. They have been investigated by the paranormalists and can be seen in this video. The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that they are a form of ball lightening. But what do I know!
In an eerie coincidence, I came home to find that my sister-in-law, without knowing where we had gone, had sent me a link from the Washington Post about the Brown Mountain Lights. It’s always good to be one step ahead of the trend!
(And speaking of trends: if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page on our blog site, you will find that we have added a widget of the Best Blogs of Western North Carolina. How could we not–having been asked by the Mountain Express to join! The advertised blog will change with each page view.)