Friday, April 18, 2008

Split Mountain Ramble

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Paris – April 1874 - a group of artists rejected by the juries of the Salon offered their avant-garde paintings for public view. Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Degas were among those represented in what became known as the first exhibition of Impressionism.

Meanwhile that same month, on this side of the Atlantic, there was another kind of explosion. The Hickory Nut Gorge gained notoriety as rumors spread of a volcano on Rumbling Bald Mountain, near Chimney Rock. Buncombe County’s Thomas Clingman (1812-1897), a one-time US Senator and a long-time explorer of the mountains, promptly weighed with his observations of seismic phenomena throughout Western North Carolina. In several articles he described "a certain mountain in the northern part of Haywood County, N.C. [which] was, at intervals of two or three years, agitated and broken into fragments along a portion of its surface."

Clingman first visited the site in 1848, and learned that the jolts to this unnamed mountain in northern Haywood County had been witnessed as early as 1812. Amidst his descriptions of the mountain’s behavior, he provided detailed clues to its location, so I compared his notes to my Haywood County topo map. Tracing the lines that indicated a mountain rising from Ledford Cove to Pug Knob, I saw the letters that spelled out "Split Mountain."

I was on the trail, with a map, a compass, a camera, and the words of T. L. Clingman:

The top of the ridge, where evidences of violence are seen, is perhaps three or four hundred feet higher than the ground below. There are cracks in the solid granite of which the ridge appears to be composed, but the chief evidences of violence were observable a little south of the crest. From thence along the side of the mountain as one descends, there were chasms, none of them above four feet in width, generally extending north and south, but also occasionally seen in all directions. All the large trees had been thrown down.

There were a number of little hillocks. the largest eight or ten feet high and fifty or sixty feet in diameter. They were usually surrounded by what appeared to have been a narrow crevice. On their sides the saplings grew perpendicularly to the surface of the ground, but obliquely to the horizon, making it manifest that they had attained some size before the hillocks had been elevated. I observed a large poplar or tulip tree, which had been split through its centre, so as to leave one-half of it standing thirty or forty feet high. The crack or opening under it, was not an inch wide, but could be traced for a hundred yards, making it evident that there had been an opening of sufficient width to split the tree, and that then the sides of the chasm had returned to their original position without having slipped so as to prevent the contact of the broken roots.

As indicating the sudden violence with which the force acted, a large mass of detached granite afforded a striking illustration. From its size I estimated that it might have weighed two thousands tons. It seemed from its shape to have originally been broken out of the side of the mountain above, and to have rolled in mass a hundred yards downward. It lay directly across one of the chasms two or three feet in width, and had been broken into three large fragments, which, however, were not separated a foot from each other.

I figured I could find Split Mountain. I wondered if it would resemble anything that Clingman had described.

The more I tried to imagine it, the more I hoped to locate that mountain. And the more I hoped to meet someone to tell me about it.

It was a gorgeous April drive. Beyond the big fields and rolling pastures of Crabtree, the farms were hemmed in by steeper and stonier mountains. Rock piles, hundreds of yards long, lined the ancient pastures on the slopes.

At last, my map and my compass told me I had found Split Mountain.

I couldn’t see any two thousand ton boulder broken into three large fragments.
I couldn’t see any hillocks, eight or ten feet high, fifty or sixty feet in diameter.
I couldn’t see any large trees thrown down, or saplings growing perpendicular to the ground.

But I’d found the place, and still hoped to find the person.

Then I saw him standing next to his porch.

We slowed to a stop and I said "hello".

He greeted me with a smile, and we proceeded to talking about rain and drought, developers with too much money, big tax bills, the price of gas, the prospect of raising laying hens and growing the corn to feed them.

This gentleman was exactly the person I’d hoped to meet. He must have been almost eighty, and he'd been born on the same homeplace where he lived today.

I showed him the Clingman article and asked what he knew about it.

"Not much," he said. "That’s Split Mountain, alright. But I’ve only been on it one time, hunting ginseng with my daddy."

He continued,"You see how those rocks run down the side of the mountain. I always heard you could go to the top, and find holes in the ground, where you could drop [fence] rails in and never hear them hit bottom."

I climbed out of the car, "I’d better take another picture of this mountain."

He pointed down the road. "There was a post office there one time. Split Mountain, North Carolina. And Riley Greene ran his mill down there. He ground corn into meal, and he had a sawmill, too. The sluice came all the way down the creek, ten or fifteen feet off the ground. In the winter, the water would overflow and freeze solid, all the way down to the ground. Winters were a lot colder then."

I enjoyed my visit, meeting this new friend, and seeing this place through his eyes.

On another day I might actually climb to the top of Split Mountain. I might even find that hole in the ground. And when I drop a fence-rail (or a walking stick) into that hole, I’ll let you know what I hear…or what I don’t hear.

For the time being I'll ponder over Clingman’s theories in regards to Split Mountain:

The extent and configuration of the ground acted on, the long intervals between the shocks, for a period of nearly a century past, and of the absence of heat and of the continuous escape of gasses, rendered it evident that these disturbances were not due to such a merely local cause as the combustion at a short distance below the surface of a bed of inflammable mineral substances. Though in the opinion of Mr. Fox and others, there are electric currents in certain mineral veins, yet no observations heretofore made would justify us in attributing such phenomena to electricity.

And I’ll continue to follow Clingman’s treasure maps to some other curious places in these mountains.

By the way, that First Impressionist Exhibition from April 1874 is depicted online at It's worth a visit, too.

Camille Pissaro, Gelee blanche (Hoarfrost), 1873

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