Friday, April 4, 2008

Fire on the Mountain


Rumbling Bald Mountain, ca. 1940, Hans Curt Pfalzgraf Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville 28804

Had you picked up the edition of the New York Times published on this date in 1874, you could have read of a "third-rate hoax" in Western North Carolina, the Bald Mountain Volcano. Starting in February 1874, stories spread concerning earthquakes in the Hickory Nut Gorge near Chimney Rock. By calling it a hoax, the Times was contradicting a story it had reported just a couple of weeks earlier:

RALEIGH, NC, March 17 – Passengers from the west on this morning’s train confirm the reports of the rumbling noises and the general upheaving of the Bald Mountain in Western Carolina. People living on and near the mountain are moving out, and a volcanic eruption is momentarily expected.

Despite the eyewitness accounts, the subsequent New York Times story that appeared on April 4, 1874 dismissed it as an old legend:

From Our Own Correspondent.
RICHMOND, VA., Friday, March 27, 1874.

The Bald Mountain Volcano, of North Carolina, has been regarded as a third-rate hoax here from the publication of the first sensational rumors in regard to it. The truth is, doubtless, that this new sensation is but the revival of an old tradition, derived from the Indians, that Bald Mountain was once, in very remote times, a volcano, and hence that absence of vegetation which has given it its name.

The Indian legend is to the effect that a certain tribe living at the foot of Bald Mountain was annually afflicted by the visit of a huge bird of prey, that made his eyrie on the summit of the mountain, and that on every visit seized and carried away with him a child of the tribe. The annual affliction had been undergone for a long series of years, when a great chief and medicine-man arose, and, just before the time for the next annual visit of the bird, began to preach a crusade against the common enemy. He adjured the warriors, as they were brave men and loving fathers, no longer to submit to the depredations of the bird, but to march against him and destroy him or be destroyed.

Thus aroused, the men of the tribe swore to follow the chief in the desperate venture, and, placing their squaws and children in a place of safety, they encircled the base of the mountain and began the ascent, resolved to kill the bird at all hazards and at every cost. The mountain was then clothed in rank vegetation – mighty forest-trees thickly undergrown by a tangled wilderness, that made the progress upward very painful and difficult. But the determined tribe persevered until, nearing the top of the mountain, what was their horror to perceive that it was not merely one tremendous bird they had to encounter and destroy, but a countless number of the fierce creatures, clustering in ferocious masses all over the higher portions of the mountain.
At this despair overcame them, for they at once recognized how impossible it would be for them to overcome and exterminate so many of the winged monsters, and they threw themselves down upon their faces, expecting the birds to rush down upon them and destroy them. At this moment their leader raised high his voice to the Great Spirit for their deliverance, and in answer to his prayer vivid lightnings sprang from every quarter of the cloudless sky, without a sound of thunder, slaying the birds to the last one, riving the forest-trees, and wrapping the whole mountain-top in flames, that soon swept from it every trace of vegetation. Thus were the monstrous birds of prey destroyed, the mountain made bald, and the tribe delivered. The anniversary of the deliverance was perpetually celebrated by the tribe, and the tradition I have just related handed down from one generation to another.

In this tradition lurks the true story, doubtless, of either the original formation of the ridge known as the Bald Mountains, or of an eruption which occurred many years ago.

- So concludes the New York Times report from this date in 1874. But that does not conclude the mystery of the Bald Mountain Volcano. In May 1874, the Honorable Thomas Lanier Clingman weighed in before the Washington Philosophical Society to discuss Rumbling Bald Mountain and other seismic phenomena of Western North Carolina.

But that’s another story for another day.

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