JULY 28, 2011 ISSUE

Tracing Timber’s History in the Globe

Editor’s Note

This is the third week of a collaborative, multi-part series about efforts to create a Grandfather National Scenic Area in the Pisgah National Forest between Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain, which, among other things, would bar timber harvests. Click to www.highcountrypress.comfor photos, videos and more features dedicated to this series.

Amidst ridges stripped of trees, the old Ritter Lumber Company band mill was still sawing timber at Mortimer. But the end was near. The mill stopped producing, railroad service ended in 1938, and the mill was washed away by the ‘40 flood.

You don’t have to be dyed-in-the-wool tree-hugger to imagine the awesome beauty of the High Country’s once-virgin forests. After wholesale logging stripped the mountains in the early 20th century, utter devastation was left behind.

Few places better epitomize that past than the Pisgah National Forest below Grandfather Mountain. This vast area of low rippling ridges, the so-called Globe forest area being proposed for designation as a National Scenic Area, is home to now tiny settlements such as Edgemont, Mortimer, Globe, Cary’s Flat, Roseborough and others.

Who would imagine that today’s quiet, isolated crossroads of Mortimer was once a timber town of nearly 1,000 people? The boom and bust story of the Globe area is a rich history shared by a lot of vanished Southern Appalachian sites you’ve never heard of—and some you have heard about.

The High Country’s Parallel Past

The story of “Shulls Mills” is one most High Country locals know—and it nicely parallels the logging history of the Globe.

This Foscoe timber town spread out in bottomlands beside NC 105 where Boone Fork joins the Watauga River (both streams with headwaters high on Grandfather Mountain). This electrified town was also home to nearly 1,000 people, a railroad, a movie theater, and stores. “For a time in the early 1900s, it seemed likely to become the county seat over Boone,” says Kyle Grove, whose documentary film about the town, “Just a Stop Along the Way,” became available last fall.

Shulls Mills vanished with the timber. Today, thousands of visitors still flash through the town site, heading to Hound Ears Club or Blowing Rock, passing recently revealed river stone walls and entrance columns for the old Robbins Hotel, a 40-room Shulls Mills behemoth back in the teens.

Top Down Timber

In contrast, the Globe is still an almost unknown spot.

It’s appropriate to link Shulls Mills to Mortimer, the High Country to Cary’s Flat. In many ways the bad luck of Southern Appalachian logging flowed downhill.

By 1890, the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC), nicknamed Tweetsie, had snaked its way from Johnson City, Tenn., to the Cranberry mines in North Carolina—one of the biggest iron mines in the country. A railroad timber boom was about to engulf the Appalachians. Huge national companies and smaller regional outfits alike set their sights on towering virgin forests visible almost anywhere you turned your head. In the next 20 years, the area’s hardwoods would fuel a building boom. The light, strong spruce from high Appalachian summits would end up in the frames of WWI aircraft (keeping timbermen in the woods and out of the trenches).

Imagine the US Forest Service soon after the creation of the agency by Weeks Act of 1911. This is it—the Wilson Creek Ranger Station. Monroe Coffey, the first ranger of the district, oversaw the fledgling agency’s activities in an era just before the Civilian Conservation Corps ended it efforts at forestry and went off to fight WW II.

William McClellan Ritter, “father of the Appalachian hardwood industry,” had the world’s largest timber company and it was in the High Country by the 1880s. Timber operations were blossoming everywhere. It was time to extend the railroad. In 1899, Ritter took over a previous railroad effort and extended his Linville River Railway from Cranberry to Pineola, then called Saginaw, the future hub of a half-dozen wandering railroad spurs.

With the timber gone a dozen years later, Ritter sold the Linville River Railway to ET&WNC. In 1915, ET&WNC picked up more steam when William Whiting extended its tracks beyond Linville (where Eseeola Lodge saw it’s first rail arrivals) to harvest his huge tract of trees in Shulls Mills. Soon the Shulls Mills boom was underway, and by 1918, the railroad had gone on to Boone—completing the ET&WNC route we remember today. On the way through Linville Gap, Tweetsie claimed the highest passenger train service in the East.

Railroads were first chugging into the High Country during the late 1800s, but a world away, in the Globe, widely scattered families and settlements were sleeping in their towering groves.

Coming Down the Mountain

The Ritter operation also owned timber rights to tracts in the Mortimer area under Grandfather Mountain. Logging eventually started there around 1905—but not through the company’s Pineola hub. A standard gauge railroad from Chester, S.C. had made it to Lenoir, and from there, the narrow gauge Carolina & Northwestern line had been extended into the forest beyond in an effort to create a mountain resort. Edgemont got its “resorty” name because it was at the “Edge of the Mountains,” says Wayne Beane, president of the Collettsville Historical Society. Instead, the line was extracting Ritter timber from Mortimer where a number of narrow gauge lumber lines had started winding their way upward.

Hickory’s Hutton-Bourbannais Company also operated a narrow gauge logging line feeding the growing furniture industry.

With timber vanishing by 1912 near Pineola, Ritter was turning to the Globe below Grandfather. The mega-logger built a line to meet the Mortimer rail network then climbing up North Harper Creek.

The timber town of Mortimer was booming, at one time boasting a Ritter Company story, a cotton mill, the Laurel Inn (where President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have danced in ballroom), a movie theater and more.

The Rains Came

1916 was a pivotal year for the Globe area. A massive fire burned across the stump-littered landscape between Grandfather Mountain and Wilson Creek. Then a freak series of back-to-back hurricanes inundated the blackened, clearcut landscape. The logging railroad was washed away in many places. In Mortimer, the rail depot and Ritter store survived, but many homes along Wilson Creek were swept away.

Also obliterated was the Globe academy (1882-1916), a boarding school where both B.B. and D.D. Dougherty were teachers—the two brothers who returned to Boone where they founded Watauga Academy in 1899 that became Appalachian State University.

Other nearby mountain communities suffered too. The Basin Cove community in today’s Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway—was swept away, never to return.

Five years earlier, Congress had instituted the Weeks Act, recoiling at logging’s legacy of depleted forests, floods and wildfires. That legislation, permitting the purchase of federal land as national forests in the East, was intended to prevent just this kind of crisis.

Archie Coffey’s store at Edgemont was just one of a handful of Coffey clan stores that served the entire Globe area. Today, the preserved structure is one of the highlights of a history tour of the area. It’s still open at select times—spring to fall weekends, Friday/Saturday, 9-5, Sundays 1-5 (Tel: 828-754-2638). Take note of the many historical photos on the stores wall. Photo by Randy Johnson

Pisgah National Forest was already the nation’s first eastern national forest. Ironically, its first acreage was located not too far south, just below the later route of the Blue Ridge near Marion in what is today the Grandfather Ranger District.

After the 1916 Flood

Time marched on. The United Cotton Mill opened in 1922 and the Civilian Conservation Corps came to town in 1933. Camp F-5—Camp Grandfather Mountain—Company 403 of the CCC, helped rebuild damage from the 1916 flood. In 1934, O.P. Lutz acquired the cotton mill and made hosiery for awhile. A Ritter band mill existed in Mortimer till about 1937. The mill and rail service ended in 1938.

In the denuded Globe, residents had long looked up at the “Great Evergreen Grandfather,” still virgin forested in the 1930s. Whiting’s timber harvests had come to an end, but the north and south sides of the mountain still bore their virgin stands. Those parts of Grandfather were clearcut in 1933 and ‘36. Grandfather had “gotten his haircut,” as one newspaper wrote in the 1970s, quoting Ted Shook, who as a 14-year-old boy had worked on the mountain.

Biblical Pay Back

High above the Globe, the last of the trees were gone from Grandfather. Then came “the ‘40 flood,” says Wayne Beane. “I don’t mean the 1940 Flood,” he says. “There’s no ‘19’ needed in front of it.”

This monumental deluge sealed the fate of Mortimer and Edgemont and much of the infrastructure in this fledgling part of the Pisgah National Forest. The water drowned CCC facilities (the Corps headed off to war the very next year). The very deforestation that was intended to be remedied by the founding of the U.S. Forest Service had come back again to pound the people who’d taken out the timber.

The flood lapped at the edge of the Forest Service office of Monroe Coffey—the first ranger for the Wilson Creek District of the Pisgah National Forest. “The stripping of the forest affected Monroe Coffey,” Beane says. “I’ve heard it said of him that rather than cut a tree down to build a road or trail—he’d always go around it.”

According to one old-timer, the population of Wilson Creek Township dropped from 1,000 to 42 after the flood, to 13 in 1950, and down to 3 in 1960. The same flood ended Shulls Mills.

The 1980s

Timber harvesting returned with the trees to the Globe and the national forests in general.

In the late-1980s, controversy erupted over clearcutting, both below Grandfather Mountain and elsewhere. That national debate forms the “back story” for the 2006 timber proposals below Blowing Rock that launched the Scenic Area effort. 

Back in the 1980s, when High Country locals saw gaping clearcuts in the national forest between Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain, many thought they undermined tourism. Conservationists, tourism organizations, town and county governments all went on record opposing the cuts.

Tourism promoters were particularly stirred up by the seeming disregard of clearcutting’s impact on scenic views from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Believe it or not, the Grandfather Mountain portion of the Parkway and the Linn Cove Viaduct had just opened, and clearcuts were visible from both.

That was nearly 25 years ago, and the pace of development along the Parkway has accelerated dramatically. Today, protecting the viewshed of the road is an even higher priority for the National Park Service than it was in 1988.

When the ‘80s controversy died down, many High Country locals assumed they’d been promised an end to potentially visible timber harvesting near Blowing Rock and Grandfather.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

In 2006, a USFS timber sale plan targeted more than 200 acres below Blowing Rock and produced a big yawn—at first. The Asheville-based environmnental group Wild South heard about the sale and discovered that almost no one in Blowing Rock had. It seems the announcement had been made in the area’s “newspaper of record”—the Lenoir News-Topic! The result was a flurry of public outrage. The Forest Service staged a community listening session on the proposed sale in Blowing Rock—just one day before the public comment period was to end. The agency extended the deadline a week.

Wild South then set out to negotiate with the Forest Service on the timber sale while simultaneously spearheading a proposal to make 25,500 acres of the Pisgah National Forest a National Scenic Area—a designation emphasizing management for the preservation of scenic views (but not necessarily prohibiting timber harvesting). The Scenic Area strategy, says Wild South’s Associate Director Ben Prater, is “the preferred strategy to once and for all reduce the importance of logging in the future.”

Two Things Happened

Despite the passage of resolutions in support of the scenic area from town councils in Boone and Blowing Rock, and the Watauga County Commissioners, the movement stalled. The area’s Congressional representatives—Virginia Foxx (of North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District) and Patrick McHenry (of the 10th Congressional District)— showed no inclination to introduce legislation required for scenic area designation.

As a result, emphasis shifted to fighting the 2006 timber sale initiative—field work by conservation groups found “old growth” trees up to 300 years old. In 2009, the Southern Environmental Law Center listed the Globe Forest among its “Top 10 Endangered Areas in the South.” Then in 2010, Candice Wyman, acting public affairs officer for National Forests in North Carolina, said a “collaborative process” was underway.

In summer 2010, conservationists successfully achieved a “redirection” of the timber sale—a reduction in logging area acreage from 212 acres to 137, and a drop in road building from 1.5 miles to one-half mile (with no permanent roads to be built). Though no clearcuts were even proposed, preservation groups were ecstatic that the Forest Service eliminated “old growth” trees from the harvest, the group’s newest concern, and pledged to again reduce the visibility of the cuts from surrounding areas.

Long after the last “old growth” forest was cut in the Globe, newly discovered ancient trees were reminding environmentalists and locals alike what we had nearly a century ago. On the 100th anniversary of the legislation that started the recovery of the Globe’s woodlands as national forests, conservationists are asking, is it finally time to look beyond timber to tourism?

Pisgah National Forest History Events Friday to August 6

Unveiling of Weeks Act Wayside Exhibit Friday
Join officials of the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service and local agencies in a Friday, July 29, ceremony to unveil a new wayside exhibit on the Blue Ridge Parkway commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act. The event starts at 10:00 a.m. at Laurel Knob Overlook.
The exhibit overlooks the first tract of land purchased under the Weeks Act of 1911. After the ceremony, attendees are invited to drive a forest road through a portion of the original tract and Curtis Creek Campground to the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort.
Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 349.2 • 828-652-2114 • www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc

Globe Area History Program Sunday
The Caldwell County Heritage Museum in downtown Lenoir will be open from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. this Sunday, July 31, with many Globe area photographs and other items from the Collettsville Historical Society on display. President Wayne Beane will be on hand as will railroad historian Matt Bumgarner.
112 Vaiden Street SW, Lenoir • 828-758-4004 • www.caldwellheritagemuseum.org

Globe Area Heritage Day August 6
Visit the Wilson Creek Visitor Center on Saturday, August 6, for Heritage Day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
7805 Brown Mountain Beach Road, Collettsville • 828-759-0005