RAGS AND RICHES
by Bob Fulcher
As Paul Adams began poking around the heights of Black Mountain in 1937, he quickly found evidence that he was in an extraordinary place. There, among the mammoth boulders and bluffs, was a small plant covered with thick tufts of silky white hair, known as Silverling, a reference to its unusual pelt. This was a plant that had never been known from the Cumberland Mountains, but was found in higher Blue Ridge terrain. Only three Tennessee counties have recorded populations of Silverling: the two northeastern-most counties of our state, Johnson and Carter, and Cumberland County, with a small group of 15 plants on Black Mountain.
On Black Mountain, Adams spotted Yellow Birch, which he thought was growing at the lowest elevation ever noted for the species. State Naturalist Mack Prichard recalls that Adams also noted a red-flowering azalea Rhododendron cumberlandense (perhaps, before E. Lucy Braun named the species for the region,) and found Cypripedium reginae, the Showy Lady's Slipper, much better known in Michigan than Tennessee, which has long-since disappeared from the site.
Such populations are relics from Tennessee's cooler times, when glaciers were retreating from Ohio and plants were migrating up to mountaintops. Black Mountain is an important harbor for this rare community.
Though Paul Adams had great love and attachment for the Blue Ridge mountains - he established the Mount Le Conte Lodge at age 17, and , in 1925, guided a national park exploratory committee that led to the development of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - he made his home in sight of Black Mountain, at Crab Orchard, and hiked and explored its cliffs the rest of his life.
You've all seen Black Mountain. Millions of Tennessee travelers have seen it too, as they drive the interstate between Knoxville and Nashville. Its bold profile draws your eye among a brawny group of buttes rising above Interstate 40 just south of the Crab Orchard exit. It is only a 15-minute drive off the interstate, paved all the way to the top. Black Mountain has been a landmark to travelers, a point of discovery and exploration for scientists, a spiritual retreat, even a Muse - its dashing figure inspired one of America's best known fiddle tunes, "The Black Mountain Rag."
Its bluffs are humbling; they dwarf you when you stand underneath, but raise you to the heavens when you scramble to their top. They have been scalloped and smoothed by a million rainstorms, shaped into Tennessee's most fantastic rock garden. The Cumberland Mountains are faced with rugged sandstone, filled with wonderful rocky sculptures, but Black Mountain is the masterpiece. Here is a maze of convoluted, fluted corridors, strange, stack-stoned chimney rocks and pillars, unexpected windows and passageways winding in glorious confusion. It is all bejeweled with pure white quartzite pebbles, hung with ferns and flowers and dyed in rose colors, and pinks, yellows, purples, brilliant white, handsome brown and grays. This is Tennessee's unsurpassed stonework.
Stand at the edge of towering bluffs, with firm footing to avoid a 100-foot drop, and you can see forever. Blue mountains ring the horizon on the clear days: Walden's Ridge, a corduroy of ridges farther east along the Tennessee Valley, and farther still across the baby blue mountain layers as far as the eye can see to the Smoky Mountains, some 75 miles away.
Look down, to the south, into a green pastoral oasis in the midst of these mountains, and you will see Grassy Cove and Little Cove, 1,300 feet below you. Grassy Cove is a special place - in fact it is a registered National Natural Landmark. Grassy Cove will one day be part of the Sequatchie Valley - it'll just take a little time, a few million years or so. It is probably the biggest sinkhole in North America and is eight miles long by three miles wide. Black Mountain frames this cove; it provides the backdrop when you're on the cove floor.
For the present, Grassy Cove looks much like it did 200 or more years ago, a few farmhouses and barns, a church, and a couple of old-fashioned stores in the greenest, grassiest, most scenic cove this side of Cades Cove in the Smokies. The first settlers of Grassy Cove were Revolutionary War veterans. The little church in Grassy Cove was originally built in 1803 and is thought to be the first church in Cumberland County. The Kemmers still farm there, descendants of Conrad Kemmer who arrived in 1808.
The intriguing stone chimney deserted in the thick woods near the top of Black Mountain is a link to the first efforts to protect the wonderful features there. Dr. A.C. Gill, a professor of mineralogy and petrology with Cornell University, purchased the sky-high Black Mountain property in 1890 for a summer home. A cottage was built for him and his wife, Ella Eaton, in 1924 and 1925, with a springhouse, barn, and a second house for a caretaker who tended to cattle, hogs and sheep on 25 or 30 acres of cleared ground. The caretaker also drove their mule-powered buggy, chauffeuring them to and from the train station along the rough mountain roads. While the springhouse and the chimney are the only physical remains from their ownership, the Gills left much more.
For years they had opened their home and property to the students of Cumberland Mountain School in Crossville. With no children of their own, the Gills entertained the young people by sharing their stunning views, natural and cultivated flower gardens, and close up encounters with wildlife. In November of 1932, one month after his retirement, Dr. Gill died of a heart attack. Mrs. Gill was convinced by N.D. Walker to turn over her 500 acres to Cumberland Mountain School, owned by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Walker is known as the father of the Crab Orchard Stone industry in Cumberland County, the leader in the development of techniques for ultilizing the beautifully figured sandstones of the region, and the best promoter of new markets for the product.
The Black Mountain deed included the non-binding provision that "said premises shall be used, kept, maintained, and disposed of as a place of study, meditation, recreation, work and divine worship..." and "maintained as a wild life preserve for both animals and plants..." It stated that "the property be used as a place where students of other educational institutions and boys and girls clubs of any kind can meet for work and for enjoyment of the privileges of the ground." When the Cumberland Mountain School closed soon thereafter, the Methodist church, as their resources allowed, fulfilled those wishes. The Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has agreed, now, that the spirit of those requests might be best served through the management of Black Mountain as the centerpiece of Cumberland Trail State Park. Approached by the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation in partnership with the State of Tennessee, they offered the property at less than its fair market value.
Three Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation (TPGF) board members, Bob Brown, Sam Powell, and Mack Prichard, envisioned the Cumberland Trail 30 years ago. They fought for the legislation to establish the Tennessee Trails Act, and for the development of the Tennessee Trails Association, all pulled by the powerful idea that a trail could be cut along the eastern edge of the Cumberland Mountains, from Cumberland Gap to Signal Point. The logical midpoint of such a trail, 280 miles in length, is Black Mountain.
By providing a north-to-south, border-to-border greenbelt, the Cumberland Trail State Park is at the leading edge of environmental management and protection.
Now is the time to protect this well-loved and celebrated place. If you have not visited Black Mountain, here is an invitation to do so, and a request for your help in adding a piece of surpassing beauty to Tennessee's public lands. For information about Black Mountain, call the office of the Cumberland Trail State Park at 865-426-2998. The Cumberland Trail Conference can be reached at 931-456-6259.
(Bob Fulcher is an interpretive specialist for the Cumberland Trail State Park.)