Finding a lost road and a lost history

Finding a lost road and a lost history

(Originally posted on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, May 7, 2008)

People often ask me – where is your favorite (fill in the blank: camping spot, hiking trail, place to eat, place to stay) along the Parkway. While I do have some recommendations, I’m not as good a source about things like this as some other people like author Danny Bernstein who have written books about being outdoors. People forget that a lot of a historian’s time is spent sitting in libraries and archives, and if you’re working on the Parkway, that means a lot of hours in Raleigh, Richmond, and Washington, DC.

But I do like to get out on the Parkway to understand how things relate to each other on the ground. And it is always a thrill to recognize places I have previously seen only in my head while reading documents in the archives.

Sometimes, though, places that still exist so vividly for me in the archives are no longer present on the ground. Archaeologists, of course, specialize on uncovering those places. But historians can do it too.

A few years ago, I was searching the Web for current information about Little Switzerland, a now century-old resort community in Mitchell and McDowell counties in North Carolina – which I was writing about in what became Chapter 4 of my book.

Into the Google search box I typed “Kilmichael Tower,” the name of a stone and wood tourist observation platform that Little Switzerland developer (and NC Supreme Court justice) Heriot Clarkson had built on top of a mountain peak in his development in 1935. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find; the tower, which Clarkson had in the 1930s charged people to climb to see a view, had been closed for years.

In the 1930s, though, Clarkson had gotten into trouble with the Park Service because he insisted on putting up signs on the Parkway right-of-way that directed tourists up a small road from the Parkway to the Tower. A Parkway ranger confiscated the signs, and the whole affair generated a flurry of correspondence that I had discovered in the National Archives. Eventually, though, Clarkson died and the road from the tower to the Parkway was closed.

But what had become of Kilmichael Tower?

Through the magic of the internet, I soon found out. Kilmichael Tower, it turned out, had become a little mountain chalet, owned by someone in Florida and rented out to friends and family. A few emails later, I had arranged for my husband David and me stay there for a weekend.

The place was adorable – a creative reuse of an old structure that had an impressive tall stone base. On Saturday morning, we set out to find the road from the tower to the Parkway. At first it was easy. Just a left turn out of the house, a short walk over toward the ridge, and then we started down what was clearly the old road. It wasn’t long, though, before the rhododendron became tangly and thick. Still you could clearly see the road bed, and we followed it on down. Soon, two sturdy log posts, which I recognized from the old photos as having marked the entrance from the Parkway, came into view. And there, just ahead, was the Parkway.

Driving the Parkway toward Little Switzerland from the south, you would never see this spot unless you already knew it was there. What had once been a sharp cut into the embankment was now eroded and reclaimed by dense undergrowth. Like so much of the other history around the building of the Parkway, this trace of one small but important story has been wiped out of active memory and nearly erased from the landscape. But to a discerning eye, the outlines of that history can still be seen.

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