Mountain’s Measurement Caused Dispute

Published 8:44 am Thursday, August 10, 2017

When temperatures soared into the mid-90s recently, Elizabeth and I drove up to Mt. Mitchell, elevation, 6,684 feet. It was exactly 30 degrees cooler there. A jacket would have been nice in the natural air conditioning.

UNC professor and minister Elisha Mitchell explored and measured the mountain in 1835 and declared it the tallest in the eastern United States. His figures were later challenged by Thomas L. Clingman, who had found his own tall peak on the North Carolina-Tennessee line, 6,560 feet, which he thought was higher than Mt. Mitchell.

Clingman — born in Yadkin County’s Huntsville community — had been Mitchell’s student at Chapel Hill. I wonder what grade Clingman received in geology to make him challenge his old professor.

Measuring devices were crude, and there must have been some amount of ego and pride involved in the stated elevations.

To answer Clingman’s challenge, Mitchell returned to his mountain to re-check his figures in 1857.

The trip killed him.

Hiking alone, he fell at what is now named Mitchell Falls. A search party enlisted the help of a mountain man to locate the body. Mitchell’s remains were eventually buried atop the mountain, which is now a state park.

There’s a restaurant near the top and some camp sites. A small but very informative museum and gift shop are even closer to the top.

Clingman became a United States Senator for North Carolina before the Civil War and achieved the rank of  brigadier general in the Confederate Army. While in Congress, he once fought in a duel with an Alabama member of Congress. Both duelists missed. I’m thinking Clingman might have been something of a hot head.

Motorists can drive almost to the top of both Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Mitchell.

• • • • •

We also saw lots of the delicate flower Turk’s Cap Lily in the upper elevations and the shaggy-looking bee balm, a red flower that looks as if it needs combing.

Turk’s Cap had always been difficult for me to spot, but on this trip it was abundant on the roadsides.

• • • • •

Returning home we stopped in Marion and got photos with the Carolina blue historic marker denoting the hometown of UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. He was born there in 1950.

We stayed off the Interstate and continued east to Morganton and found a wonderful statue of its native son, Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., who achieved fame for presiding over the Watergate hearings.

The memorial includes several quotes from the old self-described “Country Lawyer.” Here’s one of them: “If The Good Lord had made us so that we could have hindsight in advance, a great many of our errors would be avoided.”

The old courthouse also has an impressive Confederate War memorial that lists the names of what must have been, by my crude count, 1,200 local boys who served.

Morganton was spit-polished clean. The downtown was vibrant and pretty

• • • • •

Thunder clouds formed as we drove high on the Blue Ridge Parkway approaching Mt. Mitchell. At one overlook, we could see dueling lightning bolts dancing off a distant mountain ridge in a glorious display of power. We got back in the car.

— Dwight Sparks