Chimney Rock State Park
431 Main Street
Chimney Rock, North Carolina
N.B. Since I’m headed up here tomorrow for the weekend, I figured it would be nice to repost this entry. My writing about the area has inspired my dad to rent a cabin for the family for a nice weekend getaway. Thus, I’d like to dedicate this entry to my parents and my sisters. And I can’t forget Patrick, my sister’s husband who has recently joined the family. Thank y’all for dealing with me and accepting my eccentricities. I’m proud to be apart of such a loving, upstanding and interesting family.
Originally published 5 May 2011.
My mind has been stuck in Western North Carolina recently. Since I wrote the last entry on Lake Lure, I stumbled on some interesting information on Chimney Rock, the granite large granite monolith towering above Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. In the entry on Lake Lure, I described the history of the area which is interwoven with the history of Chimney Rock itself.
Briefly, Chimney Rock was purchased in 1870 by Jerome B. Freeman with the intention of creating a tourist attraction and he opened the park to the public in 1885. The park was purchased by Dr. Lucius Morse and his brothers in 1902. It was Morse who dreamed of creating a mountain resort town based around a mountain lake. His dreams came to fruition in the 1920s with construction of a dam to create Lake Lure and the building of the Lake Lure Inn. Morse’s family owned the park until 2007 when it was sold to the state of North Carolina as a state park. At least that is the “white man’s history.”
This area has always contained a certain mystique. The Cherokee and the Catawba, the primary native peoples in the area, considered Hickory Nut Gorge sacred. The land beyond the stone pillar of Chimney Rock was called Suwali-nuna. This was part of a trading path that followed the Swannanoa River and then snaked through the gorge to the lands of the Catawaba and Sara in the east. This path was also used in search of tsa’lu or tobacco.
Suwali-nuna was inhabited by mythic beasts and spirits, but most notably, the Yun’wi Tsundsdi or “Little People.” James Mooney, a nineteenth century ethnographer who recorded much of the Cherokee mythology, history and lore in his History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, describe them as thus:
There is another race of spirits […] who live in rock caves on the mountain side. They are little fellows, hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well shaped and handsome, with long hair falling to the ground. They are great wonder workers and are very fond of music, spending half their time drumming and dancing. They are helpful and kind-hearted, and often when people have been lost in the mountains, especially children who have strayed away from their parents, the Yun’wi Tsundsdi have found them and taken them back to their homes. […] the Little People do not like to be disturbed at home, and they throw a spell over the stranger so that he is bewildered and loses his way…
In Suwali-nuna, however, these benevolent beings are not so forgiving. They were guardians of the sacred tsa’lu, or tobacco, which they kept there and took harsh action against anyone trespassing in the gorge in search of it. In the beginning of the world, there was a single tsa’lu plant for all creatures but it had been used up. In one version of the story, the plant was stolen by geese and swiftly carried to a place in the south. Nonetheless, without the power of tsa’lu men grew weak and death was imminent. Swift warriors and powerful shamans sent into the gorge in search of the sacred medicine were crushed by boulders toppled by the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. The strong winds blowing through the stone hollow would sometimes throw these braves into the turbulent waters of the river and they would never be seen again.
One young man, worried by the impending death of his father for lack of tsa’lu, traveled to Suwali-nuna in search of it. Reaching the mountains that border the gorge, the young man opened his medicine bag and brought out the skin of a hummingbird. Placing the skin over himself he transformed into the swift bird and flew, undetected into the heart of the gorge. Quickly, he gathered a few leaves of tsa’lu with some seeds and slipped, unseen, out of the gorge. Returning home he found his father very weak but with one draw from the pipe, he regained strength. The Cherokee planted the seeds and have had tsa’lu ever since.
During his explorations throughout the Southeast, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto may have passed under the watchful pillar of Chimney Rock, a sign of the deluge of white men that would flood the gorge in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The gorge became part of Rutherford County, named for General Griffith Rutherford, a military leader who led American forces against Chief Dragging Canoe and the Cherokee during the Chickamauga Wars. As settlers poured into the gorge they were awed by the Cherokee’s mystical land.
In 1806, an account appeared in the papers of the period describing an extraordinary vision witnessed by a family living near Chimney Mountain. On July 31st, an eight year old named Elizabeth Reaves spotted a man on the mountain. She brought this to the attention of her eleven year old brother, Morgan, and told him that she saw the man rolling rocks and picking up sticks. Incredulous, her brother went to where she had seen this sight and he was greeted by the sight of “a thousand things flying in the air.” They were joined by their fourteen year old sister, “a Negro woman” and their mother who also witnessed the spectacle.
The mother described a host of beings of a variety of sizes that were rising off of the side of the mountain and collecting at the top of Chimney Rock. After gathering at the rock, three appeared to lift off and rise towards the heavens. Summoning Robert Siercy, a neighbor, they all witnessed the sight together watching as the crowd eventually vanished.
Five years after the Reaves spectral vision in 1811, an elderly couple witnessed a different, though still extraordinary vision. Late one afternoon the couple, who lived near Chimney Rock Falls, witnessed the battle of a spectral army mounted on winged horses. The armies clashed and the couple heard the ping of steel upon steel and saw the glint of the weapons in the sunlight. After a battle of about ten minutes, one army was defeated and withdrew to the victorious cheers of the remaining army. It was also reported that other “respectable men” in the area witnessed the winged warriors, though not engaged in combat.
In the two hundred years since these amazing visions, there are no further reports of such astounding sights, these stories do set the stage for the hauntings at the Lake Lure Inn and the Lodge at Lake Lure. I suspect there are further spirits walking the scenic shores of Lake Lure and floating about Chimney Mountain’s stone spire. Silas McDowell, who recorded the testimony of the witnesses to the 1811 vision described Chimney Rock as “one of Nature’s sublimest poems, where objects are so weird, beautiful and grand that words cannot translate them, and they can only be seen and felt when we look, wonder and admire in dumb amazement.”
- Carden, Gary and Nina Anderson. Belled Buzzards, Hucksters & Grieving Specters: Appalachian Tales: Strange, True & Legendary. Asheboro, NC: Down Home Press, 1994.
- Chickamauga Wars (1776-1794). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 5 May 2011.
- Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Asheville, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 1992.
- Russell, Randy and Janet Barnett. Mountain Ghost Stories and Curious Tales of Western North Carolina. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1988.
- Rutherford County, North Carolina. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 5 May 2011.