The bully bull of Roan Mountain—North Carolina

Rhododendron Gardens
NC-1348
Bakersville, North Carolina

Rhododendron Roan Mountain North Carolina
Rhododendron on the flanks of Roan Mountain with a bald rising above. Photo by Daniel Martin, 2008, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Straddling the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee is the scenic and imposing form of Roan Mountain. For centuries, this massif with a number of high peaks, has been a celebrated place of legend and history. Native American tribes inhabiting these mountains told stories of these peaks. The Cherokee spoke of a massive wasp, Ulagu, which once inhabited an inaccessible cave and was eventually killed by warriors with help from the Great Spirit. The Catawbas spoke of three tremendous battles fought on the mountain where they were victorious. With all the blood that was shed, the streams ran red and the rhododendron that initially bloomed white, turning crimson in memory of the slain.

As Europeans began to explore the area, naturalists descended on the high flanks of this mountain including the French botanist André Michaux, who may have named the mountain after the Rhone River of France. A few years after his explorations, Scotsman James Fraser scouted the plant life here under the auspices of the Russian government. During this time, he discovered a species of fir tree, Abies fraseri, commonly known as the Fraser fir, and he also named the crimson rhododendron the Catawba Rhododendron, or Rhododendron catawbiense.

In the early 20th century, the Appalachian Trail was routed over the ridge of the mountain, creating the highest segment of the trail in its nearly 2,200-mile trek from Georgia to Maine.

On the North Carolina flanks of the mountain, is the Rhododendron Gardens, considered the world’s largest grove of rhododendron, which sits below the grassy balds of the mountain. These balds have provided places for early settlers to leave livestock to roam, particularly cattle.

In 1975, a legend about a bull appeared in the Kingsport (TN) Times-News, that was reportedly collected from a lady living near Bakersville.

In the early days of the region’s settlement, settlers would often release livestock into the fields and forests to graze, marking the ears of the cattle with notches to indicate ownership. One of the wealthier settlers, called the “Baron” in one version, drove larger and larger herds up the mountain every season. Other settlers became increasingly worried that the Baron’s large herd would overgraze the bald. Leading the Baron’s herd was a magnificent prize bull.

Roan Mountain North Carolina
The view of Roan Mountain looking east from Toll House Gap. Photo by Brian Stansberry, 2008. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The bull was large and absolutely dominated the grazing herds. Other bulls grazing on the balds were bullied by the Baron’s bull; often ending up maimed or dead after the prize bull proved his dominance. There was nothing the other settlers could do when the Baron’s herd arrived with the huge bull at its fore except shake their heads and pray for the success of their herds.

Many years after the Baron began grazing his herds, the large herd arrived with the bullying bull leading the way. As the cattle surged forward, a shot rang out from the tree line. Falling to its knees and bellowing in pain, the bull quickly keeled over, its life draining out into the thick grass.

Since that fateful day, the mountain’s flanks still echo with the animal’s bellow and the ring of its cowbell.

stereoscopic view Rhododendron Roan Mountain North Carolina Tennessee
A 1905 stereoscopic view of Toll House Gap and the Cloudland Hotel. View published by the Keystone View Company. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Justin Guess’ 2012 eBook on Carter County places this story and the spectral sounds in Rhododendron Gardens, though Rogers Whitener’s 1975 article places this near the site of the Cloudland Hotel. The hotel was situated at Toll House Gap, just up the mountain from the gardens, on the state line. Stories are told that a white line was painted through the hotel’s dining room and those imbibing alcohol were forbidden from taking their drinks into North Carolina, which was dry at that time.

Sources

  • Guess, Justin H. Weird Tri-Cities: Haunted Carter County, Tennessee. Kindle Edition, 2012.
  • Roan Mountain (Roan Highlands).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 1 February 2020.
  • Whitener, Rogers. “Ghost herd of Roan Mountain.” Kingsport Times-News. 30 March 1975.
  • Wright, Laura. “The Ghost Bull on Roan Mountain.” Virginia Creeper. Accessed 1 February 2020.
16 Shares

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *