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  Smoky Mountain Archaeology

Hidden by the natural wonders of the National Park are traces of the people who once lived there.

by Jack Neely

Injun Creek, which flows alongside the Grapeyard Ridge trail in the less-trodden Greenbrier section of the Smokies, is as pretty as any other rocky tree-shaded creek up here. There's one conspicuous thing that makes it different, and it has to do with how it got its name. Injun Creek is named for an unusual object you can still see from the trail, as you cross the creek: You crest James Gap, descend a short piece, turn to your right as you cross the creek, and there it is. It startles you, still lying there after so many years in the water, sprawled upside down in the creek, missing some parts, a little the worse for wear.

As it turns out, what gives Injun Creek its name is not a Native American, by any other name. It's an engine. A big steam engine. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a small locomotive. Its big iron wheels lay broken in the creek nearby. Its smokestacks are buried in the silt. Embossed on the side is the bold name of the maker: NICHOLS & SHEPARD, BATTLE CREEK, MICH. 4246.

It's older than the Park. The story is that it has been here since about 1920, when this self-propelled engine was being used to power a mill to build a school in the Greenbrier area and was on its way back to Webb's Creek when the driver let its wheels slip a little too close to the edge of this creek. He jumped clear as the heavy engine tumbled into the creek. Apparently they despaired of pulling it out, and just abandoned it.

It's one of many reminders that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn't just a place to look at waterfalls and springtime wildflowers. It's different from most national parks, in that it wasn't carved out of a true wilderness area; it's a reclaimed human habitat. When the Park was established, the federal sanctuary preserved many natural features that might otherwise have been lost—but it also, sometimes inadvertently, preserved a museum of American history. This is a beautiful area, and one of the best places hereabouts to find deer, bears, and trout—but it's also a place where families farmed, where tycoons tried to make fortunes, where people lived. Many of them left behind traces of their experiences with the Smokies: clues that are incongruous, puzzling, educational, and sometimes a little eerie.

You can look up the proud firm of Nichols & Shepard; it turns out they were a prominent manufacturer of steam engines in Battle Creek from 1886 to 1929, precisely the period when their neighbor, W.K. Kellogg, was becoming famous for his peculiar theories about health and for his breakfast cereal. Nichols & Shepard was pretty much top of the line; they made the thickest, "most substantial" boiler in the business, which may account for the fact that, after more than 80 years in a creek, this boiler appears to be intact, not rusted through anywhere. Nichols & Shepard engines are prized by collectors. Some are on display in museums, and some of them are still running. Few of them are gawked at on a daily basis as much as the one in the creek.

For over 80 years it has been subject to the elements and has, perhaps, become one.

On the same trail leading to Injun Creek, as on many others, are piles of creek rocks. You don't have to be a geologist to know these heaps aren't natural formations. Archaeologists call these "chimney falls," and each one marks a place where one or more humans once lived. No one has ever counted them, but there may be thousands of these ruins in the Park.

Homesites—usually a pile of rocks that was once a chimney, and maybe the stone outline of a log cabin or part of an iron stove—are scattered throughout the Smokies. Many of them mark the homes of families bought or forced out of the mountains during the early development of the Park in the 1920s and '30s—the figures are apparently obscure, but Park officials' estimates of the number of families displaced by the Park range from 1,000 to 3,000, all of whom sold their homes, some more willingly than others, to the cause.

Those forced removals don't account for all the ruins you find in the Smokies. Some homesites were already abandoned, temporary farms run by opportunistic squatters who tilled a hillside until it wouldn't grow any more corn or tobacco.

One of the greatest concentrations of ruins is in Greenbrier, especially along Old Settlers Trail, a long hike. Its clusters of clearings with both standing and fallen chimneys look, in some sections, post-apocalyptic. Some of these chimneys are intact, including one with an unusual inverted V-shaped mantel.

Ken Wise has a particular interest in the marks humans have left on the Smokies. He has been hiking and camping up here since he was a Boy Scout 40 years ago and has come to know the Smokies' trails, the marked ones and the unmarked ones; they were often, to him, mysterious: "like etchings in a rune stone," he says. "I began to wonder, why did people go this way? Why did they live here?" He hasn't found the answers, but he has come up with some interesting clues.

A few years ago Wise gathered what he'd learned and put it in a book: Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains. It describes the creeks and waterfalls but also the human drama of the sites hikers visit.

Near Porter's Creek in Greenbrier is an unmarked trail that leads to an unexplained rectangular arrangement of about 40 concrete-and-river-rock pillars. Each about four feet high, the site may strike stray trout fishermen as an ancient mystery, the Smokies' humbler version of Easter Island. As it turns out, this was once the foundation of the impressively large Greenbrier School, which stood here in the 1920s.

"I figure all this right in here was just as clear as in Emert's Cove," says Wise, comparing it to the small farming community right across 321, just outside of the Park's boundaries.

On the knoll up the trail is another rectangular arrangement of stones, but very different. They are gravestones, mostly hand-scratched slabs of slate, some decorated with five-pointed stars. The few are professionally carved stones, mostly of soldiers, one a veteran of the War of 1812. Many carry the old Sevier County names of Whaley and Huskey. Many of them date from the late 19th century, which, up here, wasn't necessarily the Victorian era. In style, many of them look 17th or 18th century. There appear to be a few hundred marked graves here; Wise calls it one of the largest cemeteries in the Park. Some are decorated with plastic flowers. Maybe there are people alive who remember some of those buried here, but the fact that the government-issue soldiers' graves are especially decorated may suggest that some of these flowers showed up here last Memorial Day.

The Park has recently embarked on a project, not yet complete, to chart and confirm all the graveyards in the Park; Ranger Kent Cave says there are an estimated 200 of them, many, like this one, connected by trails that aren't part of the regular trail system. If this is one of the largest, surely one of the smallest, and most obscure, is about two miles from here, up a steep hill on the side of Greenbrier Pinnacle.

That lesser-known graveyard is part of one of Wise's favorite ruins. He stumbled over it accidentally while trying to find an alternate route to the dramatic cliff on Greenbrier Pinnacle known as the Cat Stairs. You get there by a trail unmarked and unacknowledged by the Park service, not half a mile down the road from the Old Settlers trailhead. A hillside road angles up into the woods, maybe 8 or 10 feet wide, just wide enough for a horse cart or a Model T to squeeze through, or it would be if there weren't young trees growing in it. Then, along the right appears a sturdy stone wall, about 4 feet tall and 2 or 3 feet thick, squared off at the top with long sections intact. Though this wall was built more than 70 years ago, it's more handsome than many stone walls around occupied houses down in the flatlands. Off in the woods appear other parallel walls, indicating a network of fields that are hard to picture. Whoever lived here, they weren't hillbillies.

Though there's a wide gap, the wall along the old road appears to go on for about half a mile. Near the end are ruins of a house, boulders that might have formed a chimney and parts of an iron stove. One part has an art-nouveau fan-shaped design, like something that might have belonged to a middle-class family in 1915. There's a rusted-out washtub, made of some kind of rust-resistant coated steel (historic early 20th-century washtubs are all over the place in Greenbrier). Across the clearing is another pile of rocks, with more fragments of cast iron. Maybe another house, maybe a blacksmith shop.

The wall and that ruin is only one reason Wise brought this reporter up here on a Thursday afternoon. Up beyond the house, along Bird Creek, the grade steepens and the wilderness thickens; the rhododendron gives way to prickly underbrush and tall hardwoods. Turkeys and grouse flush with heavy suddenness from the trees. The trail dwindles into a theoretical thing. Occasional stacked rocks, like bread crumbs, indicate that someone else has been up here, maybe even in the last year or two.

For good stretches, the climb's 45 degrees. Wise, who is part goat, is unfazed by the climb, but politely stops to wait for a sweaty reporter. There are no vistas to offer clues about relative location. Wise loses his way but seems less concerned about that fact than the reporter, who is growing skeptical about a safe return. Sunshine sears through the not-yet-budding trees, as each hill seems to yield to another.

Then, rather suddenly, the grade vanishes, and everything's flat. There's a swamp, of sorts. Wise calls it a pond, and says it's the only standing water he knows of in the whole Park; he says he often sees snakes trolling for frogs.

Nearby, encircled by a rusty barbed-wire fence, are three stones, all carved with the names of children named Barnes. Rosey, the oldest, and the latest, died at age 7 in 1922. The other two, Julies and Delia Lenora, were toddlers who died years before Rosey was born. Wise has done some research to determine that these are the children of a mountaineer named Pinnacle John Barnes. A fourth slab stands outside of the enclosure, unetched. This is only about two miles from the big graveyard, but the Barneses took care of their own.

The remains of Pinnacle John's place are also close. "Look," Wise says, shaking his head. "Flat as a board." Sure enough, there are about three acres with few trees, and running through the middle of it, a quiet creek. In a trough without rocks, it looks more like an English brook than a mountain stream.

On a slight elevation overlooking this idyll are the remains of a house: a long, solid, rectangular fireplace, its chimney only partly tumbled over; a sizable square of foundation stones, again, with fragments of a cast-iron stove. And other leftovers: some white glazed ceramic shards, a metal barrel hoop, and broken Mason jars that once held preserves or moonshine. And even a few long hewn beams that, in the 70 years since the Hoover administration, haven't gotten around to rotting. "This guy was a real mountaineer," Wise says. "We're at about 3,500 feet. Very few mountaineers lived at this elevation in the Smokies." On a year-round basis, he says, maybe no others did.

In the meadow below, the creek flows out of the ground, almost magically from the roots of a large oak. It seems to be channeled by a careful arrangement of stones that form a small culvert, which carries the water beneath the ground for several feet. Wise thinks the creek itself, placed where it is, may be man-made.

Around the perimeter of the farm are fence posts. Wooden posts, still planted in the dirt. "Chestnut," Wise says. "It doesn't rot."

"This is a remarkable place," Wise says. "You get all the trees out of it, put you a garden in there, and the damn thing's irrigated." The meadow's surrounded by steep, heavily wooded hills. "Once you get into the treeline there, it's totally unlivable. I doubt if bears get in there much."

A lot of people in the Greenbrier area happily sold their places for the benefit of the Park. You get the feeling that Pinnacle John didn't leave this place quietly.

Several cabins remain intact, of course, most of them maintained as historic sites by the Park. In some cases, especially those in Cades Cove—the metropolis of this side of the Smokies—we know a good deal about the people who lived in them. The Cades Cove cabins are mostly original, but those at Oconaluftee are rebuilt from artifacts found in the Park.

Few have been excavated; Brett Riggs, a University of North Carolina archaeologist, has studied some homesites in the Cataloochee Cove area, including the cabin of Levi Caldwell, said to be an inspiration for the Inman character in Charles Frazier's bestselling Civil War novel, Cold Mountain. "What surprises me most is that the 19th-century-settler homesites exhibit a very wide range of manufactured goods—belying the standard assertion that these folk were highly isolated, insular, self-sufficient 'billies. In fact, they were as integrated in the American mainstream as most."

The lore of the log cabin can be a little misleading; the log cabin doesn't represent any particular era so much as a way of life.

By the time the very first log cabins were being built in Cades Cove, circa 1820, log building was already unfashionable in the Knoxville area, where brick and planed-wood structures were more common. But in the Smokies, with a seemingly unlimited supply of logs, log architecture remained by far the most efficient way to build durable shelter through the 19th century and into the 20th.

The demand for lumber in Knoxville and many other cities around the country found a supply in the Smokies. For decades, lumber companies, some of them based in Knoxville, shaved the Smokies of its timber. Photographs of the Clingman's Dome area in the 1920s can be shocking. The lumber industry accounts for the number of railroad beds—long, straight, road-like grooves in the topography—that crisscross the Smokies.

The fact that you find so many of them might seem bewildering, but David Chapman, the Park historian, says lumber companies would typically build a temporary railroad into a forest and use it until the forest was cut away, then pull up the tracks and move them to another forest. He cites Hazel Creek, on the North Carolina side as one place where you can see the effects of the lumber industry, more than 75 years after it left. All that's left of the town once known as Proctor are concrete walls of the lumber mill, and an old lumber-drying kiln still there. In the woods around are the wire-fence remains of farms that preceded the lumber company.

By 1930, an estimated two-thirds of the area now covered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had been cut for timber. Besides all those railroad beds, there are still artifacts of that era: Rusty saw blades are all over the place. Wise once stumbled across a ax head buried in a stump, its rotten handle lying nearby. The greatest collection of them are probably the remains of an actual locomotive which once hauled a lumber train, up near Clingman's Dome. It's a couple hundred yards off the Forney Creek trail. Stripped and scattered, it's hardly recognizable as anything but an iron scrap yard. It's often called a "wreck," but Wise says his understanding is that when the company's business was done here, the engine was just abandoned.

In some ways, the Smokies seems like a land frozen in time, and that time, as humans measure it, was around 1930. However, this outdoor history museum still acquires artifacts. It does every time a jet cracks up in the mountains. Though most modern plane crashes are removed from the Park, some of them have spewed debris over many wooded acres. Pieces of crashed airplanes, probably hundreds of fragments in all, are strewn all over the Park.

A fascinating new book called Mayday! Mayday! by Jeff Wadley and Dwight McCarter details plane crashes in the mountains and the heroic efforts of search-and-rescue crews. Visibility, high-altitude icing, and the mountains themselves take their toll; at least 71 people have died in plane crashes in the Smokies. More astonishing is that 56 survived the crashes, making for an unusually high survival rate. A forest may not be an ideal place to land a plane, but in some cases trees seem to break a fall that might otherwise be fatal.

Though many of the wrecks, especially the recent ones, have been removed by helicopter, there are remains of at least a dozen airplanes still located in the Park. Most are hard to get to, and some are hard to see even when you've gotten there.

In 1992, two F-15's collided between Clingman's Dome and Cosby; one of them crashed into the mountains. New fragments of the crash were still turning up seven years afterward.

In 1984, an F-4 Phantom smashed into Inadu Knob at 450 mph, killing both Air Force crewmen; parts of the aircraft—small parts—are still visible along the Snake Den Trail, just below the Appalachian Trail.

The looted frame of a Piper Tri-Pacer that crashed without fatalities in 1979 is located on the Appalachian Trail near Silers Bald. They say it's hard to make out unless you're standing right next to it.

In all, according to Wadley and McCarter, more than 50 planes have crashed within the boundaries of the Park. A few of the early ones, including two Jennys that crashed in separate incidents in the Cosby/Greenbrier area in 1920, have never been discovered.

Probably the best-known plane wreck in the Smokies is no longer there. A U.S. Navy Corsair fighter crashed in the well-traveled Abrams Creek area in 1948, and, for the next 44 years, became a popular hiking destination. Perhaps concerned that some of those day hikers could be spies, military personnel removed all traces of the plane's weaponry and, to remove the instruments, cut out the entire cockpit area. The rest of the plane, including part of the engine and the nose cone, remained until 1992, when a salvage crew in Connecticut recovered the apparently demolished plane, claiming they were going to make it fly again.

Park Ranger Kent Cave says the Park protects all historical artifacts. "There's no collecting permitted," he says. However, historical artifacts are defined as objects that have been in place 50 years or more. If the Corsair had reached its Golden Anniversary at Abrams Creek, it couldn't have been removed.

A Beechcraft Staggerwing that crashed in Greenbrier in 1944, killing two, and a P-51 that crashed into Hannah Mountain in 1951, have apparently reached historic-artifact status.

Other objects are protected, no matter how much out of character they are with the rest of the Park, including an especially peculiar sight many hikers and trout fishermen have run across in Tremont.

It's a couple of miles up the wide, road-like Middle Prong trail. It rests only about 40 yards off the trail, in a field of young trees, but thanks to an embankment you won't see it unless you're looking for it.

It's a Cadillac. At least that's what people say. Some guess it to be a 1928 model. At this point, it's hard to tell.

Lacking wheels, the left front fender, and most of its engine compartment, including the engine, it seems disarmingly small, like a backyard playhouse. The doors are rusted but slightly ajar. They open out from the middle, in the graceful way of old-fashioned luxury cars. Though the hinges are rusted solid, the thin metal allows the driver's door to creak back and forth in the breeze.

The roof's gone, unless it's that big piece of sheet metal that's now inside the car. But there's a surprising amount of stuff still in there. The tiny springs in the door locks, the gears that operated the crank windows, the metal cover for the spare. Any interior fabric's long gone, but the old seat springs are still in here. The wood that was once part of the roof structure isn't quite rotted away.

There are no obvious identifying words or numbers, but it's said to be a Cadillac. Was this a hillbilly's chop shop?

The available sources say no. This car was probably already a few years old when a supervisor for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal federal program that developed many of these trails in the 1930s, drove it up here and apparently wasn't able to get it out. He or somebody took off what valuable parts they could carry. (There are many other remnants of the CCC's camps in the mountains, such as a bricklined chimney and an iron bathtub in a remote corner of the Forney Creek trail.)

There's looting in the mountains, but not nearly as much as there is in the flatlands. People wouldn't have much respect for this thing if it materialized in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

But hikers are a reverent lot. Here, people tend to want to keep it together. Someone has placed a strip of a thin old-fashioned tire and some shards of broken glass, perhaps found near here, on top, as if they're valuable artifacts that may need to stay with the car.

This Cadillac is only the easiest car to get to in the Smokies. Ken Wise says he has seen several more wrecks, mostly circa 1930s, on the Lakeshore Trail on the North Carolina side; one, near Fontana, is pictured in Johnny Molloy's hiking odyssey, Trial By Trail. The road that brought it there has been cut off by Fontana Lake since 1945.

Pile them all together and it would look like a 1935 scrap yard.

Of course, in the scheme of things, everything that's visible in the Smokies is pretty recent history. The century from about 1830 to 1930 may have been the Smokies' liveliest period in terms of human habitation, but it wasn't the first.

A peculiar mound in Cades Cove has confidentially been identified by thousands of SUV-driving Dads as an "Indian mound," but archaeologists say it's not, and that there are no Indian mounds in the Smokies. UT's Charles Faulkner says piles of rocks, sometimes assumed to be an "Indian grave," are almost always of Euro-American origin, but other archaeologists say it's possible that some piles of stone in the Cades Cove area may mark Native American graves.

A recent text called The Archaeology of the Appalachian Highlands admits that the Great Smokies were once thought to be "virtually devoid of archaeological sites." However, partly thanks to federal laws requiring that federal construction projects—including even rerouted trails—be excavated as archaeological sites, several prehistoric sites have turned up; more, actually, than many archaeologists would have guessed. Recently, when the Park attempted to move a trail that prospective retiree Don Sundquist discovered was technically on his property, they discovered an Indian site. The governor's grumpiness about that trail may be the only thing archaeologists ever thank him for. His administration's handling of the excavation of the prehistoric site uncovered by a TDOT project extending Highway 321 just outside the Park near Townsend, won't win him any Friend to Archaeology awards. They say the site, still little known but described as "an amazing archaeological complex," has been unnecessarily frustrated by political machinations.

The federal government does require careful archaeological excavation of in-Park sites, but doesn't provide funding for comprehensive research, like carbon-14 testing. It's still a science in its infancy, but spotty work done in the mountains since the 1970s has convinced most that long before the first hillbillies, and even long before the first Cherokee, people left marks here. Deep in the prehistoric period, the primitive so-called "Woodland" Indians may have lived along the Oconaluftee. The remains usually consist of fireplace sites, postholes that might indicate huts, clay shards (or sherds, as archaelogists insist on calling them), and, of course, arrowheads and other stone points.

UNC's Brett Riggs has studied what's known about the Smokies in depth. "Certainly adjacent areas of the Tennessee Valley present a much more imposing archaeological record," he says, but he calls the Park "important as part of the larger system." He says occupation of the area now contained in the Park's boundaries began no later than 8,000 B.C., during the early Holocene Era.

"In larger valley areas, such as Cades Cove and Ravensford [on the North Carolina side]," Riggs says, "there were once substantial settlements, and we expect an archaeological record very similar to that documented in Tuckaleechee Cove by the highway work in Townsend," he says, referring to the controversial TDOT project on Highway 321 which encountered previously unknown Native American ruins. "Over the remainder of the Park, occupation was limited and constrained by topography; we see much smaller loci repeatedly used as hunting/gathering camps, used for millennia."

Charles Faulkner suspects there are many sites not yet discovered in the Smokies. "It's such a vast area," he says. Who lived there, and when, is a complicated picture, though he says the anthropology of the Tennessee side of the mountains seems to be more complicated than on the North Carolina side. Faulkner admits, "Until you get into the late prehistoric period, we're not sure who these people were."

In most cases, the Park finds the sites, catalogs them, and covers them up. "We can't really publicize it," says Ranger Kent Cave. "It would be looted. We don't put out a map telling you where to go to find arrowheads."

Some scientists have been impressed by the variety of styles of artifacts found in mountain areas like the Smokies. It has led some, like McClung Museum archaeologist Lynne Sullivan, to come to some interesting conclusions that the prehistoric mountain Indians were a little different from mainstream Indians. In the essay, "A Conscious Appalachian Archaeology," which Sullivan co-wrote with colleague Susan Prezzano, the authors posit that the geography itself has a big influence on the people who live there. "There was a lot of variation among Native American cultures everywhere, but the mountains added another dimension." Communities were necessarily smaller, and isolated both from each other and from the lowland mainstream culture. As a result, Appalachian highland Indians were at once conservative, and resistant to change—as well as diverse, idiosyncratic, even among themselves.

Ornery, perhaps. They sound a good deal like people we know.

April 4, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 14
© 2002 Metro Pulse