Tag Archives: BISO

Blue Heron Mine – No secret

Coal tipple at Blue Heron
Coal tipple at Blue Heron

One of the major tenets of visiting all the national parks in the Southeast is that there are no secrets. If I read enough and ask enough questions, I can get to every place in the parks.

So after two days of hiking in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO), I wanted to visit a completely different section of the park. I headed for Blue Heron Mine, or Mine 18, an abandoned coal mining town.

Most visitors take a tourist train from Stearns, the same train route that miners used to get in and out of this isolated place but the train didn’t get here until almost noon. So I drove down myself and got there about 9 am. I met Ranger Chelsea Lauber who was opening up the tiny visitor center and bookstore.

 

Ranger Chelsea at BISO
Ranger Chelsea at BISO

“Are you here from the Smokies?” Chelsea asks. Chelsea also worked at Oconaluftee Visitor Center for Supervisory Ranger Lynda Doucette for several seasons, and is now here in a permanent position. Oh my gosh, I think, have I been visiting parks this long? Not only do I recognize rangers, but they recognize me. I was the only visitor here and I got a great introduction to the Blue Heron mining site.

Blue Heron was one of many coal camps in the BISO area, owned by Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. This one was active from 1937 to 1962. The tipple is one of the few original structures left. A tipple is a sorting mechanism to separate, crush, and size coal from nearby mines. The mines collapsed or were collapsed by the park. They surely didn’t want visitors to explore the old coal mines.

On the railroad bridge
On the railroad bridge

When the coal company decided to close the mines, the buildings were either removed or lapsed into decay. These buildings were only meant to last fifty years anyway. So no original houses, school, or church stands. When the park decided to recreate the community in the 1980s, they built open metal shells, which they refer to as “ghost structures.” Each shell is built on the approximate site of the original buildings and was made as close to the original size and orientation as possible. Each shell contains displays and an audio program told by the original residents of the Blue Heron community.

The concrete outline of the bathhouse also remains. It was important for the miners to have a place to clean up before going home. Enough coal dust was around in the camp that the men didn’t want to bring in any more in their houses.

Blue Heron has all the conventional trappings of the isolated coal camps that you read about. The school had one teacher for eight grades and maybe thirty students. Few went beyond eight grade since high school was in Whitley, accessible only by train. The Southern Baptist church was the center of community life. Strong faith and coal mining seemed to go together because of the isolation and danger and darkness of the mine.

Ghost shell at BISO
Ghost shell at BISO

The company store took scrip money. The displays even use the words “I owe my soul to the company store.” Life was tough on women who kept cleaning coal dust. They had few aspirations beyond wife and mother. One glaring omission was the camps didn’t have medical facilities. A sick person had to go on the train to Stearns. I’m sure that the camp had informal emergency treatment but no building or nurse. But the display adds, “In camps, life was more progressive than on farms.”

And all I keep thinking about is the date: 1962. I was in high school in 1962. Where were you in ’62?

Isolation at Big South Fork

Big South Fork
Big South Fork

I learned a while back that when you’re a Smokies hiker, trails in every other Southeastern national park seem easy. The hills are rolling and not as steep as in the Smokies or on the mountain section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

But each park has to be taken on its own merits. You can’t compare Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a maximum altitude of over 6,600 feet at Clingmans Dome with Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO), which protects the South Fork of the Cumberland River and the canyon it created. Here on the Cumberland Plateau, the maximum altitude in the park is only 1,745 feet. But it’s not the absolute altitude that counts but the relative between the top and the valley.

BISO is not a national park but a recreation area, which means it’s more macho. Here You can hunt, run your ATV in selected places, raft, kayak, mountain bike, and even take your dog on hiking trails, if it’s leashed. But you aren’t going to find any of that, except maybe dogs, if you stick to hiking trails. The park was established in 1974 but it was years before there was enough infrastructure for visitors.

John Muir Trail at BISO
John Muir Trail at BISO

At Bandy Creek Visitor Center, Ranger Mary Grimm is behind the desk eager share her park with me. She grew up in the BISO area.

“My great great … I lose the number of greats … Jonathan Blevins built the first hunting camp here in 1817,” she says. This camp eventually became Charit Creek Lodge, a walk-in lodge in the park. She offers several hiking suggestions.

“My favorite is Angel Falls Overlook Trail to the overlook.” And she doesn’t even warn me that the trail is considered “strenuous.” Thumbs up for Ranger Grimm.

I drive back down to the river, park, cross the bridge and follow the John Muir Trail. Spring has arrived at BISO. Sessile trillium, bloodroot, trout lilies, hepatica… The trail meanders between steep rock walls and the river. After a series of switchbacks, I reach the rocky overlook with great view of the curve in the river. But where are the falls? Two backpackers, father and son, eating lunch up here are just as puzzled. Together, we figure out that the falls must be the rapids in the river. It turns out that in 1954, before the park was established, some local fishermen blasted huge boulders in the river to improve boating and fishing. Instead, it created a dangerous rapid. I’m still amazed at people who feel they can damage property that isn’t theirs.

At the end of my hike, I check back with Ranger Grimm to let her know that I found the falls. And who should be there behind the desk with her, Ranger Bill Herman? He used to work at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Smokies and is now a permanent ranger here. This is not the first time (or last) that this has happened. That’s why I always wear something of the Smokies. I never know who I’m going to run into in a national park.

BISO, with 400 miles of trail, isn’t just about the river. The appeal is the isolation that you feel in the gorge lined with high rock walls. On my second day in the park, I see no one on what may be the most popular trail in the park, Twin Arches loop.

North arch at BISO
North arch at BISO

Twin Arches are magnificent and just as impressive as arches out west. The difference is that here the arches aren’t in the desert, where they stand out.

Our arches have trees in the way, so they don’t photograph as well. So don’t judge the arches by my photograph. Then onto Charit Creek Lodge, a walk-in lodge that can be reached in 1.8 miles.

I get to the lodge at about eleven o’clock and Matt Peterson makes me some coffee. Matt works for Charit Lodge, a hostel, as they call it, that serves meals, offers a place to sleep and even has showers and alcohol. The secret is that, though guests have to walk in or ride a horse, the lodge is on a dirt road. So the staff can go into town, presumably Jamestown, TN, and resupply as often as necessary. With new ownership, the emphasis is on farm to table food, which as Matt points out, is what it was in the old days.

Charit Creek Lodge
Charit Creek Lodge

Charit Lodge used to be a hog farm and hunting lodge. Unlike the Smokies, which found itself with a hog problem not of its own making, here the then owners brought in hogs for hunting, albeit before BISO became a park.

On the continuation of the loop, the rock shelters and cliffs really pop out. The trail is above, I assume, Charit Creek. Rock shelters were used by Native Americans, settlers and miners digging for saltpeter. Water drips through pocket canyons and down rock ledges, creating multi-colored streaks. I could be here for a week, just photographing the rock formations.

But I need to be moving on to a different part of the park.