List Of Contents | Contents of On Horseback by Charles Dudley Warner
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could be got to market.  After the great trees were left behind, we
entered a garden of white birches, and then a plateau of swamp, thick
with raspberry bushes, and finally the ridges, densely crowded with
the funereal black balsam.

Halfway up, Big Tom showed us his favorite, the biggest tree he knew.
It was a poplar, or tulip.  It stands more like a column than a tree,
rising high into the air, with scarcely a perceptible taper, perhaps
sixty, more likely a hundred, feet before it puts out a limb.

Its girth six feet from the ground is thirty-two feet!  I think it
might be called Big Tom.  It stood here, of course, a giant, when
Columbus sailed from Spain, and perhaps some sentimental traveler
will attach the name of Columbus to it.

In the woods there was not much sign of animal life, scarcely the
note of a bird, but we noticed as we rode along in the otherwise
primeval silence a loud and continuous humming overhead, almost like
the sound of the wind in pine tops.  It was the humming of bees!  The
upper branches were alive with these industrious toilers, and Big Tom
was always on the alert to discover and mark a bee-gum, which he
could visit afterwards.  Honey hunting is one of his occupations.
Collecting spruce gum is another, and he was continually hacking off
with his hatchet knobs of the translucent secretion.  How rich and
fragrant are these forests!  The rhododendron was still in occasional
bloom' and flowers of brilliant hue gleamed here and there.

The struggle was more severe as we neared the summit, and the footing
worse for the horses.  Occasionally it was safest to dismount and
lead them up slippery ascents; but this was also dangerous, for it
was difficult to keep them from treading on our heels, in their
frantic flounderings, in the steep, wet, narrow, brier-grown path.
At one uncommonly pokerish place, where the wet rock sloped into a
bog, the rider of Jack thought it prudent to dismount, but Big Tom
insisted that Jack would "make it" all right, only give him his head.
The rider gave him his head, and the next minute Jack's four heels
were in the air, and he came down on his side in a flash.  The rider
fortunately extricated his leg without losing it, Jack scrambled out
with a broken shoe, and the two limped along.  It was a wonder that
the horses' legs were not broken a dozen times.

As we approached the top, Big Tom pointed out the direction, a half
mile away, of a small pond, a little mountain tarn, overlooked by a
ledge of rock, where Professor Mitchell lost his life.  Big Tom was
the guide that found his body.  That day, as we sat on the summit, he
gave in great detail the story, the general outline of which is well

The first effort to measure the height of the Black Mountains was
made in 1835, by Professor Elisha Mitchell, professor of mathematics
and chemistry in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mr. Mitchell was a native of Connecticut, born in Washington,
Litchfield County, in 1793; graduated at Yale, ordained a
Presbyterian minister, and was for a time state surveyor; and became
a professor at Chapel Hill in 1818.  He first ascertained and
published the fact that the Black Mountains are the highest land east
of the Rocky Mountains.  In 1844 he visited the locality again.
Measurements were subsequently made by Professor Guyot and by Senator
Clingman.  One of the peaks was named for the senator (the one next
in height to Mitchell is described as Clingman on the state map), and
a dispute arose as to whether Mitchell had really visited and
measured the highest peak.  Senator Clingman still maintains that he
did not, and that the peak now known as Mitchell is the one that
Clingman first described.  The estimates of altitudes made by the
three explorers named differed considerably.  The height now fixed
for Mount Mitchell is 6711; that of Mount Washington is 6285.  There
are twelve peaks in this range higher than Mount Washington, and if
we add those in the Great Smoky Mountains which overtop it, there are
some twenty in this State higher than the granite giant of New

In order to verify his statement, Professor Mitchell (then in his
sixty-fourth year) made a third ascent in June, 1857.  He was alone,
and went up from the Swannanoa side.  He did not return.  No anxiety
was felt for two or three days, as he was a good mountaineer, and it
was supposed he had crossed the mountain and made his way out by the
Caney River.  But when several days passed without tidings of him, a
search party was formed.  Big Tom Wilson was with it.  They explored
the mountain in all directions unsuccessfully.  At length Big Tom
separated himself from his companions and took a course in accordance
with his notion of that which would be pursued by a man lost in the
clouds or the darkness.  He soon struck the trail of the wanderer,
and, following it, discovered Mitchell's body lying in a pool at the
foot of a rocky precipice some thirty feet high.  It was evident that
Mitchell, making his way along the ridge in darkness or fog, had
fallen off.  It was the ninth (or the eleventh) day of his
disappearance, but in the pure mountain air the body had suffered no
change.  Big Tom brought his companions to the place, and on
consultation it was decided to leave the body undisturbed till
Mitchell's friends could be present.

There was some talk of burying him on the mountain, but the friends
decided otherwise, and the remains, with much difficulty, were got
down to Asheville and there interred.

Some years afterwards, I believe at the instance of a society of
scientists, it was resolved to transport the body to the summit of
Mount Mitchell; for the tragic death of the explorer had forever
settled in the popular mind the name of the mountain.  The task was
not easy.  A road had to be cut, over which a sledge could be hauled,
and the hardy mountaineers who undertook the removal were three days
in reaching the summit with their burden.  The remains were
accompanied by a considerable concourse, and the last rites on the
top were participated in by a hundred or more scientists and
prominent men from different parts of the State.  Such a strange
cortege had never before broken the silence of this lonely
wilderness, nor was ever burial more impressive than this wild
interment above the clouds.

We had been preceded in our climb all the way by a huge bear.  That
he was huge, a lunker, a monstrous old varmint, Big Tom knew by the
size of his tracks; that he was making the ascent that morning ahead
of us, Big Tom knew by the freshness of the trail.  We might come
upon him at any moment; he might be in the garden; was quite likely
to be found in the raspberry patch.  That we did not encounter him I
am convinced was not the fault of Big Tom, but of the bear.

After a struggle of five hours we emerged from the balsams and briers
into a lovely open meadow, of lush clover, timothy, and blue grass.
We unsaddled the horses and turned them loose to feed in it.  The
meadow sloped up to a belt of balsams and firs, a steep rocky knob,
and climbing that on foot we stood upon the summit of Mitchell at one
o'clock.  We were none too soon, for already the clouds were
preparing for what appears to be a daily storm at this season.

The summit is a nearly level spot of some thirty or forty feet in
extent either way, with a floor of rock and loose stones.  The
stunted balsams have been cut away so as to give a view.  The sweep
of prospect is vast, and we could see the whole horizon except in the
direction of Roan, whose long bulk was enveloped in cloud.  Portions
of six States were in sight, we were told, but that is merely a
geographical expression.  What we saw, wherever we looked, was an
inextricable tumble of mountains, without order or leading line of
direction,--domes, peaks, ridges, endless and countless, everywhere,
some in shadow, some tipped with shafts of sunlight, all wooded and
green or black, and all in more softened contours than our Northern
hills, but still wild, lonesome, terrible.  Away in the southwest,
lifting themselves up in a gleam of the western sky, the Great Smoky
Mountains loomed like a frowning continental fortress, sullen and
remote.  With Clingman and Gibbs and Holdback peaks near at hand and
apparently of equal height, Mitchell seemed only a part and not
separate from the mighty congregation of giants.

In the center of the stony plot on the summit lie the remains of
Mitchell.  To dig a grave in the rock was impracticable, but the
loose stones were scooped away to the depth of a foot or so, the body
was deposited, and the stones were replaced over it.  It was the
original intention to erect a monument, but the enterprise of the
projectors of this royal entombment failed at that point.  The grave
is surrounded by a low wall of loose stones, to which each visitor
adds one, and in the course of ages the cairn may grow to a good
size.  The explorer lies there without name or headstone to mark his
awful resting-place.  The mountain is his monument.  He is alone with
its majesty.  He is there in the clouds, in the tempests, where the
lightnings play, and thunders leap, amid the elemental tumult, in the
occasional great calm and silence and the pale sunlight.  It is the
most majestic, the most lonesome grave on earth.

As we sat there, awed a little by this presence, the clouds were
gathering from various quarters and drifting towards us.  We could
watch the process of thunder-storms and the manufacture of tempests.
I have often noticed on other high mountains how the clouds, forming
like genii released from the earth, mount into the upper air, and in
masses of torn fragments of mist hurry across the sky as to a
rendezvous of witches.  This was a different display.  These clouds
came slowly sailing from the distant horizon, like ships on an aerial
voyage.  Some were below us, some on our level; they were all in
well-defined, distinct masses, molten silver on deck, below trailing
rain, and attended on earth by gigantic shadows that moved with them.
This strange fleet of battle-ships, drifted by the shifting currents,

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