The Black Mountains have drawn explorers for over 200 years. Andre Michaux an 18th century French botanist, was sent to search American forests for new species of trees with which to rebuild the forests of France. Michaux made several trips to the southern Appalachians in the 1780s. He climbed in the Blacks and just as importantly for us, he documented his adventures. Michaux is credited, as being the first European to climb the Blacks. He named them "La Montagne Noire"- what we call the Black Mountains.
Elisha Mitchell, a minister and scientist who came from Connecticut to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1818, was captivated by Michaux's journals. At the time, Mt. Washington in New Hampshire was believed to be the highest mountain in the East, a belief alive and well today among much of the hiking community in the Northeast. Mitchell began exploring and measuring the Carolina mountains and in 1835 showed that the crest of the Black Mountains was higher. But which was the highest?
On subsequent trips, Mitchell climbed various peaks in the Blacks and named the present day Mt. Gibbes/Clingmans Peak- a mountain now easily recognized because of its transmission towers- as the highest. Thomas Clingman, a congressman and one of Elisha Mitchell's former students, claimed that he was the first to climb the mountain. The two men fought a battle of words which was recorded by the press and attracted as much attention as any modern-day celebrity scandal.
In 1857, Mitchell, by then 64 years old and determined to clear his reputation as the one who had first climbed the highest mountain in the East, undertook another climbing trip there. He and his party took a tourist track partway up the mountain, staying in cabins from which he explored the nearby mountains for days. On his last day, Mitchell went off by himself and was caught in a thunderstorm.
Though the record of his route is hazy, he slipped on a rocky ledge above a waterfall and fell to his death. His pocket watch, broken by the fall, stopped at 8:10:56pm. It was several days before his body was recovered. Public sentiment made Elisha Mitchell a hero and affixed the name Mitchell to the highest mountain, where he is now buried. However, Clingman was not forgotten in mountain history. His name was given to the highest mountain in Tennessee. Clingman's Dome, in Great Smokey Mountains National Park, as well as Clingmans Peak in the Blacks.
Loggers arrived in the Blacks in the 1880s, about the same time they came to the rest of western North Carolina. Before railroads, the timber was hauled out in wagons. By 1911, construction started on a railroad from the town of Black Mountain to the summit of Mt. Mitchell to more efficiently transport the prized fir and spruce trees. In 1915 North Carolina's Governor Craig, concerned about the devestation caused by logging, called for a small area around Mount Mitchell to become North Carolina's first state park. There was still plenty of timber to cut outside the new state park in what is now Pisgah National Forest.
Taken from "Hiking the Carolina Mountains" by Danny Bernstein