Mount Mitchell Railroad Short Lived Life - TribPapers

Mount Mitchell Railroad Short Lived Life

Photo by Clint Parker

Black Mountain – This week’s historical marker starts a series of markers in the Black Mountain area and this one can be found on Old US 70 at Old Toll Road east of Black Mountain, which reads, “Mount Mitchell Railroad: Opened Black Mountains to logging and tourism. Built, 1911-1914. It ran from point nearby to Camp Alice, 21 mi. NE.”

Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, standing at an impressive 6,684 feet above sea level. This iconic landmark has long captivated the imaginations of adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike. Yet, reaching the summit of Mount Mitchell was once a daunting task, until the construction of the Mount Mitchell Railroad made it accessible to all.

The idea of a railroad to the top of Mount Mitchell was conceived in the late 19th century, during a time when railways were revolutionizing transportation and opening up new frontiers across the country. Recognizing the potential for tourism and economic growth, a group of investors embarked on the ambitious project of building a railroad to the summit.

Construction of the Mount Mitchell Railroad began in 1898, with workers braving rugged terrain and challenging conditions to carve a path up the mountain. The route followed a series of switchbacks and inclines, ascending more than 3,000 feet over the course of six miles. It was a feat of engineering prowess, requiring the construction of bridges, tunnels, and retaining walls to navigate the steep slopes.

The Mount Mitchell Railroad, operational for just four years, emerged as one of North Carolina’s premier tourist attractions in the early 20th century. Part of the investors was lumbermen Fred A. Perley and W. H. Crockett for logging purposes, the narrow-gauge line began near Black Mountain, winding its way over 21 miles and climbing more than 3,500 feet to Camp Alice, situated just below Mount Mitchell’s summit.

Originally intended for transporting timber, the railroad transitioned to passenger service by 1914, with Col. Sandford H. Cohen spearheading its transformation into a tourist destination. In July 1915, amid Cohen’s fervent promotion, the Mount Mitchell Railroad officially opened its doors to the public.

Despite the challenges, the Mount Mitchell Railroad was completed in 1913, and on July 10th of that year, the inaugural journey to the summit took place. Passengers marveled at the breathtaking views as the train chugged its way up the mountain, passing through dense forests and alongside cascading streams. At the summit, visitors were greeted by a panoramic vista stretching as far as the eye could see, with the surrounding peaks and valleys spread out below.

The Mount Mitchell Railroad quickly became a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from far and wide to experience the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sightseers flocked to ride the train, eager to witness the splendor of nature from the lofty heights of Mount Mitchell. The railroad also facilitated scientific research and exploration, providing access to remote areas of the mountain previously inaccessible to researchers.

Operating alongside logging trains, the Mount Mitchell Railroad rapidly expanded its passenger service, ferrying over 10,000 visitors to Camp Alice in 1916. This rustic retreat, constructed in 1914 or 1915, boasted amenities like a spacious dining hall, platform tents for overnight stays, and a scenic one-mile trail leading to Mount Mitchell’s summit—the highest point east of the Rockies. Despite its popularity, passenger operations ceased in June 1919 to prioritize timber extraction.

By 1921, logging activities halted due to resource depletion, prompting the removal of tracks and ties. In their place, the Mount Mitchell Motor Road emerged, utilizing the old railbed and opening to automobiles in June 1922.