As always, click on the pics for larger size.
On October 25, 1728, William Byrd II stood at the end of the newly surveyed dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia and gazed southward into what would become Surry County, NC. Behind him to the north and west and southwest was the solid wall of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But what he saw before him were two bizarre and lonely mountains jutting up independently from the rolling foothills of the western Piedmont. He later described them in his “History of the Dividing Line”:
“One of the Southern Mountains was so vastly high, it seem’d to hide its head in the Clouds, and the West End of it terminated in a horrible Precipice, that we call’d the Despairing Lovers Leap. The Next to it, towards the East, was lower, except at one End, where it heaved itself up in the form of a vast Stack of Chimnys.”
The “Despairing Lover’s Leap” was Moore’s Knob in the Sauratown Mountains; the “Stack of Chimnys” was the Big Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain.
In the beginning…
Once upon a long time ago what is now the western Piedmont of North Carolina was covered by a shallow sea called Iepetus, lapping at the base of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Appalachians. The sea was named for the father of Atlantis. Hundreds of millions years ago, a significant amount of volcanic activity occurred on the floor of Iepetus to the east, creating a string of islands, primarily today’s Uwharrie Mountains (now Morrow Mountain State Park), the Sauratowns and Pilot Mountain. Afterward, they were modified a good bit by seismic activity in the area, then further modified by eons of erosion.
One result was the creation of several monadnocks, which are isolated remains of the early island chain, often composed of quartzite, as is Pilot Mountain, strongly resistant to erosion.
Pilot Mountain interacts with people, the early years…
For thousands of years, the earliest settlers of the western Piedmont in North Carolina were intimately familiar with Pilot Mountain. It sat at a junction of two ancient trading paths, the east – west one roughly following today’s NC highway 268, the north – south one roughly following today’s US 52.
The local Saura Indians called it Jomeokee, which apparently translates to “the Great Guide” or “the Pilot”, a traveler’s signpost. The first mention of the Pilot by Europeans came from William Byrd II in his diary of the surveying of the North Carolina – Virginia border in 1728.
On November 7, 1753, as the first Moravian settlers from Pennsylvania made the arduous trek to their new home “der Wachau”, they were encouraged by a brief sighting made from a little hill in Virginia: “We saw the Pilot Mountain in North Carolina, and rejoiced to think that we would soon see the boundary of North Carolina, and set foot in our own dear land.”
The 1755 Fry – Jefferson map shows the first depiction of Pilot Mountain and the Sauratown range. It is inaccurate, but instructive. Early European settlers called it “Mt. Ararat”, after the Biblical flood story, or simply “The Stonehead”.
The early Moravian settlers made frequent trips to the Pilot to obtain essential elements for their settlement, one being whetstones for sharpening tools:
“The Brn. Ettwein and Gammern returned toward evening. They had climbed the rock of the Pilot, which is a very wonderful creation, reckoned to be more than 200 ft. high and more than 500 yards around, composed of the best whet-stone sand-stone. From the top, one sees the Brushy Mountains and the Blue Mountains and a high range beyond the New River…”
The Pilot was also a source of protein:
“A man brought a young bear which he had shot, and we bought it for 15 shillings. It weighed 130 pounds, of which 24 pounds were fat; not counting the fat, the meat cost about one half-penny per pound.”
“Jacob van der Merk has gone bear hunting. There are many bears this year in the Hollow (Mt. Airy area) and about the Pilot Mountain.”
But we can surmise that at least a part of every trip included the sheer joy of the adventure and the fabulous views. That is confirmed by the the many non-essential trips to the mountain during the next century.
In 1796, Andre Matthis purchased the mountain and some of the surrounding land. Over the next few decades, his heirs added to the holdings. By the 1850s, one of those heirs, H.T. Gillam, had established an inn near the base of the mountain and was operating a tourist business. If you spent the night at his inn, you got a free tour of the summit. Day trippers were charged an admission fee.
Pilot Mountain and the Civil War…
In February, 1861, the state of North Carolina held a referendum. Voters would decide two issues. First, should North Carolina call a convention to decide whether to secede from the United States of America? And if so, who should represent each voting district at such a convention?
The final tally was announced on March 10. Tarheel citizens had voted by a narrow margin of 661 votes NOT to hold a secession convention. And they had elected representatives, should such a convention be held, who would have voted 74-46 against secession. Even so, most people realized that if a convention were called, the secessionists, driven by hysteria, would manage to find a way to win the vote, so the convention vote itself was more important.
Eastern slaveholding counties voted overwhelmingly to call a convention. Western counties, where there were far fewer slaves, voted even more overwhelmingly NOT to call a convention. The vote in some Triad area counties:
Stokes 890-204 NO CONVENTION
Davidson 1,806-366 NO CONVENTION
Forsyth 1,409-286 NO CONVENTION
Surry 1,136-207 NO CONVENTION
Unfortunately, just a few weeks later, the wisdom of NC citizens would be overwhelmed by events and the worst disaster in the history of the United States of America would be underway. Right from the start there was zero chance that the Confederacy would succeed. And in the end, it would be those who opposed the disaster who paid the highest price.
Once the war began, the western Piedmont of North Carolina became the focus of dissent against the foolishness. As the Confederate desertion rate climbed geometrically, Wilkes, Yadkin, Surry and Forsyth Counties became havens for those refusing to fight. Ashe County, to the west of Wilkes, endured its own mini-Civil War, with pitched battles between Union and Confederate supporters.
Ironically, one of the last operations of the Civil War would be aimed at the most reluctant supporters of the secession movement. In late March, 1865, the 6,000 man Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee, under the command of six foot, four inch Major General George Stoneman, left Mossy Creek, Tennessee, crossed the North Carolina line onto the turnpike leading to Watauga and began a campaign aimed at destroying the last remnants of Confederate war making power and the last remnants of civilian support for the Confederacy in northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia.
The portion of Stoneman’s raid that affected the western Piedmont in general and Surry County in particular was under the command of Colonel William J. Palmer, a Quaker and Mason from Pennsylvania. Leaving Boone and traveling to Elkin via Wilkesboro, Colonel Palmer’s men were delighted to discover, on All Fools’ Day, the Elkin Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill that had been in operation since the 1840s.
Almost out of rations, there they found plentiful supplies of bacon, flour, butter, honey, molasses, chestnuts and tobacco. But the real find was that most of the mill’s 60 or so employees were single women, who gave them “quite a reception”. Mass flirtation broke out. Part of Stoneman’s orders was to destroy any Confederate manufacturing facilities, but because of the hospitality extended by the young women, the Elkin Manufacturing Company was spared.
But the next morning the troops reluctantly departed for Rockford, the former county seat. There a detail was left as a rear guard while the main body struck out for Dobson, the current county seat. A small detachment was sent eastward to investigate Siloam, near where the Ararat River flowed into the Yadkin.
That led to the only violence in Surry. It seems that Lieutenant Colonel William Luffman of Georgia was recuperating from wounds at the home of his friend, Major R.E. Reeves of Siloam. Early on the morning of April 2, while having a bath, Colonel Luffman happened to look outside and spied a group of Union soldiers approaching.
“Great heavens, Major, the Yankees are upon us!” he cried. He grabbed his rifle and dashed outside, only to find his own horse standing there with a Union trooper in the saddle. Ordered to surrender, he instead fired, killing the officer. The Union troops returned fire. Either they were poor shots or their hearts weren’t in it, because the two Confederate officers were able to scuttle out the back door, dash down to the river and submerge themselves, with only their noses above water, in the Yadkin. Two other Union soldiers were severely wounded in the exchange.
Unable to find them, the Union troopers tried to burn the house, scraping embers out of the fireplace onto the floor. But the Major’s 71 year old mother, Elizabeth Early Reeves, a cousin of Confederate general Jubal Early, scooped them up and tossed them back into the fireplace. She begged them not to burn her home and they gave in when she promised to give their fallen comrade a dignified burial. His final resting place is atop a nearby hillside.
The detachment then moved out to join the main force in Mt. Airy, and the following day, April 3, left Surry County and North Carolina for Hillsville, Virginia. The night before, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had fled the city of Richmond, followed closely by the army. On April 3, Federal troops took possession of the city. The next day, president Lincoln visited the ruins. And five days later Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
The Pilot in the latter 19th and early 20th century…
After the war, the residents of the Pilot Mountain area were busy trying to survive. Much of the mountainside had been developed as farmland and more was added in the next fifty years. At some point a tradition developed in which the locals set fire to the mountain every year around Easter to clear vines and young trees for planting. That continued into the 1930s.
But the Pilot remained a major attraction for almost everyone. It would appear that every girl who attended the Salem Female Academy made at least one trip there.
In 1887, the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railway completed its Yadkin section with depots in Mt. Airy, Ararat, Pinnacle and Dalton. When the Dalton station opened, there was a huge celebration in the streets, lit by bonfires on top of the Pilot. The new depot in the town of Pilot Mountain ignited the local economy. By the early 1990s, the town had nine tobacco factories, overshadowed in the area only by the 33 in Winston.
Pilot Mountain excursions had always been time limited by the speed of buggies. But the new railroad provided a connection via the Roanoke & Southern line out of Winston that made Pilot trips a simple day affair.
By the late 1890s, the Matthis / Gillam empire had grown to cover much of the area on and around the Pilot. And a multitude of heirs had scattered across the USA. Many wanted to get their share of the wealth. When negotiations failed, a lawsuit was brought in 1897. It would drag on for almost two decades. Finally, in late 1914, a court ruled that the property must all be sold at auction, with the heirs sharing in the proceeds.
The sale made headlines around the area and even the nation. Although the ad made it appear that the property would be auctioned in subdivided lots, on November 9, 1915 the entirety was bid out by Max C. Butner of Pinnacle for $26,500. When asked by reporters, he would only say that he represented a syndicate of Winston-Salem businessmen, who planned to sell the land off as farm tracts. Nobody really believed that. Some editorials suggested that the Pilot might become a major resort, with a grand hotel and other amenities, such as swimming pools, ballrooms and the like, as found in other areas of the country. The swimming pool got built, but none of the other ever happened.
Exploitation of the Pilot continued for another forty years. But nobody ever got rich off it. That did not discourage some from trying.
Pilot Mountain becomes a state park…
By the 1950s, thoughtful people had realized that the Pilot needed to become a state park, available to all citizens. There is no need here to go into the complicated maneuvering required to create a state park. The original 1970 Master Plan for Pilot Mountain State Park contains all the relevant information, including the names of those who made it happen and detailed information about the geology and other natural features. You can view that here by clicking on the picture below:
Pilot Mountain today…
The easiest way to enjoy the work of the many who made Pilot Mountain State Park happen is to drive US 52 to the entrance, find a parking place and get moving. But if you want to have more fun, I have a suggestion. From anywhere south of the park, drive to Winston-Salem…take NC highway 67 (Reynolda Road) west to just shy of the Yadkin River…turn north on Donnaha Road, then left on Spainhour Mill Road. In about half a mile, you will reach the Little Yadkin River, with the ruins of the old Spainhour Mill on your left.
Continue for another mile or so to Hauser Road. There you have two choices:
1. Turn left on Hauser Road and follow the signs to the Yadkin River section of the Pilot Mountain State Park. If you do that, forget the actual Pilot Peak for that day, but you will find much to entertain you for hours in the river section.
2. Continue on Spainhour Mill Road which will become Perch Road, a twisty piece of devilment which will soon have you playing hide and seek with views of Pilot Mountain until you reach the US 52 interchange, where you can turn northward to the entrance to the mountain section.
Either way, you will want to try this route again soon. Guaranteed.
Back to that cannon…
But what about the cannon picture? We know that no Union troops were ever near Pilot Mountain. So whose cannon is that? My wild guess: The local Home Guard heard that Stoneman was on his way. Of course, they had no idea what they were up against, so they decided to watch and defend the two main north-south roads, one the current US 601 that connects Dobson with Mt. Airy, the other the current US 52, connecting Winston-Salem and Mt. Airy. If you look at the picture, you can see that the road at the bottom of the hill roughly corresponds with US 52. So the Home Guard went out there with what looks like a six pounder mountain cannon, determined to take on Stoneman’s 6,000 cavalrymen. Fortunately for them, Stoneman’s troops never came. The war soon ended. We have no way of dating the picture. The cannon may have remained there for years, even decades. But the picture is as real as all the horrors of war. At least we can rest easy that the mule down below was never really in danger.
A 3 minute movie of the Pilot, 1942: