Mountain Driving Across Tennessee and Virginia
Hello once again, Don Milne here, your Roadtrip-'62 ™ traveler. We are still on the first of our Roadtrip-'62 ™ routes; traveling US-23. We’re at Kingsport, Tennessee this morning, twelve days out from our northern beginning point at Mackinaw City, Michigan. Today our entire route has been replaced by a freeway, as I-26 has opened in recent years. We’ll still be heading south on the roads of 1962, however. We also cross through some real mountains again, leaving the rolling hills of northeastern Tennessee for North Carolina. For a look back at the old road, check out the postcard below. While driving this virtual roadtrip, if you see anything you like, get out on the road and enjoy it in person. This type of roadtrip may be fun, but of course there's nothing like the real thing! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Now it’s time to jump in our Impala and travel again!
Johnson City, Tennessee is our first stop of the day. It began as the first territorial capital in the United States, became the capital of the little-known 14th State of Franklin, and is now the dominant economic market in northeastern Tennessee. One of the industries that helped build the area is tobacco farming, epitomized by the Growers Co-Op Tobacco Warehouse. Tobacco auctions are held here, since 1954, creating a steady source of income for the area. It’s located on W. Main St, just west of downtown and I drove past it by accident when I lost my way looking for old US-23. Two other US-numbered routes pass through Johnson City: US-19 and US-321. Like US-23, highway US-19 runs from a Great Lake to the Atlantic Ocean, specifically from Lake Erie in Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. It splits into US-19E and US-19W near Bluff City, Tennessee, with US-19E heading off into North Carolina. They will meet again near Mars Hill, North Carolina and we travel from here together with US-19W to Ernestville, Tennessee. US-321 is a direct route to the Smoky Mountain National Park area, passing through Gatlinburg, Tennessee and parts of the park itself, though it was not here in 1962.
Both of the sites we could stop for today are historic museums, so we’ll choose only one. The Rocky Mount Museum is about 5 miles northeast of town on US19-W and US-11E. The museum takes second place on this trip for distance back in time. First place was Fort Michilimackinac, back at the beginning of the trip, established by the French in 1715. At Rocky Mount, visitors step back in time to the year 1791, where George Washington is President of the United States. He has appointed William Blount as Governor of this area, the Southwest Territory, and the governor settled in at Rocky Mount to conduct the business of the new territory. The building is a great example of hand-hewn notched log construction and is still standing on its original site. It’s been a state historic site since 1959: perfect for us. The tour experience invites one to become part of the happenings of the year 1791, using interpretation of daily lifestyles, food, clothing, and home furnishings. The costumed interpreters take you through the historic buildings and provide a personal look at colonial living. The tour also visits the kitchen and heirloom garden, where you can learn about the vegetables of yesteryear. Then you can roam the grounds and stop in at the weaving cabin and blacksmith shop.
The other historic spot is the Tipton-Haynes Historic Park, right on old US-23 in the south part of town. It houses eleven buildings with exhibits of four periods in local history. You can see the Native American thru Early Settlers period, the State of Franklin period, the Growth of the State period, and finally the Civil War. The buildings have been restored to their earlier appearance, including a Greek Revival law office. A small cave on the property is fun for the kids to explore. I haven’t yet discovered how long the State of Tennessee has run it as a park.
If we were staying here in 1962, I think we would have had a pick of rather new motels. Some of them are still here out on US-11E; more than most cities we’ve passed through. One of the more unusual motels that is now gone was the Inns of America. This motel appears to have been at US-23 and Myrtle St in 1950s and maybe into the 1960s. It was a modernistic style, comprising two buildings that when viewed from the air spelled out “inn.” As to why most of the motels of the period were on US-11E, I imagine it was because that was the main highway to the big city: Knoxville, Tennessee. Even today, I-81 parallels that road and is still the main route in the area. There are several motels of varying quality, as these old motels can range from recently renovated to deteriorating on the spot. The Capri Motel has a distinctive 1950s neon sign and a nearby competitor, the Johnson Inn, has a larger sign boasting “Luxury For Less.” The 11-E Motel and the Fox Motel are also located along this stretch of road. Maybe next time I’ll come this far instead of staying in Kingsport.
Surprisingly, I found a real operating antique right on the highway on the south side of Johnson City! It’s a traffic signal, at the corner of old US-23 and Pine Street, and it is just the type of four-sided solid head that would have been all over the country in 1962. It’s not adjustable, unlike today’s signals, and there would have originally been only a single head over the intersection. Over the years though, because of a desire to improve safety by giving drivers more and larger lights, we now have a minimum of 2 heads pointing in each direction, usually with 12-inch lights instead of these old 8-inch lights. Today’s signals are also made of plastic, instead of 1962’s metal heads. For more insight into Johnson City around our year 1962, I recommend the photo gallery at Johnson's Depot.
The BP gas station on the corner also looks like it may be an old station, though updated at least once, so let’s buy a few old-time snacks for later in the day. To drink, I’m trying a local beverage, Dr. Enuf. It’s been around since 1949, when the Tri-City Beverage Corporation here began bottling this soda developed by Chicago chemist Bill Swartz. Dr. Enuf is one of the oldest of what’s now called energy drinks, as it is fortified with vitamins Thiamine and Niacin, and the mineral Iodine. The original was a lemon-lime flavor, though they have since added a cherry herbal flavor. And for munch, we just have to buy at least one Moon Pie while we’re down south! This famous snack is baked right in Tennessee, down US-11 over in Chattanooga. Moon Pies are the creation of the Chattanooga Bakery, whose original purpose was to use the excess flour produced by the Mountain City Flour Mill. The Moon Pie was created in 1917 and Earl Mitchell, Sr. has been identified as the creator. Mr. Mitchell was a salesman for the bakery in this part of the state who was trying to create a solid and filling snack for coal miners. When he found some of the bakery workers dipping graham cookies into marshmallow, the idea was born to add another cookie and a coating of chocolate. It was a huge hit and has been popular ever since. One of their ads from the 1960s shows Bullwinkle eating a Moon Pie. I recently tried a lemon Moon Pie, but today I feel like 1962 so let’s go with the original chocolate.
Heading out of Johnson City, we enter the Cherokee National Forest. This is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee and Tennessee's only National Forest. Land for the forest was first acquired in 1911. It initially also included lands in both North Carolina and Georgia, but in 1936 Cherokee National Forest and Unaka National Forest were reorganized along state lines. We travel through the forest from here to the North Carolina state line. At Erwin, Tennessee, the Rock Creek Recreation Area within the forest has a hike to two waterfalls. It’s a two-mile trail to the second falls and the trail crosses the creek several times on the way. If you want a shorter hike, there are other trails, but you won’t see the falls. After the hike, I’m stopping at the nearby Erwin National Fish Hatchery. You’ll never see more fish than at a hatchery! Here, they have been raising fish since 1894: today they raise rainbow trout. Eggs from the fish are shipped to other hatcheries for their programs. They also raise trout here for a couple of years and then deliver them by truck to the Nolichucky River at the Chestoa Bridge just south of Erwin. In addition to these fish, the Nolichucky River is a world class small mouth bass river and also has musky, crappie and catfish. Besides watching the fish, there is a small visitor center with information on fish. Also on site is the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, which occupies the former hatchery superintendent’s residence. But it wasn’t established until 1986, so it’s too new for us.
As we drive through Erwin on old US-23, we pass a bit of history in an old Shell gas station. It was vacant when I passed by, but still was recognizable as a Shell station. Gasoline companies used to have distinctive station architecture before and through the 1960s, to help build the brand. Now, all gas comes from fewer refinieries and the price is always the same within a given area, so the brand is less important. And that means the stations generally look a lot alike. Another old building that is open for us is the former Clinchfield RR Depot. It’s now the county library, so feel free to walk around inside and out. Of course, unlike 1962, no trains stop here now. But, the tracks are still behind the building, so it’s a good train watching spot.
Now, I’m not bold enough for whitewater rafting: canoeing is more my style of water sport, as you probably noticed earlier in the trip. Also, I’m not sure many people participated in whitewater rafting back in 1962, or that you could rent equipment or take guided tours either. But the water was here in the Nolichucky River Gorge. Today there are several outfitters in or near Erwin, to take you down the Class I to Class IV rapids. The scenery is at least as good as we’ve seen from the road, with mountains, cliffs, and rhododendrons along the river. If you like the adventure, maybe you should spend your time on the river instead of looking at waterfalls on the side creeks. Before we continue down the road, we should stop for lunch. If I can’t locate any old restaurants, I’ll just have to eat my Moon Pie.
For those of us who like to see the water instead of be in the water, there are plenty of other waterfalls in the area if you want to see more, and they were also all here in 1962. Martin’s Creek Falls is close to town, though a truck or SUV may be needed for the passable but rough road it’s on. Lower Higgins Creek has a series of six cascades a mile or so off Lower Higgins Creek Road. The trail is an old logging road which begins over an old, rickety, wooden bridge. If you want a waterfall view with no work, Spivey Falls near Flag Pond, Tennessee is the place for you. It’s about 4 miles off of old US-23, and just off US-19W. The falls is on private property, so you can’t walk to it, but you can take a photo right from your car. At Ernestville, Tennessee, US-19W leaves us and there is yet another waterfall. Buckeye Falls is difficult to get to and has little water in mid-summer though, so we won’t go. This area, known as Rocky Fork, is a scenic, wild land similar to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There are bears, salamanders that are not found in the park, and creeks cutting gorges down the mountains. Tennessee has leased part of the area for hunting for years and is working with conservation groups and the federal government on purchasing a large tract for protection and possible addition to Cherokee National Forest.
From here, we climb a series of switchbacks on US-23 as we reach the state line with North Carolina. At that point, US-23 crosses the Appalachian National Scenic Trail through Sams Gap. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a hiking trail more than 2,175 miles long from Maine to Georgia. It was conceived in 1921 and first completed in 1937. It’s used for everything from short walks, to day hikes and long-distance backpacking journeys, and offers spectacular scenery along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. On its way, the Trail passes through more than 75 different federal and state forests and other park lands. We also cross the Trail on our US-6 roadtrip, as it runs with that route across the Hudson River. I read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, a fun book about hiking the trail that helped show me why I won’t be hiking the full length. The new I-26 freeway crosses at the same point and there is a beautiful scenic turnout at the crest. It’s the first real view you get of the Blue Ridge and the last time I was there it was the quintessential smoky blue. As we come back down the mountain we cross from the Cherokee National Forest to the Pisgah National Forest.
Coming back down the other side of the mountain, we meet US-19 again. This time it stays with us for the next 41 miles, all the way to Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. A few miles farther south, in Weaverville, North Carolina, we pass the Weaverville Milling Company Restaurant. This landmark building was a working grain mill from 1912 to 1965, so we could have seen another mill in 1962. But as a restaurant, it’s far too new for us, so just admire the building. Just a few miles south of here we also meet US-25, which in 1962 we would have last seen near Toledo, Ohio. It originally was another inland sea to sea route, but both Michigan and Ohio have abandoned the number, so it now makes it’s much-abbreviated way from the Ohio River to the Atlantic Ocean. It travels with us for awhile now, to our last stop of the day: Asheville, North Carolina.
Conveniently located as we come in on old US-23 is the Botanical Gardens of Asheville. The 10-acre gardens were begun in 1961, with clearing of the land. The site was partly-eroded, cut-over timberland, and covered with high weeds, dead limbs, invasive vines, poison ivy, and lots of trash. A dedicated volunteer staff continued clean-up through 1962, though the central wildflower trail was dedicated in 1961. By the fall of 1962, stage one was complete, so we could have seen the garden in a very early state that year. Today, the garden is a restful collection of trails meandering among labeled native plants and Reed Creek, located on W.T. Weaver Blvd. less than a mile from our route.
I won’t be stopping at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial because I’m running out of time. But the author’s home, a rambling Victorian structure he called "Dixieland" in his autobiographical novel "Look Homeward, Angel" is open as a museum. This novel is a classic of American literature and has never gone out of print since its 1929 publication. The home opened to the public as a museum in 1949 and by 1962 was operated by the City of Asheville. Thomas Wolfe’s last few works were published posthumously in 1939-41. In addition to his lasting place in literature, his boyhood home is a favorite tourist site in Asheville. Asheville also played home to other literary greats. Short story author O. Henry spent the last few months of his life here and is buried in Riverside Cemetery. And, F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed during psychiatric treatment of his wife and wrote a few stories during his stay.
As Asheville has boomed in recent years, many of the restaurants are relatively new. I may have dinner at the Hot Shot Café, in business since 1925 and the city’s oldest family-owned restaurant. It features home-style country foods. One famous spot is gone; the S&W Cafeteria. Housed since the late 1920s in a beautiful art deco building with blue trim, that still has the name above the entrance, this was part of a chain of cafeterias in the south. The restaurant closed in 1974 and moved to a mall, but we could have eaten here on Patton Avenue in 1962. Other than stopping out at the new location in the mall, one possible new restaurant we might “cheat” at is The Fabulous Frankie Bones Restaurant & Lounge. They claim to take you back to the style of the early 1960's with snappy sounds, high-back burgundy leather booths, and first class service.
Afterword, if it’s still open, I’d like to stop at Guild Crafts. This shop of the Southern Highland Craft Guild has been located in east Asheville since the 1940s, so we could have visited in 1962. It features the finest in locally-crafted arts for the home, including pottery, furniture and jewelry. Beautiful items to buy or just admire. And speaking of beautiful, tonight we get to stay in luxury just a few minutes off old US-23. The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa is a 1913 resort designed in the then-popular Arts and Crafts style. The building is constructed of granite mined from nearby Sunset Mountain. Besides the luxury rooms and dining, the resort overlooks both the Asheville skyline and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The only reason I didn’t have dinner here is that I’m going to have breakfast in the dining room tomorrow morning. See you then for more elegance, as Roadtrip-'62 ™ tours Biltmore House and Gardens!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.