On March 3, 1915 a bill passed the state legislature to establish Mount Mitchell as the first state park in the Southeast. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States. Today, thousands of visitors travel to the summit via the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But when the park opened a century ago, tourists came by railroad and later they traveled along the legendary Old Toll Road.
“Now open! … the motor road to the top of the world!” proclaimed an early 20th century brochure for the Mount Mitchell Motor Road. Prior to the opening of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939, the toll road was one of the only routes to Mount Mitchell from Buncombe County. The mountain was named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist and educator who fell to his death attempting to prove the peak was the highest east of the Rockies. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell’s measurements in 1881-1882 and officially named the mountain for him.
In Mitchell’s days, travel to the summit was treacherous and required the aid of mountain guides along a trail that was said to have curved like a sinuous reptile. Despite the difficulty of the journey, the marvel of the soaring peak enticed tourists throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the decade thereafter, transportation improved markedly when the Dickey and Campbell Logging Company laid a 21-mile railroad from Black Mountain to the base of the mountain. Eager tourists hitched rides on logging cars to the peak.
Fred A. Perley and W.H. Crockett purchased the railroad in 1913 and added three passenger cars by 1914. They hired Sandford H. Cohen to boost tourism to what was then quickly becoming known as the “Land of the Sky.” Civic boosters and business leaders in nearby Black Mountain were also ardent promoters of tourist access to the mountain.
An advertisement in a 1915 The Asheville Citizen newspaper invited visitors on “America’s Greatest Scenic Trip” to Mount Mitchell at the cost of $2.50 roundtrip. Between 1915 and 1916 alone more than 15,000 passengers traveled to the summit on a bumpy three-hour long train ride to the peak, followed by a three and a half-hour trip downhill.
To accommodate tourist needs, promoters constructed Camp Alice in 1914 or 1915, three-quarters of a mile from the mountain’s apex. The bustling tourist destination featured a kitchen, 250-person dining hall, lunch counter, souvenir stand, and cabins and tents for overnight camping.
By this time, logging activity had denuded much of the Black Mountain range. Visitors voiced alarm about the environmental destruction. Gov. Locke Craig listened to these concerns and endorsed a bill to designate Mount Mitchell as the first state park.
Passenger rail service ended in 1919, when World War I increased the demand for lumber. The war depleted timber resources, and logging ceased in the Black Mountains. Cashing in on the tremendous growth of automobile ownership, tourist boosters smoothed, straightened and paved the railroad bed with rock and cinders for the 18-mile toll road from Black Mountain to Camp Alice in 1922.
Once a major tourist attraction, the “Old Toll Road” made the “apex of Appalachia accessible” for the cost of $1 per person. As many as 150 cars drove “Old Toll Road” each day. The single-lane road required motorists to depart for the mountain before noon and begin their descent by 3 p.m. The opening of the modern, paved Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939, which provided free access to Mount Mitchell, led to the road’s closure. Today, the remnants of the former toll roads remain undisturbed. The lands around them are undeveloped.