Chimney Rock is a 315-foot granite monolith, carved by erosion, which towers over a 14-mile-long gorge in northwest Rutherford County. The area was settled by whites by the 1780s. A British traveler, Charles Lanman, described the “remarkable imposing” gorge and the monolith in his 1849 Letters from the Allegheny Mountains. Of Chimney Rock Mountain, he wrote, “midway up its front stands an isolated rock, looming against the sky which is of circular form, and resembles the principal turret of a stupendous castle.”
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In 1890 Jerome Freeman, a native of Henderson County, devised a plan to build a stairway to the summit of Chimney Rock and develop a park around it. He made arrangements to purchase the monolith, bought two tracts that encompassed it from a group of land speculators, and hired Daniel Foster to construct the stairs. The stairs and the trail from the base of the monolith to the breathtaking Hickory Nut Fall, known as the “Appian Way,” were completed later that year when Freeman began allowing tourists to climb to the top for a fee.
One of those tourists was physician Lucius Morse, who had moved to Hendersonville in an effort to relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis. Unable to make the climb in his weakened state, Morse paid a man twenty-five cents to take him to the summit on a donkey. Chimney Rock so captivated Morse that in 1902 he and his brothers purchased it as part of a sixty-four-acre tract for $5,000. The park would remain in the Morse family for over 100 years.
The Chimney Rock area was not a successful tourist destination until the automobile age made travel more comfortable. A bridge across the Rocky Broad River and the Chimney Rock Motor Road were completed in 1916 and a gala Fourth of July was held to celebrate the park’s increased accessibility. Adding to the appeal to tourists, Morse had the river dammed to create Lake Lure, a project completed in 1927. The 258-foot elevator, blasted out of the interior of the monolith, opened in 1949, the same year the driveway and parking lot were paved.
The Morse family continued to purchase land until the tract was about 100 acres. Other trails and attractions, including an annual road rally, were added over the years. Putting a greater emphasis on the environment in the 1980s, the Morses employed a botanist and opened a Nature Center, offering guided walks and educational opportunities. In 2007 the State of North Carolina purchased Chimney Rock from the Morse family. The new state park will insure that access and conservation will remain priorities for years to come.
J. Timothy Cole, Chimney Rock Park and Hickory Nut Gorge (2008)
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Chimney Rock Park website: http://www.chimneyrockpark.com/index.php
Chimney Rock in the 1920s--no Lake Lure, no railings. Image courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park.