Today’s post offers a peek at the landscape which surrounds-The Lufty Baptist Church (also commonly called Smokemont Baptist Church). Below you’ll find three separate sources who each knew or know the area intimately-2 from the past; 1 from the present.
In their 1883 book, The Heart of the Alleghanies, Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup related their impressions of travel from Bryson City, N.C., then known as Charleston, to Cherokee, N.C., then called Yellow Hill. Their route took them down the Tuckasegee River to the Oconaluftee River, and they following the latter river to Yellow Hill.
Two hour’s ride through the sandy, but well cultivated valley of the Tuckasege brought us to the Ocona Lufta. From this point the road follows the general course of the stream, but, avoiding its curves, is at places so far away that the roar of the rapids sounds like the distant approach of a storm. At places the road is almost crowded into the river by the stern approach of precipices, and then again they separate while crossing broad, green, undulating bottoms. . . .”
– Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup, The Heart of the Alleghanies (1883), pp. 37 – 38.
The book, Highland Homeland: The People Of The Great Smokies, written by Wilma Dykeman and Jim Stockley offers the following details about the terrain of the Ocona Lufta Valley:
By far the most ambitious road project was the Oconaluftee Turnpike. In 1832, the North Carolina Legislature chartered the Oconaluftee Turnpike Company. Abraham Enloe, Samuel Sherrill, John Beck, John Carroll, and Samuel Gibson were commissioners for the road and were authorized to sell stock and collect tolls. The road itself was to run from Oconaluftee all the way to the top of the Smokies at Indian Gap.
Work on the road progressed slowly. Bluffs and cliffs had to be avoided; such detours lengthened the Turnpike considerably. Sometimes the rock was difficult to remove. Crude blasting-complete with hand hammered holes, gunpowder in hollow reeds, and fuses of straw or leaves-constituted one quick and sure, but more expensive method. Occasionally the men burned logs around the rocks then quickly showered it with creek water. When the rock split in the sudden change of temperature, it could then be quarried and graded out. Throughout the 1830s, residents of Oconaluftee and the nearby valleys toiled and sweated to lay down this single road bed.
The desire and effort to conquer the wilderness also prompted the establishment of churches, and to a lesser extent, schools. In the Tennessee Sugarlands, services were held under the trees, until a small building was constructed at the beginning of the 19th century. The valley built a larger five-cornered Baptist church in 1816. Prospering Cades Cove established a Methodist Church in 1830; its preacher rode the Little River circuit. Five years later the church had 40 members.
Over on the Oconaluftee, Ralph Hughes had donated land and Dr. John Mingus had built a log schoolhouse. Monthly prayer meetings were held there until the Lufty Baptist church was officially organized in 1836. Its 21 charter members included most of the Turnpike commissioners plus the large Mingus family. Five years later, the members built a log church at Smokemont on land donated by John Beck.
Don Casada, who has studied the area encompassed by the Smoky Mountain National Park extensively, had this to say about the water drainage of the Ocona Lufta Valley:
Then at the Ravensford area, the Luftee and Raven Fork join. According to some drainage area measurements that I made a few years ago, at the point where they join, the area that feeds Raven Fork is about 80% of that drained by the Luftee above their junction. But according to my eyeballs, Raven Fork has more volume. Raven Fork is fed by waters that fall as far east as Balsam Mountain, which is the western edge of the Cataloochee Valley.
This is probably way more than you want to know, but here’s a way of maybe quantifying its size: The Luftee drainage area (including that of Raven Fork) within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is right at 100 square miles, which is more than 50% greater than the area drained by Cataloochee Creek and more than twice the area drained by Hazel Creek. (both Cataloochee and Hazel Creek have been mentioned in previous Blind Pig articles).
Below Ravensford (visitor center area), which was the area of Swain County that was first settled by white folks, the Luftee is a relatively peaceful stream, but it is fed from some of the most rugged terrain of western North Carolina, particularly on the Raven Fork.
As you and some of your readers know, together with Wendy Meyers, I’m researching old home places in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Something that the two of us find both intriguing and inspirational is the distances and terrain traversed by folks to attend worship services.
Based on known home locations of some of the members listed in “Ocona Lufta Baptist Pioneer Church of the Smokies” by Florence Cope Bush, it is certain that folks were coming from at least 3 miles away. They came from well up Bradley Fork and above Collins Creek to the north. And they came from feeder streams that flowed from both east and west into the Luftee down below (south) of the church such as Couches, Tow String, and Mingus Creeks. Miles alone don’t tell the story. Some of these folks lived well back up these feeder streams in areas where even wagon travel was unlikely (sled roads were common), and there was hundreds of feet of elevation change involved.
It is highly likely that most of these folks came to church on foot, and they’d have come in all sorts of weather. Today we’re apt to grumble about having to walk from the house to the car when it’s drizzling a little rain.
The more I study these folks, the more amazed I am at their perseverance, strength, make-do intelligence, and right-mindedness in terms of the priorities of life.
The Ocona Lufta Valley was and is a rugged area of Western NC. If you’d like to see video footage of the whitewater of Ravensford check out this video on Youtube. The video actually ends at about 2 minutes and 50 seconds-but the song being used for background music plays the whole 4 minutes and 27 seconds. *Update: Tipper, the area where the kayaking video is shot isn’t Ravensford – it is on the Raven Fork.
The two names are connected, of course, but there is also an important distinction.
The Ravensford area lies close to the mouth of the Raven Fork of the Oconaluftee, and I’m sure that at some point in time there was an actual ford in the lower area. I’ll have to do some digging to see what I can find there. Ravensford is the broad flat bottomland section where the Cherokee High School now sits. That area was once the location of the Ravensford lumber mill, a huge operation. It was formerly in the park, but is now part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation – as is several hundred acres on the west side of the Luftee below the park entrance.
On the other hand, Raven Fork is the name of the stream which runs by the Ravensford area. It is a relatively sedate stream as it passes there, but as the video shows, anything but sedate about ten miles above. Those kayakers are in what is called the Raven Fork Gorge which is, as you can gather from the video, very rugged territory. There’s a section in the gorge where the 40-ft topographic map lines are so close together that you can’t tell one from the other.
1. Photo: WCU Digital Collection Travel WNC
2. Don Casada
3. Highland Homeland: The People of the Great Smokies: Author: Dykeman, Wilma; Stokely, Jim. This item is in the public domain. Book contributor: Clemson University Libraries