In this episode of The Green Tunnel we tell the story of the settler communities that existed along the route of the Appalachian Trail before the AT arrived. We’ve chosen three examples of those communities, each of which helps tell the story of life in the Appalachian mountains before Benton MacKaye dreamed up the AT in 1921. One community was home to people recently emancipated from enslavement, another was a thriving coal mining and railroad town until the mines played out, and the people of the third community had to rally their friends and neighbors to try to find a little boy who had wandered away from his schoolhouse in 1891. What was life like in the Appalachian mountains before the trail? Listen to our episode to learn more.
Dave Benavitch is a retired ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, Pedlar Ranger District, George Washington National Forest. He is also an active volunteer with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club based in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1992, he conducted an oral history with Taft Hughes, the last surviving resident of the Brown Mountain Creek Community in Amherst County, Virginia.
Jodi Barnes, PhD, is an archaeologist and Principal Investigator at the Diachronic Research Foundation. For the past eight years she was an Associate Research Professor and Station Head at the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, and in 2004-2005 she was an intern at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. She received her PhD in Anthropology from American University in 2008, and is the author of several articles detailing the history of the Brown Mountain Creek Community, including “An Archaeology of Community Life: Appalachia, 1865-1920,” in the International Journal of Historical Anthropology (2011).
Ryan Stowinsky is a North Carolina social studies teacher, author, and collector of ghost towns. He is the author of Abandoned or Forgotten: Overlooked Corners of Eastern Pennsylvania (2019). Ryan is a regular guest speaker at local historical societies in Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey where he gives talks about the ghost towns he knows so well.
Hugh Bouchelle is photographer, free lance writer, and an adjunct instructor at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Virginia. He received his Ed.D. from Liberty University in 2021. He has a professional background in search and rescue work at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and writes regularly about the natural beauty of Central Virginia.
MILLS KELLY: When you’re out hiking on the Appalachian Trail, there’s a very good chance that you’ll hike past an old stacked stone wall. Or you might see a stone chimney standing all by itself up in the trees. Or you might notice that the trail that you’re on has ruts on either side ruts made by wagon wheels or the tires of old cars. When volunteers first began marking off sections of the trail in the 1920s, a lot of that original route wound through open farmland with very little if any shade. It went past abandoned homes and followed roads created as much as 100 years earlier by the people who used to live in those mountains.
KELLY: These days, those same mountains are covered by trees. And you really have to work to imagine what the landscape used to look like when work on the trail began. Those old walls and chimneys and rutted roadbeds offer clues about the communities that existed in the mountains long before the trail arrived. But we can only learn so much from ruins.
KELLY: What happened to the people who used to farm those mountains? Why did they leave?
[traditional mountain music]
KELLY: I’m Mills Kelly and in today’s episode of The Green Tunnel, we’re going to invite you to visit the mountains as they were before the AT arrived.
KELLY: In this episode, we’ll be looking at three examples of the settler communities that existed in the mountains before Benton MacKaye dreamed up the Appalachian Trail in 1921. We’ll have more to say about the indigenous communities in a future episode.
KELLY: Also, the last segment of our show deals with the death of a child. So please take care of yourself as you listen.
KELLY: Now, take a breath and walk with us back into the late 19th century, to a time when the mountains were a very different place.
[traditional music ends]
KELLY: Our story starts with a man named Taft Hughes. His parents were born enslaved to the family of Jesse Richeson, who owned a small plantation in the mountains between Lynchburg and Buena Vista, Virginia. Shortly before the Civil War, the Richesons were forced to sell most of their plantation to pay off a gambling debt. And after the war and emancipation, Jesse Richeson’s son Moses, whose mother had been one of Richeson’s slaves, bought some of that land along Brown Mountain Creek and began renting or selling it to other families recently freed from enslavement. Together these families built a community along that small creek.
TAFT HUGHES (Regis Saxton) Mother, she was born the 17th of March 1865. My dad was born on the 22nd of March. Lee, he didn’t surrender until April. One thing I do remember, I heard my mother say that her mother told her, they always called them Marsa, or Mistress, the slave holders. The Mistress said that if I would have knowed you people was going to be free this quick, I wouldn’t have paid your granny fee. I think it was about 75 cents or one dollar.
KELLY: In 1992, US Forest Service Ranger Dave Benavitch interviewed Taft Hughes The reading you just heard was from their conversation, which happened just after he sold his land on Brown Mountain Creek in Central Virginia to the Forest Service. When we think of the people of the Appalachian Mountains, we almost never considered the fact that enslavement was all too common there. Instead, we tend to picture poor, white, undereducated farmers and miners scratching out a living on marginal land, living in houses clinging to the steep slopes of the mountains.
“Appalachian Pioneer’s Mountain Life and Their Children” (University of Kentucky, 1940): One hundred years ago, the pioneers pushed west. But here in these mountains, some of them stayed to farm the fertile land, to live well by axe and gun and plow. But now the land is no longer rich. The crop is smaller every year. But the people remain, hemmed in by the mountains cut off from the changing world outside.
KELLY: But slavery was all too common in Appalachia.
JODI BARNES: I’m Jodi Barnes and I’m a historical archaeologist. Well, one of the things we don’t think about it in Appalachia is plantation slavery and with about 25% maybe 25 to 40% of Appalachian, or at least Appalachian Virginia landowners were slaveholders. And so, he owned 2,000 acres and 39 enslaved people. And he owned all of that property that was, became the Brown Mountain Creek community.
KELLY: While she was working on her PhD, Jodi was an intern with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and part of her job was to think carefully about how to manage the cultural resources found along the trail. And a big part of that work took place along Brown Mountain Creek. Something Jodi noticed right away was how connected the community’s residents were to the rest of the American economy.
BARNES: They were shopping from Sears and Roebuck catalogs and so that some archaeologists have talked about African Americans using shopping from mail order catalogs was a way to not shop at local white owned stores. So, avoiding that whole racial dimension of being able to shop and without interacting with people locally. I think that was one of the most interesting part of the ways that people were acquiring goods in this mountain hollow that people do think of as isolated and that the stereotypes about Appalachian people are that they’re white, poor, meaning that you wouldn’t find material goods. But we found lots of fancy buttons so that they were dressing for church, which they had established a church and a school in this community. And so that those were the things that we could see that people were building community and interacting with other Black people in building this community there.
KELLY: That community ultimately included around a dozen homes, a small church, a one-room schoolhouse, and a small mill. For two generations, it was a thriving place where people built lives for themselves and their families. Taft Hughes, who was 82 at the time of that interview, gave forest ranger Dave Benavitch a complete tour of the community when they walked down the creek together in 1992.
[sounds of a mountain stream]
DAVE BENAVITCH: We went down the creek and he told me point by point who lived where. You can see the foundations and sometimes a chimney the archaeologists call it a chimney pile. It’s just a pile of rocks with a square of rocks that are placed you know that would be the foundation for the cabin. And he would tell me at each point who lived there and a little bit about their family, and it sort of brought home that rather than just a bunch of rock piles, it was a community and people lived in there. And it was amazing. He had a phenomenal memory for detail of the country and who lived where and just a lot of detail it was interesting.
KELLY: This past July, I walked the same route that David and Taft had taken it back in 1992. As I descended from the trailhead along Highway 60 one of the first things I came to was an interpretive sign that Dave put up along the AT before retiring from the Forest Service.
[sounds of a mountain stream]
KELLY: After you’ve hiked for about a half an hour you come to the sign that Dave Benavitch made and placed along the trail to explain about the Brown Mountain Creek community to hikers who passed by. It has a nice little bench. Just behind it, you can see where the residents built up the wall of the creek to prevent flooding and some of the flat areas. I thought I would read it.
KELLY: The hills and hollows along the Appalachian Trail hold many secrets that a keen eye and creative imagination can unravel. As you travel south along the next 1.4 mile section of the trail, you can see the remnants of a small farm community along Brown Mountain Creek. It was a unique community in that the inhabitants were freed slaves. Here, living sharecroppers, they raised tobacco, oats, wheat and corn. Former resident Mr. Taft Hughes explained how the sharecroppers paid their rent.
HUGHES (Kelly): My dad paid a fourth of the crop. If you owned your team, you only pay a fourth. But if you didn’t own your team and the landlord had to furnish your team, you had to give half of what you made.
KELLY: There is a grist mill in the community that ground corn to make cornmeal sharecroppers paid Joe Davis, the mill owner, 1/8th of their corn as payment for grinding their corn. This community disbanded in the early 1920s when they sold their land to the Forest Service.
KELLY: Just to the left of the roadbed is the first chimney fall. At least the first one that I’ve seen. Looking at the roadbed, it’s still amazing to me the amount of labor that was required to move the large rocks to make the walls of the roadbed. It must have been incredibly difficult. All along the side of the stream, you can see the rock embankments that people built up to control the flow of water. The amount of work that was involved in moving those stones just boggles the mind. Many of them look like they weigh 100, 200 pounds, and there are just literally hundreds of them.
KELLY: Walking along the creek today, you pass through a lush forest of mature hardwood trees, and a deep understory of ferns and Mountain Laurel. You have to really use your imagination to recreate that landscape from more than 100 years ago. When Taft Hughes and his neighbors lived there, it was all open farm land. Small houses were scattered on either side of the creek. Animal pens and other structures reached up the slopes from the flatland along the stream. There were probably only a few trees scattered here and there to provide shade for their livestock.
KELLY: The relationship between formerly enslaved people and their former owners was a complicated one. When they were freed at the end of the Civil War, newly emancipated people tended to stay close to the places they’d known all their lives. In fact, census data show that in 1870, 85% of emancipated Appalachian people remained in their home counties, and as many as 80% lived on the land received from the breakup of the farms and plantations of their former owners. The Brown Mountain Creek community fits that pattern almost exactly, and the residents of the community had a complex relationship with Jesse Richeson, the man who had enslaved them until 1865. At one point in their conversation, Taft told Dave, a story about the connection between his parents and Jesse Richeson, who he refers to here is Jim.
[traditional mountain music]
HUGHES (Regis Saxton): I remember my mother and father telling me another story about Jim Richeson. He was a slaveholder. She said after she had lunch, she fixed the lunch up and sent it up by my dad to Jim Richeson. He lived down near Pedlar River. My dad said that Richeson was sitting on the steps grating corn. They would take a piece of stovepipe, punch holes in it, and then turn it over and nail it on a board. Then they would take the dry corn on the cob and grate it off so they could take it to the mill. My dad said when he got there with the lunch Richeson was was sitting there grating him some corn. And my dad said there was some lunch that Lucy sent you. He said that Richeson dropped his head and commenced crying. Tears run down into his corn. He just lay that grater aside.
KELLY: When Dave asked him why he thought Richeson, the man who formerly enslaved Taft’s parents, was crying. He said:
HUGHES: (Regis Saxton) I reckon it was his conscience. He had been their Marsa they were his slaves here. And here they was doing that for him.
KELLY: I asked Dave what it was like to interview a man whose parents had been enslaved. And he said the Taft is very matter of fact about the whole thing.
BENAVITCH: He didn’t seem to hold any grudges or just fact of life to him. I don’t think he was an activist of any kind, but he wasn’t an Uncle Tom quote unquote type of person either. He just seemed philosophical about it. In the interview and talking to him about it, I’m sure he wasn’t too happy about it. But you know, that’s just the way he was.
KELLY: When I went to Brown Mountain Creek in July, I camped out that night at the trail shelter next to the creek. As I listened to the sounds of the night settling in over the stream valley, I kept thinking about how vibrant the Brown Mountain Creek community must have been.
[bird calls, traditional mountain music]
KELLY: We tend to think of Appalachian people living in isolated homesteads. But this was really a community. It was a place that residents loved. And it was their home for two generations. The AT passes through many ruins, similar to those on Brown Mountain Creek, and it’s easy to see those ruins as evidence of failure. Of communities that just couldn’t make it in the mountains.
KELLY: But in reality, those communities were often broken up by forces completely beyond their control. In the case of the Brown Mountain Creek community, it was the City of Lynchburg that forced them to sell their land. As Lynchburg began to industrialize, the city’s leaders became concerned about their drinking water supply, because the James River that runs through town was increasingly polluted. Brown Mountain Creek flows into the Pedlar River just below where the community was. And it was the Pedlar and the lands around it that the city had targeted for a reservoir.
BARNES: So there was the idea that if they could build a dam, and to create a water supply for Lynchburg, then they can also acquire this property to build a forest and protect that water supply. And so the Forest Service, which had only been recently formed, started asking to acquire the land. And they started, this plan started in 1904, and the Richeson’s held out until 1917. And almost everybody around them had sold their property to the government by then. And so they resisted until 1917.
KELLY: The Black families nearby were forced to sell their land along Brown Mountain Creek. And like the Richeson’s, they had all left by 1917. Taft Hughes was a child when his parents were forced to sell most of their land, and when they died, he inherited a parcel of that land that they had managed to hold on to. It was upslope from where the AT is today, and he held on to that land for most of the rest of his life. But in the end, even he had to sell. In this case, he was forced to sell some of his grazing land to the Forest Service in 1992 so that the woodland corridor along the Appalachian Trail would be protected.
BENAVITCH: There at that time, Congress was allocating a good bit of money to purchase these parcels a corridor to nationally for the whole trail, and every little national forest or district had their little chunk to do and Taft Hughes owned some property, about 110 acres that were adjacent to the trail that was on the acquisition list. It was a high priority tract because of its closeness.
KELLY: And so, when you hike the AT along Brown Mountain Creek today you have to imagine what it was like when several dozen people recently freed from enslavement, built a new home for themselves and their children. If you go read the signs that day benefits posted at either end of the community. And be sure to stop for a minute and consider those old stone walls in the stories that they tell about life in the mountains before the trail arrived.
[traditional mountain music returns]
KELLY: For the past 200 years, the economy of Appalachia has been defined by extraction. But the real money from those extractive industries always went elsewhere, to the investors and the banks that bought or leased the land. The people of the mountain communities benefited only through the wages that they earned. Once the coal or the iron or the trees are all gone, the jobs left, and the people of the mountain communities had to either move or attempt to make a living in other ways.
KELLY: Often, they simply left and when they did, the communities that they built faded. Trees returned to the mountains and before long forests covered the slopes again. But not always. Rausch Gap, Pennsylvania is a place that makes it hard not to notice that there was once a thriving community there. [train sounds] Coming up from the south, the AT follows an old railroad bed into the town of Rausch Gap. It runs right through the heart of what was once a reasonably large coal mining town. It was a place where people lived.
[train crossing sounds]
KELLY: Ryan Stowkinsky, a writer and teacher who collects ghost towns as a hobby, has visited Rausch Gap several times. I asked him what it was like to hike there from the highway along that old railroad bed.
RYAN STOWINSKY: I just remember it just felt very perpetual, like am I getting anywhere. And I didn’t notice on my first trip and I found out later on, you’re actually walking the old railroad that used to run through the town. But you get sort of tunnel vision because you are on this very flat, like one of the flattest places I’ve ever been, the entire walk out, and it starts to play tricks on you because you keep looking behind you and you see the gate and you don’t realize that’s two miles away now.
KELLY: Ryan is originally from Pennsylvania and has been visiting Rausch gap and other local ghost towns for more than a decade.
STOWINSKI: And then when you do arrive on site, I believe it was cleared out pretty well. And just finally seeing the well off to the side and then going a little bit further back, finding the buildings and just being, I really don’t know how to learn it better than just overwhelmed that just how remote you are.
KELLY: As you hike into Rausch Gap from the highway, almost immediately, you start to notice something the former residents left behind. Shortly after you lose sight of the road, you begin to notice what look like small stone markers with a wide rectangular base and to upside down triangles on either side. When you first see them, it’s not entirely clear what their purpose was. According to Ryan, those old stones were placed there more than 100 years ago to hold extra pieces of railroad track in case the line ever needed repairs. Now, they’re just one more example of the remnants of human presence in the forest that the AT passes through.
STOWINSKI: Off on the right there are a few foundations and a few walls left of some of the buildings. And there’s also a well, a pretty deep well, that there’s a lot of sticks and branches over it, just so you see it. Because I would think especially in the fall, if you were walking out there you might not be able to see that, because it blends in pretty well. And then there is a sign in front of you that gives you a brief history of the town.
[traditional mountain music]
KELLY: That simple wooden sign greets everyone who enters what was once the town of Rausch Gap. It reads, “The village of Rausch Gap stood here from 1828 to 1910. Peak population of more than 1,000 people. Industries were coal mining and railroad equipment repair. The mines were not productive, and the railroad moved its operations in 1872.”
KELLY: Let’s think about that for just a minute. More than 1,000 people lived in this community at its height. This was not a tiny mountain village or an isolated rural settlement. It was a substantial town, a real community.
KELLY: Located in the heart of the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region, the town sat at the base of Cold Spring Mountain where Rausch Creek pierced the ridge line. [train sounds] If you rode the train west, your next step was Cold Spring, and if you stayed on board long enough, you eventually reached the Susquehanna River just upstream from the state capitol of Harrisburg. If you rode east, the first stop of any size was a town of Auburn on the Schuylkill River. From there, you could change trains and go to Philadelphia or Reading.
KELLY: Rausch Gap was more or less the halfway point between the Susquehanna and the Schuylkill, which is why the coal company that owned the line built machine shops there. Those old trains used to break down often, so having a repair depot in the middle of the line just made good sense. Many of the train crews lived there as well. It was a really convenient spot. Rausch Gap was a company town, like so many others up and down the Appalachian Mountains. A map from 1860 shows neat rows of houses arranged on either side of the line with the machine shops and the other railroad buildings all on the north side of the tracks.
KELLY: But then, the mines played out in the coal company left, taking all the jobs with it. The railroad tracks were pulled up and the people of Rausch Gap were suddenly cut off from the rest of the state. The town slowly dwindled and Rausch Gap became one more Appalachian community that died when there wasn’t anything left to extract from the mountains.
[train sounds end]
[traditional mountain music]
“Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People,” National Educational Television, November 13, 1968: I think one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever saw is in the fall of the year when I looked on the texture of the mountains, seeing the beauty of all different colors of the trees, and I’m riding along with people I say look a yonder, yonder is the most beautiful scene that I’ve ever saw. I see the technicolor of the mountains. We wonder how long it’ll last. We wonder how long we can hold our peace. And they’re coming in from the far corners of America. And they’re taken out, and they’re taking out. They are taken out of our county and our state. They’re taken out of the things that God provided and put forth for us. They’re taking it out and they’re leaving us nothing.
KELLY: This is a story repeated all along the Appalachian Trail and it’s the kind of story that worried at founder Benton MacKaye. In his original proposal for the trail, MacKaye hoped that the trail would bring money back into these fading communities and that some at least would be saved by the arrival of hikers and trail workers who would spend money in local stores and buy produce from local farmers.
KELLY: And some were saved by the trail. Places like Monson, Maine and Damascus, Virginia have prospered because the trail passes right through town. But most of the small communities along what became the trail’s route just faded back into the forest. The architectural skeletons of Rausch Gap still tell an interesting story though.
[violin music begins]
STOWINSKI: The ruins themselves aren’t overly impressive, for lack of a better word, but just the fact that the well is still there, and not filled in. I think that’s the only site I’ve been to where there is still a very deep well. Normally they go out and fill those in. So the fact that the well is there, the fact that it’s intact, it’s not falling apart, almost kind of counteracts the picture of the cemetery where yes, this is a dead town. Yes, nobody is here anymore. But certain things still endure. They built this well. It’s sturdy, it still holds up and hasn’t collapsed or anything like that. So again, kind of playing off of the cemetery sign, yes, again, this has fallen into ruin. Nobody lives here anymore. You know, people’s livelihoods were once here. But when they were here, they were hardy. They built things well, because they had to, they were survivors, they were tough.
KELLY: Reflecting on what it’s like to hike through the town. Ryan says the ruins really forced you to stop and reflect about what life was like there in the late 19th century.
[violin music ends]
STOWINSKY: And I would say, with this particular town, there is sort of that that eerie calmness, that eerie tranquility, but there’s also a touch of sadness, especially when you take a look at, again, just how isolated it is, again, 100 years ago, what would it have been like living out this way? Looking at the stones that are in the cemetery and one of them is for a one year old baby, and the other two are for workers. And on the stone of one of them, it mentions that they died in an accident at Goldmine Gap, which wasn’t too far away from this particular community. So again, just think about just how isolated they were. Again at the time, this is this is dangerous work. Mining has a pretty notorious history and again, being that far from civilization, must have made it that much worse.
[Song: Pennsylvania Coal, Irene Kelley] Crabtree Pennsylvania, a sleepy little town. Everything kept her goin is lying underground. Grandpa worked the mine, and then he worked the farm. Eight hours in the dark, six hours in the sun. Every day, he’d hear that whistle blow. To make a better life, for someone down the road. Pray one day the one you love the most. You don’t sell your soul for a mother load, of Pennsylvania coal.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail passes close to many similar cemeteries, each of which tells the story of families who once lived in the mountains. Sometimes the stories are happy, a long and devoted marriage, or the births of many children. But other times the stories are sad, scarlet fever taking children or an untimely death in a mining accident. The happy stories make us smile. We remember them and we tell them to our friends. But the stories of loss, of sadness can be just as powerful.
KELLY: The efforts of archaeologists like Jodi Barnes and amateur historians like Ryan Stowinsky are slowly filling in the gaps in our knowledge about the former mountain communities we pass through as we hiked the AT. They help us understand these places and all their complexity. Sometimes though, the stories we encounter along the trail can be sad, and downright eerie.
HIKER RED DOG (Spencer Kelly): This is a true ghost story. I was camped at Punchbowl Shelter. And in the middle of the night, I saw a small figure walking around just outside my tent, but there was nobody else camped around. I was totally alone. The next morning, I got up and went outside. No footprints. I believe that it was the ghost of little Ottie Cline Powell.
RED DOG: A couple of days later, I was taking a break and this couple came walking up to me and they asked if I’d experienced anything weird around the Punchbowl. I told them about the small figure and the story about little Ottie Cline Powell, and they said they saw it too. I truly believe that the Punchbowl is haunted by little Ottie Cline Powell’s ghost.
KELLY: In a book published more than 100 years ago, there’s an old sepia photograph of a man dressed in black with a long white beard and a tired face. That man is Reverend E. M. Powell. His son, Ottie Cline Powell, was the youngest of eight children. On November 9, 1891, Ottie, who is just a few days short of his fifth birthday, followed his brothers and sisters to the Tower Hill Schoolhouse at the base of Bluff Mountain in Central Virginia. After they arrived, their teacher sent the kids out to play and to collect firewood to keep their classroom warm on that chilly fall morning. Decades later, an account of what happened next appeared in print.
Reading from Little Lost Boy in the Mountains, J.B. Huffman, 1925 (Jess Pritchard Ritter): The schoolhouse was located about seven miles east of the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the foot of the hills. Just back of a schoolhouse was a dense forest of chestnut, oak, and pine trees, such as grow on the Blue Ridge. There being a path leading through the long woods, the boys gathered up some chestnuts, and then their wood and started for the log school house out in the cleared field, each boy thinking only of himself. Little Ottie being the smallest and youngest of the crowd, not wishing to return to his school and teacher empty handed. In securing his pole of wood he got behind and on reaching the path the oldest boys had disappeared from his sight. Little Ottie being young and not acquainted with the woods went the opposite direction.
KELLY: It took his teacher a few minutes to realize that Ottie hadn’t come back to the school with the other children. Once she did, she immediately started to search for the little lost boy. Within hours, the entire community living on and around Bluff Mountain was out in the forest searching for Ottie. Every able-bodied man and woman took part. Throughout the day they called for him and followed every trail they could find. That night the men lit torches and spread out through the forest hoping that he’d see the light and come to them. And some of the searchers did find his trail
LITTLE LOST BOY (Jess Pritchard Ritter): On searching closely, they found where he had worked and toiled at a little chestnut pole to get it loose from the vines that held it fast. This accounts for him getting behind the other boys. Little Ottie had dragged his little burden of wood to the path or old road and held on to it for a distance of a half a mile. The pole was about 12 feet long. The little end of the pole was worn down to a feather edge by dragging it over rocks and sand. This proves that he thought he was returning to the schoolhouse or was going the right way.
KELLY: More than 100 years later, Ottie’s story has inspired Hugh Bouchelle to look closely at the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and death. Hugh’s a retired military helicopter pilot whose service included search and rescue work. These days, he’s a college teacher in American politics and journalism. And he lives in Buena Vista, Virginia, near Bluff Mountain where Ottie disappeared. Because search and rescue has been such an important part of his professional life, Hugh brings a more modern perspective to the efforts of those searchers in 1891. Not long ago, I talked to Hugh about his interest in Ottie’s story.
HUGH BOUCHELLE: I went to that area and took pictures of Bluff Mountain from that angle from what people back in those days looking up to Bluff Mountain it was the biggest mountain in the area okay. What they would have seen and how far away it was. And if you go to any of the websites that talk about that if they have any pictures of this, mine, the story that I wrote about it does, has a picture and Bluff Mountain is a mountain far away and you think about a little boy who was almost five within days of his fifth birthday. And he walks away from this school.
BOUCHELLE: Up that humongous mountain, for one thing it’s just heartbreaking, and you just wonder how this happened? How on earth was a little boy that age able to do it and why did he do it? They didn’t have search and rescue back then, you know, it was just everyone in the neighborhood gathered together and they all started going out and I said you know my first thought would have been to try to get out and maybe work in to start with. They probably just missed him, you know, because they were searching and people were looking for him within 20 minutes of the time that he was missing. But for me it was always a tragic example of what happens when you don’t have search and rescue. So it was a it was a kind of a personal thing for me kind of fit in with what I did.
KELLY: The people searching for it that night did their best.
LITTLE LOST BOY (Jess Pritchard Ritter): Every effort was made to find him the first night. After darkness had drooped over the mountains and the people on search of him had gotten tired and sleepy. They thinking that little Ottie would fall asleep and wake up and cry and holler for his mama. Men were stationed about all over the sides of the mountain with lights so that he might come to them or they could hear him when he would holler or cry.
[little boy crying, “Where are you, Mama?”]
KELLY: The fall came and went, as did the winter, and Ottie was still missing. It wasn’t until the following spring, on April 5, that four young men passing across Bluff Mountain accidentally came upon his lifeless little body.
LITTLE LOST BOY (Jess Pritchard Ritter): A crowd of men gathered around the little body. This strong crowd of men and boys wept and cried as they viewed the little long sought for being of Ottie Cline Powell. To see him lay there between that white oak tree and a large rock, his little brown hat yet on his head, his little pants full of holes, where snags and thorns and briars and sticks had caught him and torn them. How many times some unnoticed snag or stick might have knocked off his little hat, and he stooped in his wild, bewildered condition and picked it up, placed it on his head expecting to see his mother the next few minutes.
KELLY: No one knows how this small child managed to walk the seven miles from his school over rocks and through rough terrain to the summit of Bluff Mountain. But he did. The autopsy revealed that Ottie had eaten three chestnuts before he froze to death that night.
[traditional mountain music]
KELLY: His mother, Lillian, who recounted vivid dreams she had had of Ottie calling for her in the woods was never the same. And she didn’t survive too long after her little boy had been found. There are no ruins up on the mountain to mark the community Ottie came from, but there is a monument in his honor placed at the spot where his body was found. The Appalachian Trail passes right next to it, so hikers can’t help but pause and read what it says. “This is the exact spot where little Ottie Cline Powell’s body was found. April 5 1891. After straying from Tower Hill schoolhouse November 9, a distance of seven miles. Age, four years 11 months.”
KELLY: Okay, I have to admit something. I grew up in a haunted house. So I believe in ghosts. [guitar music] And because I do, I decided to go to the Punchbowl Shelter on Bluff Mountain myself, and wanted to see if Ottie would pay me a visit, as he has apparently visited so many hikers before me.
KELLY: The shelter is less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and its most distinctive feature is a small frog pond out front. All that night, the frogs serenaded me, Barred Owls called back and forth. And somewhere nearby, a Pileated Woodpecker was working on a tree. Sadly, those are the only sounds I heard that night. Ottie didn’t come to visit. But just because he didn’t come to see me, doesn’t mean his ghost doesn’t exist.
KELLY: Like so many AT hikers, Hugh Bouchelle wonders about the spirit of Ottie. He likes to take his search and rescue students up to the monument, and he invites them to leave small toys there for Ottie, just in case his ghost wants something to play with. Those toys are always gone a few days later, when Hugh had his students returned.
BOUCHELLE: I would tell them in advance, if you got a little tiny pocket toy or something like that, stick it in your pocket, you might need it on this trip. And we’d go up there and we’d leave these little tiny toys around that monument and then I’d come back a week later or something, and of course all those toys were gone and I’ve always been curious what happened to those things but it’s just a tradition more than anything else and like I said the toys disappear. Maybe they mean something. But I think that I think that the value in it is, is what is the people who leave the toys and with the experience they get from that because they wouldn’t leave that if they weren’t touched in some way as to what that monument said.
[traditional mountain music]
KELLY: Communities come and go. those communities may not have been very prosperous, and they may have only left a little evidence of their presence behind. But Taft Hughes, and the people who lived in Rausch Gap, and little Ottie Cline Powell, they were all real people who led real lives and who left behind a rich legacy along the Appalachian Trail. Their stories are etched into the chimneys, the foundations, and the ruins we all pass as we hike north and south. It’s easy to look at these remnants of the past and see failure, failure to maintain a home, failure to sustain a living, failure to keep going. But as these three stories demonstrate, the reality of the mountain communities is much more complex and difficult to fit into simple stereotypes.
KELLY: These are places where people thrived together, where they had rich and interesting lives and where they experienced both love and loss. As hikers, we experienced the Appalachian Trail as a serene natural path that takes us through tunnels of trees over mountains and through valleys. And that’s all true. But at many places along the trail, there’s also a history that you can feel and that you can see. All you have to do is slow down and look.
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by Jess Pritchard Ritter. Abby Mullen is our executive producer and she also did the audio production for this episode. Our voice actors are Regis Sexton, Spencer Kelly, Jess Prichard Ritter, and Oliver.
KELLY: Our music is performed by the award winning musicians Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. Andrew and Ash are also the hosts of the Floyd Radio Hour. If you haven’t listened to their show, you’re missing out.
KELLY: Before we go, we have a favor to ask. Two favors actually. First, we’d love it if you would post about our show in your social media feeds. That really helps us grow our audience. Second, if you haven’t already, please be sure to follow our show on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a chance, write us a review there.
KELLY: While you wait for the next episode, if you go to our website, greentunnel.rrchnm.org, you can sign up for our newsletter, which contains interesting tidbits from our stories that didn’t quite make it into the final version of our episodes.
KELLY: Thanks so much for listening.
Additional Music Credit
Written by Irene Kelley (BMI)/Thomm Jutz (SESAC)
Performed by Irene Kelley
We are very grateful to Irene for giving us permission to use her recording.
We want to say a special thank you to all of our voice actors in this episode. They are, in order of appearance, Regis Saxton (Taft Hughes), Spencer Kelly (Red Dog), Jess Pritchard Ritter (reading from Little Lost Boy) and Oliver (Where are you, Mama?).
Jodi A. Barnes, “An Archaeology of Community Life: Appalachia, 1865-1920.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15, no. 4 (2011): 669–706.
Brown Mountain Creek — Before the AT. Interview with Taft Hughes. https://www.nbatc.org/1992Interview.htm
Ryan Stowinsky, Abandoned and Forgotten: Overlooked Corners of Eastern Pennsylvania (2019)
Hugh Bouchelle, “Bluff Mountain and the Tragedy of Little Ottie Cline Powell,” Lexington Outdoors
J.B. Huffman, Little Lost Boy in the Mountains of Virginia (1925)