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Home Features 19th century surveyors used Scott County's tallest mountains as their waypoints

19th century surveyors used Scott County’s tallest mountains as their waypoints

Back in 1849, when surveyors charged by the Tennessee General Assembly with carving a new county — named for War of 1812 hero General Winfield Scott — out of this rugged section of the northern Cumberland Plateau, they used the mountains as their guide.

In his book, Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, Scott County historian H. Clay Smith said of this area’s original settlers, “They climbed the highest mountains, and planted the seeds of Scott County.” Several decades after those settlers first crossed through the Cumberland Gap or otherwise migrated to the plateau region, the surveyors did exactly that when they carved Scott County out of parts of Morgan, Campbell and Anderson counties: they “climbed the highest mountains.”

The team of surveyors — which included Scott County’s first clerk, Jehu Phillips, along with Wayne Cotton and Sampson Stanfield and perhaps others — literally walked the most prominent ridge lines in the Cumberlands, and as a result, Scott County’s highest peaks were their waypoints, serving as the dividing line between Scott County and its neighboring counties to the south and the east.

Much has changed in the 171 years since Phillips, Cotton and Stanfield walked those mountains. First, the logging industry came. Then, the coal industry. And, later, the oil and gas industries, before a 21st century resurgence of the logging industry. All of them have, by turn, reaped the natural resources that those mountains have to offer. And, yet, they still stand tall — towering over the neighboring communities like Brimstone, Bull Creek and Smokey Junction. In almost every instance, they bear the scars of the human usage of years gone by; they aren’t at all as they must’ve appeared to the surveyors back in the first half of the 19th century, when virgin timber still blanketed the peaks. But, in almost every instance, nature is playing the role it inevitably plays. These peaks will never be exactly as the first Scott Countians found them when they “climbed the highest mountains,” but they may some day be close.

This is the story of Scott County’s highest peaks, all of which fall within the boundaries of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and, as such, can be visited and explored to the heart’s content. Forgotten Times previously (in 2016) highlighted one of those peaks: Guinea Hill Knob. In this edition, we’ll expand that to include the 10 highest peaks in Scott County — all of which are located in close proximity (at least as the crow flies) to Guinea Hill.

For clarification, this list is defined by using the standards of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme, better known as the International Climbing & Mountaineering Federation, or simply the UIAA.

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The UIAA defines a mountain peak as having a prominence of at least 30 meters, or 90 ft. That is to say, the peak rises at least 90 ft. above the surrounding terrain. If this were a list of the highest points in Scott County, there are spots along the ridgeline that are actually higher in elevation than some of the peaks. An example of that is Bear Knob, a small knoll on the ridgeline overlooking Smokey Creek. The elevation there is 3,010 ft., which would make it the eighth-highest point in Scott County. But it has a prominence of just 80 ft., so it doesn’t quite qualify as a peak.

At 3,250 ft., the afore-mentioned Guinea Hill Knob is tied for the highest peak in Scott County. It is actually the least impressive of the three peaks that tie atop the list. Burge Mountain and Walnut Knob each stand at 3,250 ft., as well, but have more prominence, so they tower over the surrounding ridgeline more impressively.

Late-season wildflowers bloom along the Cumberland Trail near the base of Guinea Ridge Knob | Ben Garrett/IH

But Guinea Hill Knob is unique in that it is the point where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all come together in a point. Located just north of Frozen Head State Forest, it is here, on this knoll, that the two prominent ridgelines hiked by surveyors meet. If one were retracing their original steps, they could head north and follow the ridge line all the way to Huntsville, where it eventually peters out near New River, just south of town. Or, they could head east and follow the ridge line back Smokey Junction.

Along those two ridges are the other two peaks that tie Guinea Hill Knob in height. To the north is Walnut Knob. Standing 440 ft. over the ridgeline itself, Walnut Knob is slightly more prominent than Guinea Hill Knob, at 420 ft.

To the east, beyond what is today an impressive overlook offering views of the Buffalo Mountain wind farm, is Burge Mountain. It’s the most prominent of the three peaks, at 380 ft.

All three peaks are relatively easy to reach. You wouldn’t want to take the family sedan to the top of these mountains, but you can also make the trip up in a standard pickup or Jeep without ever having to engage 4×4 — at least at present. The condition of these roads, which were originally coal haul roads, ebbs and flows, depending on their usage. Most recently, Atlas Energy restored the roads for drilling purposes a decade ago.

The easiest ways up are Smokey Creek Road near the headwaters of Smokey Creek, and Gobey Road near the headwaters of the Emory River. Trail #1, which runs the length of the ridgetop from Huntsville into Anderson County, beginning on Brimstone Recreation lands and crossing over onto the state-owned property, also accesses each of the three peaks but 4×4 is usually required to climb the ridge at the base of Round Mountain, which separates Bull Creek from Slick Rock. Further up Brimstone, a somewhat better-maintained road climbs from the old coal tipple and railroad siding location near Chimney Hollow to the ridgetop. (Note that separate licenses or permits are required to access both the WMA and Brimstone Recreation properties.)

Making the climb into the mountains from Smokey Creek brings motorists to the rigetop near Burge Mountain, while climbing from Gobey brings motorists to the ridgetop closer to Walnut Knob.

The road up from Gobey actually emerges at the base of Norman Pond Knob, which at 3,030 ft. in elevation is the smallest of seven peaks above 3,000 ft. that fall inside Scott County, making it the seventh-highest of the 10 tallest peaks. It has a prominence of just 160 ft., making it a somewhat unimpressive peak when viewing it from the adjacent ridgeline and the roadway.

Further down the same ridge that heads up with the main ridgeline at Norman Pond Knob is High Point (not to be confused with High Point Mountain, a nearby but separate peak). At 3,190 ft., High Point is the fifth-highest peak in Scott County, and it has a prominence of 400 ft. It towers over the valley where Shack’s Creek empties into Smokey Creek.

Not all of these peaks are named. A little to the northeast of Burge Mountain, along the same ridgeline that surveyors walked as they made their way towards Smokey Junction, is one such peak. Located at the headwaters of Green Branch, which empties into Smokey Creek, and just south of Hawk Gap, it has an elevation of 3,210 ft. and a prominence of 300 ft., making it the fourth highest peak in Scott County.

The view from one of Scott County’s 10 highest mountain peaks, looking south from above Mill Branch. To the right is Flower Mountain | Ben Garrett/IH

The unnamed peak near Hawk Gap is the eastern-most of the 10 highest peaks in Scott County. In fact, it and nearby Burge Mountain are the only of those 10 peaks to be located on the ridgelines that separate Scott County from Anderson and Campbell counties on either side of New River. The rest are all located along the ridgeline extending north towards Huntsville, either along the Scott-Morgan county line or entirely within Scott County.

From Norman Pond Knob high above Gobey, the road along the ridgetop — also named Trail #1 — heads north towards Huntsville and Brimstone Recreation, overlooking the valley through which Mill Creek flows towards Brimstone Creek. At one point, the road crosses to the east side of the ridge to wind its way around another of those unnamed peaks. At 3,110 ft. with a prominence of 360 ft., it is the sixth-highest peak in Scott County. By parking the vehicle and climbing to the highest point, you can get exceptional views of Flower Mountain on the opposite side of the Mill Creek valley, as well as the other peaks and ridgetops that fall into parts of several different counties. This is the first of these high peaks that falls entirely within Scott County; for reasons that weren’t recorded by history, surveyors made a direct line from the ridgetop just to the south across Mill Creek and Brimstone Creek valleys to the ridgeline just south of Griffith Mountain.

Just south of where the road leaves the county line and crosses entirely into Scott County is Sandy Gap Mountain, a peak that lies in Morgan County. It is notable because it was at its base where West Coal Corporation once had a coal washer high in these mountains. The location is identifiable today by a reclaimed strip mine, the hillside still mostly deforested. At the top is one of the more impressive overlooks in these mountains.

Traveling Trail #1 further north, it soon passes the base of another unnamed peak at the head of Second Laurel Branch, which empties into Mill Creek. This one is 2,910 ft. in elevation, with a prominence of 320 ft., making it the ninth-highest peak in Scott County.

Beyond this peak, towards Huntsville, the saddle of the ridge becomes so narrow that you can almost see off both sides without leaving your vehicle. But the elevation soon begins to tower over the road on the right-hand, or east, side. This is Gibson Knob — elevation 2,904 ft., with a prominence of 394 ft. It is the 10th highest peak in Scott County, and it is noteworthy because standing on top of this mountain there are large basins in every direction. To the west is the basin which is drained by Little Creek, which merges with Mill Branch just below Lone Mountain Baptist Church. To the north is the basin that is drained by Bull Creek. To the south is the basin drained by Cave Branch, which empties into Smokey Creek. And to the east is the basin drained by Bowling Branch, which also empties into Smokey Creek.

Further north, Trail #1 makes its way around the base of Signal Mountain, the huge mountain that divides Brimstone Creek from Bull Creek. It has an elevation of 2,914 ft. and a prominence of 482 ft. Interestingly, its overall elevation makes it just the eighth-highest peak, one of the lower-lying peaks in southern Scott County. But its prominence, 480 ft., makes it the most prominent of any of them. Because of how much it stands over the surrounding ridgetops, it has long been the site of radio transmission towers, which is how it earns its name.

Signal Mountain is the northernmost of the 10 highest peaks. Just beyond it, the main road in these mountains splits, with the left fork leading into the Brimstone Creek valley between Slick Rock and Lone Mountain, and the right fork continuing as Trail #1 towards Brimstone Recreation and Huntsville. A short distance later, Trail #1 rounds the base of Round Mountain, which is the last of these towering peaks. North of Round Mountain, the terrain begins to smooth out, until the “mountain” becomes a relatively low-lying ridgeline standing over places like Slick Rock and Low Gap, and dividing the Brimstone Creek valley from the New River valley and such settlements as Bull Creek, Byrges Creek and Winona.

This story is the October 2020 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B10 of the October 1, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.
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