Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Riddler on the roof: When did N.C. stand tallest?

When Frenchman Andre Michaux stood here in 1794 and declared Grandfather Mountain "the highest mountain of all North America," he overlooked the obvious: The blue ridge on the distant horizon to the right is Mount Mitchell, which was actually the highest peak in the United States for 56 years.
     Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings writes a blog called Maphead where he posed this question: Before Alaska became a state, where was America's highest mountain?
     It's really more of a riddle than a question. Because for most of our nation's history, no one was sure.

     The answer is California, which owned America's rooftop from the day it became the 31st state in 1850 until 1959 when Alaska became the 49th. Yet Jennings points out that well into the 20th century, atlases mistakenly listed Washington's Mount Ranier as the nation's highest mountain.
     In fact, California was 75 years old before surveyors verified that Mount Whitney was the highest point in the Lower 48. (Even then, there may have been a 10-foot error because the engineer was in such a hurry to get home to his fiancĂ©.) 
     Early topographic maps that used 100-foot contours show a virtual three-state tie among California's Whitney (14,495 feet above sea level in the 1925 survey), Colorado's Mount Elbert (14,431), and Washington's Rainier (14,408). All three have inched up in the latest satellite surveys: Whitney 14,505, Elbert 14,433, and Rainier 14,410.
     Before California, which state stood tallest? Texas had the highest peak in the nation* for five years after it became the 28th state in 1845, though I doubt that anyone knew it. (*I'm not counting the Louisiana Territory, which included Mount Elbert.)
     And before that? The whole country assumed New Hampshire's Mount Washington was highest until this news broke Nov. 3, 1835 in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette (back in the days before headlines were invented):

     The editor's note (above right) promoted a lengthy front-page article written by Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a professor of geology at the University of North Carolina. (If this link asks you to subscribe to newspapers.com, email me and I will send you a copy.)
     Dr. Mitchell surveyed several mountains in western North Carolina before concluding than an unnamed peak in the Black Mountains was the highest. He measured it at 6,476 feet above sea level, which underestimated Mount Mitchell's actual height of 6,684. Still, that surpassed Mount Washington, which then was believed to be 6,234 feet and is now listed at 6,288. 
     Dr. Mitchell's barometric measurements were generally shorter than the summit elevations we know today. He measured Grandfather Mountain at 5,556 feet (it is now known to be 5,946), the Roan at 6,039 (Roan High Bluff is 6,285), and Table Rock at 3,421 (rather than 3,920).
Following Dr. Mitchell's footsteps
     He came closer on Yeates Knob (5,895 then, 5,920 now), which is important because that is one of the viewpoints he used to triangulate the peaks of the Black Mountains. (Yeates is now known unfortunately as Big Butt.)
     Dr. Mitchell was aware of other high mountains further west in North Carolina, including the Great Smoky Mountains (where Clingman's Dome rises to 6,643 feet, just 41 less than Mount Mitchell) and the Great Balsams (where Richland Balsam reaches 6,411 and the Blue Ridge Parkway crests at 6,047). His newspaper article said that the Unikee Mountains (the Cherokee name he used for the Smokies) "appear to the eye to be lower than the Black."
     Grandfather, on the other hand, appears to the eye to be even higher than it actually is, because of the way it towers almost a mile above the North Carolina Piedmont. When French botanist Andre Michaux climbed Grandfather on August 30, 1794, he broke into song and wrote exuberantly in his journal, "Reached the summit of the highest mountain of all North America, and, with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise and shouted, 'Long live America and the Republic of France! Long live liberty!'"
     From that hyperbole, we can assume the skies were relatively clear and Michaux had a view to the horizon. If so, he overlooked the obvious: Just 36 miles to the southwest, Mount Mitchell stood over 700 feet higher.


Lying here "in the hope of a blessed resurrection,"
Dr. Mitchell has a head start on Heaven.
     Through his 1835 trip and subsequent research, Dr. Mitchell was the first to prove conclusively that North Carolina had the highest ground in the 24 states that existed at the time. This had been the case since we became the 12th state back in 1789. 
     In 1857 (when there were 31 states, including California), Dr. Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains to verify his measurements and settle a dispute with one of his former students, Thomas Clingman, who insisted that his professor had not reached North Carolina's highest peak.
     On June 27, 1857, hiking after dark on the way down the west side of the Blacks, Dr. Mitchell slipped over a small waterfall and fell to his death. The following year, his body was laid to rest on top of North Carolina's highest mountain, and in 1882 the peak that had been known as Black Dome was renamed in his memory as Mount Mitchell.

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