Nature reclaims our ruins. Here on Stamp Creek, the massive stone walls of the old Lewis-Jones Mill are intact but roofless, host to dozens of the largest red trillium plants I’ve ever seen. Their upright petals are a rusty red, the color of dried blood, and almost look like a mouth, carnivorous. They are so big – eight inches across – that they seem like megaflora, like we have stepped into The Valley of Giant Trillium, or The Land That Time Forgot.
That title is not far from wrong. This forgotten corridor of woods along Stamp Creek at the base of Pine Log Mountain is a rarely used part of the Pine Log WMA sandwiched between Stamp Creek Road and Route 20. But it was once a bustling industrial hub. Prior to the Civil War, the iron ore mined on Pine Log was smelted here in 20 foot high stone furnaces along Stamp Creek and molded into armaments and tools. Before and after the war, the mill site housed a sawmill, a grist mill, and a carriage and coffin factory. Now these woods and this creek are completely deserted except for me, my new friend Jennifer Bryant, and her enthusiastic one-year-old pit bull Apollo.
Jennifer is the first woman I’ve found who is on a similar quest to walk the forgotten places of North Georgia. You might take her for a librarian – she is quiet, shy, her long red hair pulled back in a casual pony tail. But don’t mess with Jennifer. She breeds and trains pit bulls, she packs heat, and she can easily out-hike me and pretty much everyone I know. Her unassuming demeanor masks an inquisitive mind and an unexpected streak of daring. Underneath her librarian persona, she is as curious and fierce as Apollo, who keeps tangling up the long leash that prevents him from dashing off after squirrels and rabbits.
Jennifer has brought me here to Stamp Creek on a day when the first green haze of spring is beginning to fill out the brown limbs of winter trees. The purple of the redbud trees and the red tongues of the trillium are the first bright colors. I’ve never been here before, and I marvel once again at the beauty that is all around us and that we never see, zipping along the highways that connect home and work and stores and school. It’s not far, when you step off the grid. A short walk to paradise.
Jennifer shows me a cave high on a ridge above the creek, an almost vertical climb with a sheer drop of about 30 feet. She climbed up there the last time she was here, she tells me. She has picked up many arrowheads in this area and was sure that Native Americans must have used that cave, and she had to see what was in there. When she reached the cave, hanging on by her fingernails, a snake fell on her and wrapped itself around her leg. Somehow she managed to fling it off and crawl on into the cave. Indiana Jones with a ponytail.
Both her husband and mine think that we are crazy, so this is a bonding point for the two of us. We are also both the mothers of teenagers, which is a sort of battle scar. Two soccer moms turned history detectives. But it is so much more than that.
“I’m always looking down,” she tells me. “Searching for artefacts that tell me what was here.” Me too.
Stamp Creek spills into the Etowah River about 5 or 6 miles downstream from here. The mill site is in a great ravine, with power lines strung across the two high banks. We walked in down the power line cut from Stamp Creek Road, and the transition from the rutted barren cut to the hidden creek in the ravine is startling.
Stamp Creek is almost as wide as a river here, but shallow. You could almost paddle it except for the many boulders that jut out from the creekbed. The small waterfalls and shallow rapids are shaded by laurel trees on both banks. There are deeper swimming holes, Jennifer tells me, where your feet don’t touch the bottom. She and her husband and kids have gone swimming in them.
The creek starts at the top of Pine Log Mountain, and there is so little development between here and there that it is completely clear to the pebbly bottom. I am excited to discover freshwater mussel shells, rare in the Etowah basin, nonexistent below Lake Allatoona. I pick them up and stash them in my hip pack for my biologist friends.
I am struck over and over again by how much industrialization occurred around this mountain and how healthy the ecosystem is in spite of it all. You can still see the vestiges of the mines and furnaces and mills and factories and bridges and roadbeds, but they are slowly blending back into the landscape.
This area has been inhabited by humans since 12,000 B.C. Paleo Indian artefacts have been found a few miles away at the Vulcan Quarry and in the Laughing Gal area. The Cherokee who were removed from Stamp Creek in 1838 were just the last of many thousands of years of Native Americans. In the Cherokee census of 1835, the Cherokee listed on Stamp Creek include Culstehskee, Sounding, Ootitie, Guts, Echulehaw, and Tarchaney. They were all forced to walk to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
It was their land that was purchased from the land lottery winner by Dr. John W. Lewis in 1838 or 1839. The Cherokee living on Stamp Creek were all listed as farmers in the 1835 census, so the land was already partially cleared and cultivated. Lewis first built the flour mill and sawmill, the ruins of which Jennifer and I are visiting. In the nineteenth century, water power literally drove the wheels of industry. The creek’s current turned the great wooden mill wheels that pounded wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal, powered the giant saws that sliced the first growth trees into lumber, and fueled the bellows that fed oxygen to the iron furnaces.
In the 1840s and 1850s, Lewis also built four iron furnaces along Stamp Creek and its tributary Guthrie Creek, taking advantage of the tons of iron ore mined on Pine Log Mountain and carried down in mule-driven wagons. During the Civil War Lewis’s furnaces produced munitions and cooking utensils for the Confederacy. After the war, iron mines continued to operate in the area, but the furnace industry collapsed. The mill was purchased by Robert Harris Jones, who already operated a carriage factory in Cartersville. Here at Stamp Creek, he made carriages and coffins.
There used to be a road to the mill, connecting Bells Ferry Road and Stamp Creek Road. The roadbed and bridge piers are still here, but it’s a dead road. Signs at the dead end of both Old Mill Road and Jones Mill Road warn would-be hikers and hunters not to park there, even though it is publicly accessible WMA property. That’s why we hiked in along the power lines.
Dead roads thread all the way through this forgotten corridor, we discover. They lead to the mill, to the Lewis-Poole iron furnace further down the creek, to dug-out sections where they must have mined iron ore, and to sites along the creek that must have housed moonshine stills.
Because the other famous industry along Stamp Creek was moonshine. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Georgia’s moonshine king John Henry Hardin operated dozens of stills along Stamp Creek from here to the Etowah. Along the south and east sides of Pine Log Mountain, moonshine was made well into the 1980s. My neighbor Jim told me that his Daddy told him, “You don’t drive down Stamp Creek Road at night.”
Jennifer and I follow one of the old roadbeds from the mill to the old iron furnace. She and Apollo walk ahead of me, Apollo pulling her along as fast as she can go. We have to cross the wide creek, and she just walks through in her jeans and sneakers. Now it is her turn to tug on Apollo, who doesn’t want to get his feet wet.
I take off my shoes and wade, the sharp rocks painful on my tender winter feet. On the other side, a stand of Mayapples has sprung up. The short, single-stalk, broad-leafed bushes look like big green mushrooms. plants from another planet. Jennifer explains that if you eat their fruit before it’s fully ripe it’s poisonous. But ripe ones are good, and people even make jelly out of them.
As we approach the iron furnace, I realize I have been here a long time ago. My ex-husband Richard was obsessed with the iron furnaces and took me here probably 15 years ago. His obsession with the furnaces was what got me interested in the history of Pine Log Mountain, and I guess I owe him that debt. But my pilgrimage has been motivated by loss and grief as much as curiosity. My divorce and burned down house were the starting point in my quest to figure out where I am, to know what lies beneath.
I feel it now, looking at the crumbling but semi-intact stone structure. The hole in the front reveals a round tower within, like a body cut open and what’s inside exposed. We are always walking in the aftermath of someone’s apocalypse, and sometimes it’s our own.
It’s good to have Jennifer and Apollo here. Jennifer catches sight of a treehouse or hunting stand nearby, and as we approach it we realize it is in a magnolia tree. Someone must have planted it in the days when hundreds of workers processed the iron ore here, feeding the chunks of red rock into the top of the fiery furnace.
The magnolia must be 150 years old, its massive trunk hollow and open from top to bottom, oddly echoing the exposed belly of the furnace. But it’s alive. Wooden planks have been nailed across the open trunk to create a ladder to the platform used by hunters or children.
There are many signs of domesticity here, relics of a time when the iron workers lived here. There are daffodils around several foundations and the trees are spaced out and spring from a carpet of lush grass and jasmine. This area was completely deforested in the nineteenth century, when all the trees were cut to make charcoal for the furnaces. The young forest has open spaces which are both testaments to loss and the thing that lets us see, like a lattice carved with a sharp knife.
A fire pink flower, which is actually fire red, grows out of a crack in a slab of granite. I find a bright purple sprig of wild indigo under a stand of cedar trees, which are traditionally planted in cemeteries. I wonder if that means I am standing on unmarked graves.
Jennifer tells me there is an old cemetery near here, the Alexander Cemetery, another family of iron workers who lived along Stamp Creek in the nineteenth century. She doesn’t completely remember where it is, but we are both up for another quest, so we cross the creek again and head down another forgotten road.
We never do find it, although we find the remnants of a still, the barrels rusting in the woods. We get a little lost, which doesn’t bother either one of us. That’s when the best discoveries happen. Then Jennifer recognizes where we are and tells me there is another route back to Stamp Creek Road, where our cars are parked. There’s a rock I’ve got to see, she tells me.
We follow a tributary of Stamp Creek, and it flows through a flat valley so beautiful it almost hurts to look at, the smaller creek winding through fields of bright new grass and widely spaced trees. People must have lived here too, and we see the telltale daffodils and the cornerstones of old foundations.
We come to a gigantic flat boulder that sticks up diagonally out of the ground and across the creek, creating a roof under which people have surely sheltered for thousands of years. I search it for petroglyphs but find only moss. The creek is so shallow that I stand right in it, let it flow around my wet sneakers.
Just past the rock I see a small tree I’ve never seen before. Small white flowers shaped like bells hang in clusters, and a large yellow butterfly, a Tiger Swallowtail, is perched and sipping nectar from the white blossoms. Later, I will look up the tree and discover it is called Carolina Silverbell.
From dead roads and the ruins of mills and furnaces and old homeplaces and graves, silverbells and swallowtails, wild indigo and fire pink, jasmine and trillium and mayapple. New growth in broken places. Two women and a dog, finding the roads.