Sanford and Ray Chandler are obsessed. So am I, so we make a good team.
We are standing on Pine Log Gap Road, a rough dirt road through the Wilderness Management Area between Little Pine Log Mountain and Hanging Mountain. Sanford and his son Ray walk slowly, observing the landscape, picking up rocks, looking for evidence of a Native American presence. They believe that the some of the North Georgia Cherokee may have walked this route on the Trail of Tears. Their larger quest is to locate and preserve the ruins of both settler sites and Cherokee sites before they are paved under for the subdivisions which have arrived as metro Atlanta has sprawled north of the Etowah.
“For some reason, we feel called to be the ones who preserve the memory,” Sanford tells me. “We realized that so many things were disappearing with development. A lot of these ruins are about to be bulldozed over.”
Sanford and Ray are a father-son duo who refer to themselves as “we” when talking about their quest and their expeditions. Sanford is a retired educator and Ray is an ex-policeman-turned-painting-company-owner. They’ve been hiking and paddling the Etowah Valley together since Ray was a small boy. Sanford is in his 60s now, Ray in his mid-30s, and they are a team. They make jokes about each other constantly. When Ray disappears into the woods, Sanford half complains and half brags: “This is what he does. Don’t worry, he’ll show back up at the truck.”
I’m just getting to know these two, but Sanford’s kind eyes and musing curiosity and Ray’s eager thirst for adventure, as well as their clear affection for one another, have charmed me. Sanford strikes me as the kind of wise elder who keeps the legends and tells the stories – the memory of the tribe –the kind of person our culture has lost and sorely needs.
For preservationists like me and Sanford and Ray, Pine Log WMA is a paradise. Because it’s so mountainous, it has not been co-opted by subdivisions yet. Pine Log, the southernmost mountain in the Appalachian chain, towers about five miles north of the Etowah. The river and the mountain are the boundary between Appalachia and the Piedmont, and they used to be the boundary between the suburbs and the country – but that is changing. In the nineteenth century they were the boundary between the cotton-growing South and the mountain South. The river forms an east-west boundary, while the Cartersville Fault cuts across it north-south, roughly where Pine Log stands, at the seam of an ancient continental collision. It is and has always been a liminal space.
On the other side of Pine Log Mountain, the Lake Arrowhead resort community proliferates across the valley and has tried a couple of times to creep up the mountain, only to be foiled by the mountain’s massive boulders. The golf course nips at the mountain’s feet like an annoying terrier.
Driving up the Pine Log Gap Road onto Little Pine Log, we parallel and then cross Stamp Creek, which originates high up on the mountain and is pristine here. Shallow, wide and so clear you can see every pebble and every small fish, because it’s not gunked up with silt yet, unlike most of the creeks in metro Atlanta. It is stocked with trout, and fishermen come to camp and fish. In the fall hunting season, the place is crawling with hunters of deer, turkey, doves, and wild pigs.
On summer nights, Sanford and Ray tell me, the camping spots along the creek are filled with groups of campers with tents and lawn chairs, playing in the creek in the moonlight, blasting music, drinking, laughing. They said last time they’d seen some guys who had brought in a card table and had a poker game going by the creek.
The road is bumpy and rocky, pickup truck required, preferably four-wheel drive. We are lucky, because the gate to the upper section of Pine Log Gap Road is usually closed, but it is open on this strangely cool, low-humidity day in late August. Driving to the top, we are treated to the vista of Hanging Mountain, Bear Mountain and big Pine Log Mountain. Up there, you can forget you are anywhere near metro Atlanta. You could be in any wilderness in the country.
Sanford and Ray have two quests on this trip: to locate the nineteenth-century iron mines on the mountain and to look for evidence that the Cherokee from the Sixes Relocation Camp may have come this way on the Trail of Tears.
The two events are linked. The Cherokee were forced to leave in 1838 because of the discovery of gold in North Georgia, but ultimately more iron than gold was found, and by the 1840s iron ore was being mined on Little Pine Log and turned into pig iron in huge stone furnaces along Stamp Creek as it flows into the Etowah.
Neither Sanford nor Ray have a degree in history. They do what historians call microhistory– the very local. They are part of a band I have met at the local historical societies in Cherokee and Bartow. They have fallen in love with the hunt, both hiking to sites and online research. But even more, they are driven by their sense that things are disappearing. They are not Civil War aficianados, not in love with the Old South, more interested in the Native Americans and in the poor settlers who eked out livings on small farms and worked in the mines.
Without even being aware of it, they are part of a new approach to Southern Studies and a new wave of amateur historians for whom the internet has opened the door to sources that in the past only scholars could see. Because so many archival materials and primary documents have been scanned and posted online, anyone who wants to can access censuses, maps, slave schedules, letters, property deeds, nineteenth-century newspapers. Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites have increased interest in and access to these documents. At the same time, new approaches to studying the South have supplanted the plantation mythos and Confederacy mythos with an interest in the lives of ordinary people as well as marginalized people like Native Americans and slaves.
None of the local researchers that I have met long to restore the good old days when it was okay to enslave Africans, oppress women and kill or displace Native Americans. Like me, they are driven by an impulse to preserve and understand what happened in the place where they live. In metro Atlanta almost everything is new and identical. The same ten mega-stores and the same ten subdivision McMansion house plans are duplicated over and over. The homogenization is surreal.
I wouldn’t say they paved Paradise – it wasn’t Paradise. But they paved over homes and farms and slave quarters and cemeteries and mines and forts and battlegrounds. They flooded entire towns to create reservoirs like Allatoona and Arrowhead. Lisa Russell’s books Lost Towns of North Georgia and Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia document much of what has been lost.
Sanford, Ray and I are looking for Sugar Hill – an area on Little Pine Log where there were iron mines first quarried in the 1840s and worked into the 1920s. We reach a point where a gate across Pine Log Gap Road restricts access, and we get out and hike down the rutted mountainside. Before long, we come to a series of large ditches and then a small pond at the foot of a gouged-out red hillside. Bluff-Cut Pond, Sanford confirms. He picks up a hunk of iron ore and hands it to me. “This is what they were after.”
Ray is looking for signs of the railroad tracks that used to criss-cross Little Pine Log. The Iron Belt Railroad was constructed here in 1898 and carried iron ore to the Sugar Hill Iron Plant at the foot of the mountain. Pre-Civil War, mules carried the ore down to the stone iron furnaces along Stamp Creek. Water wheels fueled the primitive blast furnaces, which still stand, covered with kudzu, like abandoned castles in the woods.
It’s ironic that what is now an oasis of wilderness was, from the 1840s through the 1920s, a hub of industry. No one remembers it was even here. Also, Pine Log and its cousins were largely deforested during that time period, to provide charcoal for the iron furnaces as well as timber to sell.
Ray can find no trace of the railroad, but hiking a bit further we come upon Sugar Hill Pond, where the Pine Hill Mine was. The mine is a part of nature now, reclaimed by water and fish and insects, lovely and peaceful.
In one way, it’s reassuring to know that even though humans hacked and gouged the mountainside and cut down all the trees, the wilderness has prevailed. We are less powerful and less permanent than we think we are.
There’s also something disturbing about how quickly we forget. Within a few generations, the memory is gone. Convict laborers were used to work these mines in the early twentieth century and there was a convict labor camp at the foot of the mountain near the iron plant. No one remembers that there were chain gangs in Georgia until the 1940s.
Ray tells me that the mountain in the foreground is Hanging Mountain and that he’s been told that there is a stockade up there and that they really used to hang people there. He is scanning the horizon for a path. “I know there’s a way up there,” he says. “We’ll find it.”
The stockade could be urban legend, or rather rural legend. But it is part of the oral passing down of stories that is largely lost because in places like metro Atlanta, few people are from here. Stories and place are intertwined. I’m not sure you really know a place if you don’t know its stories. I want to know if they hung people on the mountain, just like I want to know where bootleggers brewed moonshine and who is buried in the forgotten graveyard across the street from my house.
Sanford, Ray and I all want to know what route the local Cherokee took when they departed on the Trail of Tears. We know that 479 Cherokee were rounded up at Fort Buffington, about 10 miles from here, 950 Cherokee were rounded up Fort Sixes, about 6 miles from here, and 646 Cherokee were rounded up at Fort Means, a little further west along the Etowah, about 15 miles from here. While most scholars assert that the Cherokee walked across the Alabama Road (roughly what is now Route 20) and then north on the Sally Hughes Road (roughly what is now Route 411) to New Echota, we are skeptical of this very indirect route and have found some evidence to the contrary, as has another local historian, Larry Vogt.
The Chandlers lean toward this road across Little Pine Log Mountain, and Sanford makes their argument to me: “This road was here and they used it all the time. There’s no way they would have gone all the way across to Cartersville.”
Why does it matter to any of us what route they took? For me, places of great atrocity should be marked and remembered. They are sacred space. We preserve battlegrounds like Gettysburg not because battles are wonderful but because battles are terrible. We set aside cemeteries and abhor the desecration of graves because the impulse to honor the dead is an assertion of the dignity and worth of human life. We set aside Ground Zero after 911 because we know that what happened there is a collective national grief that must be remembered.
For Ray and Sanford and me, knowing where things happened and preserving historic sites is also a strategy to make sure they don’t get bulldozed, paved or submerged. When the Etowah was dammed to create Lake Allatoona in 1949, Smithsonian archaeologist Joseph Caldwell embarked on a frantic quest to locate and preserve Native American sites which he knew dated back thousands of years and which later archaeologists have established date back to the Paleolithic, over 10,000 years ago. Caldwell salvaged a lot, but a lot got flooded.
Pine Log WMA is not far from the proposed route of an Outer Perimeter for Atlanta. Atlanta’s inner Perimeter is gridlocked every day with commuters, and now that the suburbs have reached this far north, demand is growing for an alternative. The Northern Arc, as it is called, would either follow Route 20 or fall slightly north of it, which would take it to the foot of Pine Log. The Northern Arc was nixed in 2007 by anti-development factions, but since 2015 GDOT has been quietly widening sections of 20. It’s only a matter of time.
I-75 already has 12 lanes in some places, and because that is not enough they are building a double-decker highway on top of it.
I can, and in another post will, rant about the environmental impacts of the super highways and the development that both necessitates them and is spawned by them, in an endless chicken-and-egg cycle.
But I want to speak here of the soul cost. Wisdom comes from looking closely at what is and remembering what was. Walk slowly and look around, and you will experience curiosity, compassion, wonder, and grief. The knowledge that much has preceded you and much will follow you. When you see yourself in the scale and context of human history and geological time, you become humble.
The smaller the time frame in which we think, the bigger we become to ourselves. The faster we drive, the less we see and the greater our illusion of omnipotence. The faster our internet speed, the less our capacity for patience or ability to think independent of external input. The world of superhighways, both physical and cyber, creates solipsism, narcissism and arrogance.
Get off the highway. Walk with me and Ray and Sanford down an unpaved road, looking for signs of the people who preceded you. You might not find them, but you might find yourself. Or, like me, some friends for the journey.