Drive east out of Asheville, into the steep winding curves of 74A toward Lake Lure. Continue through the small hamlets and past the many craft shops selling quilts, handmade chairs and antiques. Drop down into the valley following the Rocky Broad River and it rises out of the trees on your right, one of the most instantly recognizable rock formations in the area: Chimney Rock.
Even without the flagpole or the signs directing visitors to the park, the chimney stands out, distinct from the many other rock faces and cliffs in Hickory Nut Gorge.
This year, Chimney Rock Park is celebrating its centennial — 100 years since the purchase of the property that has drawn thousands to the top of its 258-foot tower.
To mark the occasion, the park is celebrating with special exhibits, historical presentations and mountainside concerts featuring bluegrass-gospel group The Cockman Family and Grammy-winning musician and storyteller David Holt.
“There will be very much an outdoor-festival feel to it,” says Melinda Massey, the park’s special-events manager. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”
Concertgoers will be treated to performances at the base of the chimney, and offered a rare chance to see the views from the park after dark.
“I’ve only been up here one time when it was total darkness,” Massey says from the parking area that overlooks the town below and Lake Lure. “It’s a view of the park you never get to see.”
Mixing business and nature
When Dr. Lucius B. Morse first came to the area in 1900, he saw an opportunity to attract people to the region and show them its abundant natural beauty. He and his brothers purchased the 64-acre park for $5,000 in 1902, and visitors soon followed. In those days, horses and carriages delivered guests up the mountainside, where they could scramble up trails and ladders to the top of the chimney.
Morse soon began work on the bridge and road that would allow cars access to the park, finishing in 1916. Other projects followed, including paths and stairs throughout the rock formations.
The stone entrance, built in 1935, was designed by Douglas Ellington, also known for his Art Deco architecture in Asheville, and was selected stone by stone to blend in with the natural surroundings.
The park’s current president — Dr. Morse’s great-great nephew, Todd Morse — says the intention was always to balance accessibility with nature preservation.
It is a course, he says, that continues today.
“This is a special piece of property we are trying to protect for future generations,” Morse says. “[Business and preservation] seem like sometimes incompatible objectives, but what makes it fun to come to work every day is trying to strike that balance.”
In recent years, the park has added a naturalist to their staff, stressing the importance of understanding the park’s ecosystem. The first staff naturalist was hired in 1987. Elizabeth Feil says that, before her first visit, she used to drive by the park and curse it as a tourist trap. Then, one day, Feil went to a plant workshop on the property and fell in love with the scenery there.
Morse says there are still some who dismiss the park as only a money maker. “That’s unfortunately an attitude we face … ‘Ah, it’s just commercial,’ you know,” Morse says. “But we generally don’t get that once people get in the doors and out on the trails.”
The granite tower and surrounding cliffs that overlook highway 74A have been present for millions of years: The only changes in the park over the past century have been the works of people. A photography exhibit, now on display at the Blue Ridge Mall in Hendersonville, chronicles the evolution of the park, buildings and projects on the cliffs. Many of those have since disappeared: The first bridge across the Rocky French Broad was wiped out by flood waters 12 days after it was dedicated in 1916. The Pavilion, a dining room that sat on Vista Rock in 1919 and accommodated 200 diners, is gone. The Cliff Dwellers Inn, built in the 1920s at the base of the chimney, was a state-of-the art facility with electricity and hot water — it was torn down in 1948 to make room for one of Chimney Rock’s most famous structures, the 26-story elevator that rises inside the cliff to deliver passengers to the chimney.
The photos also mark changes in the park visitors. One picture, dated 1919, shows three women, dressed in long skirts, wide-brimmed hats and knee-high heeled boots, sitting at the edge of an overlook known as the Opera Box. In those days, no railings existed, nor even steps. The group made their way to the site using only trails and ladders.
“They are sitting up there having a great day,” Massey exclaims. “There with their huge hats and hook boots up to here, with heels. They were a lot tougher than we are, I believe.”
Massey, who’s been with the park less than a year, was charged with collecting the photos for the exhibit, and didn’t even have the full archive from which to choose. Many boxes burned with the home of Norman Greig — a photographer and the park’s general manager for 30 years — just as he was preparing to move into a new house.
“Tons of stuff burned,” Massey says, adding that dating the surviving pictures proved a challenge. Often the only references available were landmarks visible in the photos.
Standing atop the chimney, Massey points out the only clues she could use. “That’s the best we’ve been able to time the pictures. Is there a lake? No? OK, we know it was before 1926. Is there a flagpole? No. Then we know it was before 1916. And the railing? Who knows.”
A twisted pine growing near the chimney’s edge was no help either: It shows up in all the pictures she found.
“We have some group shots of people, dressed in their Sunday finest, and they’re standing in the tree up here. With no railing,” Massey says, laughing. “And we’re like, ‘Oh my God! What are they thinking?'”
While exploring the walkways tucked into the odd nooks and crannies at Chimney Rock, it’s hard not to feel the awe of those who first scrambled among the park’s cliffs.
“The childlike fascination never changes,” says Mary Jaeger-Gale, the park’s vice president of marketing. Jaeger-Gale has worked at the park for the past 20 years, and considers the property part of her home.
“I’ve been fortunate to see the park grow up. I’ve seen everything change.” But, as she says, while the buildings come and go, the rock remains.
“Nothing we can do can surpass the natural beauty of the park,” Jaeger-Gale says.