Upland Chronicles: Bluff Mountain — one of our crown jewels

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 11:34 PM

Chilhowee Mountain is a low ridge at the outer edge of the Great Smoky Mountains that stretches between the Little Tennessee River (specifically Chilhowee Lake) to the west and the Little Pigeon River watershed to the east. While the mountain in about 35 miles long, it rarely reaches a width of more than four miles.

The beautiful mountain derives its name from Chilhowee, a Cherokee village in the 18th century. The origin of the name is unclear and there are various theories. The word Chilhowee is said to mean “The Land of the Big Kingfisher Bird.”

Probably because of the mountain’s appearance, the section that lies within Sevier County has long been called Bluff Mountain. In fact, if a visitor was to ask a local resident where Chilhowee Mountain was located they might not know what the visitor was talking about. But if someone inquired about Bluff Mountain, most locals could quickly point it out.

The highest elevation on top of Bluff Mountain in 3,069 feet. On a clear day you can see Knoxville, Sevierville and Maryville from the east end of Bluff Mountain. Water from a spring on the north side of the mountain contains magnesia and other minerals.

There is a spectacular view of the valley from the springs where a resort was built in 1901 by a group of local investors which included M.B. McMahan, J.R. Penland, and Dr. G.E. Sharp. Named Dupont Springs Resort, the complex consisted of a large hotel and several cabins. The hotel was in operation until 1916.

The hotel was originally called “Dew Point” because the altitude was too high for dew. Gradually, the same name became Dupont.

From 1909 to 1913, John and Louise Oates of Knoxville and their children, Florence, Frank and Elizabeth, spent summers in a cottage near Dupont Springs Hotel. Frank Oates had a burro named Jenny which he rode off the mountain to the Dupont Community to get the mail for hotel guests. He would later return to the very spot where the resort once stood with a dream of developing the property into a residential community.

As an adult Frank Oates returned to Bluff Mountain many times with his wife Emma Ree and their daughter Marian. Before he purchased his first piece of property on the mountain, the trio usually stayed in the cabin on the north side of the mountain where his parents had a cottage during the days of the Dupont Springs Hotel.

Shortly after the end of World War ll, Frank Oates purchased a pine log cabin from a Mr. Hedrick of Knoxville and moved it to the south side to get a better view of Mt. LeConte. The Oates family stayed often in the rustic cabin with no electricity or plumbing. One particular year they stayed there 50 weekends out of 52.

In 1946, Frank Oates borrowed money to purchase several tracts of land to develop into subdivisions. The tracts he bought for $40 an acre were about 8-15 acres each. Eventually, there were five subdivisions built. The first development was Clark Springs Subdivision, which already had some cabins and was located on the north (or hotel) side.

The second development was East End Subdivision, built in 1949. It was the first to have some restrictions. The last three subdivisions, developed in the 1950s, were known as the Frank Oates subdivisions A, B, and C. These are located near the top of the mountain on the south side. In all, Oates developed some 700 acres.

By 1960, 30 homes and summer cabins had been built on the rugged mountain and other lots had been sold. Lots in the restricted areas sold from $900 to $3,500 each. In unrestricted areas they sold from $550 to $900. In size, the lots ranged from three-fourths to one and a half acres.

At that time electricity was available but there were no homes on the mountain that had a telephone, although the telephone company had erected a telephone booth for emergency calls on Greentop-the highest point at 3,069 feet in elevation.

While many of the lots were bought by people from Knoxville, others were purchased by folks from other states. Also, several Sevier County residents purchased lots near the old Dupont Springs Hotel site for the erection of seasonal cabins.

One of those was James Beecher (Pete) Tarwater who was the owner of one of the first cabins built on Bluff Mountain. In 1953, he built a cabin on Dupont Springs Road on the north side of the mountain. Known as “Pete’s Place,” the cabin was constructed on one of three lots he purchased from Frank Oates.

His grandson, Butch Stott, remembered: “As a small child, Pa and I would spend many days together on the mountain. Sometimes it was a long weekend; other times our stay would be a week or even two. My Grandmother would drive up to visit and bring us additional food on our long stays. Most times she would start cleaning upon her arrival then start cooking for us.”

Stott also stated, “Supper at the cabin was usually the best time of the day. Pa was a pretty good cook. Our favorite supper was soup beans, fried potatoes and onions, and cornbread. We never had supper without cornbread. The worst time of the day was washing dishes after supper. Lucky for me, I was too little to help much with this chore. I had to walk down to the spring to get two buckets of water for the washing. There was nothing better for me than sitting in our rocking chairs on the front porch of “Pete’s Place,” just a small child spending time with his grandfather.”

The Oates family remained the heart of Bluff Mountain for over 60 years. After Frank died, Emma and Marian continued to watch over their mountain acreage. At one point totaling more than 2,200 acres, Frank sold all but 510 acres to finance building the road up the mountain and other improvements.

Before Marian Oates died in 2009, she signed documents that put permanent easements on the top of Bluff Mountain and securing the east end of the Chilhowee. Marian Oates’ gift to Foothills Conservancy saved her mountain for the future.

When Executive Director Bill Clabough accepted the gift on behalf of the Foothills Conservancy, he commented “This is one of our crown jewels.” It is.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.