A few months ago, I researched and wrote an article for The Mountaineer about George Vanderbilt’s Buck Spring Lodge, which was once located deep in the Pisgah Forest.
The founder of Asheville’s Biltmore House had constructed the lodge buildings from chestnut and poplar logs in 1896 as a family get-away and hunting retreat. Named after a nearby gushing mountain spring, the lodge unfortunately did not survive the Blue Ridge Parkway construction endeavors.
It was demolished in 1961 as the scenic highway was carved through the high wilderness ridges surrounding Mount Pisgah. At the time, a noted local historian claimed Buck Spring Lodge had been relegated into “the limbo of memory.”
As I insisted in the recent article, we must not allow the memories of this Western North Carolina treasure to remain in “limbo” any longer.
Since making that appeal, feedback has been tremendous. Readers have flocked to the Parkway’s Buck Spring Gap Overlook at milepost 407.6 to revive memories of Buck Spring Lodge.
Many have clipped the article from the paper and taken it with them to the site. Using is as a guide, they have wandered over the old lodge grounds, enjoyed the scenic views, studied architectural remains, and even laid eyes on the old spring house — a standing log structure that has survived to this day.
It came as a pleasant surprise when the editor of The Mountaineer informed me that George Vanderbilt’s grandson, George Cecil, read the article. Apparently, Mr. Cecil had gotten much pleasure from the story about his family’s lodge.
In fact, he liked it so much he requested copies for his children. It seems he had been particularly impressed with how accurate the article was. Sadly, George Cecil passed away a short time after that. If, as has been suggested, the story brought back fond memories for him, then a finer compliment could not be paid to the author.
Such inspiration has prompted a deeper look into the history of Buck Spring Lodge. Since publication of the original article, people have come to me with first-hand information and their own memories of the lodge.
Additionally, intriguing facts about the hydraulic ram-jet pump that supplied water to the facility have been uncovered. This amazing mechanical contraption was driven by a head of water—or water pressure—and did not require electricity or steam to power it.
Believe it or not, sleuthing through old maps and documents, busting through rhododendron hells, and wading creeks have led to the discovery of the old pump site.
Now, let us salvage from “limbo” more memories of Buck Spring Lodge.
A Cruso native’s memories
David Henson from Haywood County’s Cruso Community recently shared a few personal memories of the Buck Spring Lodge. As it happens, his Aunt Clyde and Uncle Paul Stiles were caretakers at the lodge in the 1950’s. Their place of residence was called the “Caretaker’s House,” which once stood where today’s paved parking area for the Parkway’s Buck Spring Gap Overlook is located—at milepost 407.6.
David remembered spending “many a night” in the old log house when he was a teenager. The front part consisted of “a kitchen and living room together.” Bedrooms were on the back side and there was “a good basement underneath it.” When David stayed with his aunt and uncle, he helped them with the routine maintenance chores around Buck Spring Lodge.
The Stiles had the responsibility of maintaining and watching over the lodge facilities and grounds, mostly while the Cecil family, who were descendants of George Vanderbilt, were away. They cleaned up inside, as necessary, when the buildings were unoccupied, “raked leaves away from the log houses,” and had little mowing to do since the grass was mostly “wild.” David recalled helping his Uncle Paul build a “wove wire fence” along the high ridge line “to keep the kids from falling off there.”
He, also, recollected that the lodge “had fireplaces all over it because that’s the only way they had any heat.” In particular, he remembers the huge fireplace in the main lodge building that sat on the highest point of the property, overlooking Pisgah Forest’s French Broad River drainage basin. “The fireplace’s fire dogs (andirons) had deer heads on them,” he said, “and they could hold huge burning logs up to eight-feet long.”
The conversation evoked the memory of seeing a water tank located high up near the ceiling of this log structure. It was the lodge’s source of water and was accessed by a towering Jacob’s Ladder. Interestingly, the reservoir tank was filled with water by a ram-jet pump, which was located on a small creek half-a-mile away and almost three-hundred feet below the lodge (more about the pump later). From the lofty reservoir, water flowed by gravity through pipes to the various bathrooms, kitchen, and other outlets associated with the Vanderbilt retreat.
You may remember from the previous article that the Buck Spring Lodge originally included three log structures. The main building was founded at the top of the ridge, with its extensive porch barely clinging to the edge of a great chasm and offering breath-taking views of the Pisgah Forest below. Arranged in a cascading fashion further down the slope were the guest quarters—or “midway” house as David described it—and then the dining room/kitchen. All three structures were joined by covered walkways.
More buildings were added in later years and David vividly recalls a couple of these. The “Honeymoon Cottage,” was located on the north side of the lodge complex and the “Schoolhouse” was situated in a field just to the south of the three main buildings. As we walked around the site, he pointed out a cleared area where the Honeymoon Cottage had stood. It was between the beautiful stone steps that lead up from the parking area and the high point of the ridge, where an historical marker stands today.
After a futile search through a wooded area for evidence of the Schoolhouse, David led me down to the “Garage Courtyard,” below where the lodge structures had been located. Upon arrival into this scenic plateaued area, with stone retaining walls on the upper and lower sides, a flood of memories rushed into David’s head. There had been a large shop building, vehicle shelters, and even a Ranger’s quarters lined up along the lower side of the courtyard, all accessed by a gated driveway that led out to the motor roads and Caretaker’s House.
David allowed that one of these roads was the old “Vanderbilt Road,” and it ran over to a nearby hilltop where the Cecil’s large, fenced garden plot had been located, as well as a tennis court. This road was originally built by Dr. Carl A. Schenck’s school of forestry students in about 1896 and used to haul huge chestnut and poplar logs from the Cruso community of Haywood County to the lodge construction site. Today, the garden and recreational spot that David remembers is the venue for the beautiful Mt. Pisgah Picnic Area.
As we stood at the entrance to the picnic area, he explained how the current Park Service road descending around the hillside and down to a modern waste treatment facility is located on top of the old Vanderbilt Road. Then, as I was pondering the significance of that first skid-path/wagon road to Buck Spring Lodge, he pointed down into a heavily forested area and offered this intriguing comment, “That old ram-jet pump was located down there somewhere.”
Struggling to hide my excitement, all I could say was, “So, that’s where the old ram-jet pump was.”
The Ram-Jet Pump
Research for my original Buck Spring Lodge article had uncovered a Charlotte News report from the year 1903 describing the lodge’s water supply.
For drinking, the sweetest mountain spring water is piped thirty-five hundred feet and forced up an elevation of two hundred and eighty-six feet by a small hydraulic ram.
It had not occurred to me that the convenience of water in such a remote and elevated spot might be the most valuable and/or scarcest essential for habitation. Certainly, drilling thousands of feet into the ground—or rock—to tap a water supply was not feasible at that very isolated spot. The springs and creeks were located hundreds of feet below the high ridgetops, such as the one where Buck Spring Lodge was located.
It was likely George Vanderbilt’s architect, Richard Howland Hunt (the son of Richard Morris Hunt who had designed the main Biltmore mansion), who came up with the solution for the water supply problem. He chose to use a hydraulic ram-jet pump to force water from a small tributary branch of Pisgah Creek up the mountain to the lodge, which was located a half-mile away and 286-ft higher than the pump. The water was pumped into the same reservoir that David Henson remembers seeing high up in the rafters of the main Buck Spring Lodge building.
What made this solution not only elegant but practical was the fact that the hydraulic ram-jet pump did not require electricity or steam to power it. Instead, this type pump utilizes the momentum—or pressure—of a slight fall of water to force a portion of the water to an elevation many times higher than the fall used to operate the pump.
One contemporary manufacturer’s catalog stated, “The advantages of the Hydraulic Ram are that its operation involves no labor or expense, and when once started it will continue to pump day and night without attention, as long as the supply of water is sufficient. The simplicity, effectiveness, and durability of this machine make it one of the most useful as well as the most economical of the equipments available for forcing water to distant and elevated points.”
So it was that this retired engineer/author discovered the unique capabilities of a hydraulic ram-jet pump—one that did not require electrical power to operate, but was driven, instead, by the constant pressure of water delivered to it by gravity. This ram-jet pump was used successfully for more than half a century to supply water to the Buck Spring Lodge, up until the Parkway construction crews obliterated the lodge buildings in 1961. The precise location where those log structures stood is well known, but not the specific site of the hydraulic ram-jet pump.
A young David Henson had seen the pump in operation back in the 1950’s. He remembers how loud it was and that it was totally enclosed in a small rock structure. Years later, as he followed some dogs hot on a bear’s trail, he ran across the pump site again. Recently, when we were at the Mt. Pisgah Picnic Area talking, David pointed toward the nearby forest and claimed he remembered seeing the ram-jet pump in operation down in that wilderness drainage area.
Admittedly, the notion that the pump site still existed and might be found was intriguing. Yet, I wondered whether I could really find it.
Crawling through a rhododendron ‘hell’
Not long after receiving David’s guidance, I found my way into that wilderness drainage area he had pointed to. The setting was beautiful, and it must have taken nature’s erosive forces and the waters of the small stream thousands of years to form such a deep gorge. However, besides a forest of towering hardwood trees, there were rhododendron thickets blanketing both sides of the stream for as far as the eye could see. The sounds of flowing water could easily be heard, but it was impossible to see the glistening water itself. Almost immediately, I wondered how David Henson and those bear dogs had penetrated such a rhododendron “hell.”
Finally, I summoned the gumption to “ballhoot” down a steep slope, directly into the midst of the dense rhododendron growth. It was almost impossible to pass through. I had to contort my body every which way to slide between the mess of thick, tangled branches. Seventy-year old bodies are not meant to bear such tortuous exercise, but somehow mine found a way to keep going.
Finally, after a few minutes of agonizing squatting, crawling, and sliding, creek water could be seen dead ahead. This little branch was much smaller than expected, and I could easily determine there were no signs of a pump installation anywhere around. Deciding to explore further upstream, I again began ducking rhododendron branches and wading uphill through the water and rocks.
The going was slow and tough, however. At times, it was necessary to scale up a rocky waterfall or climb the sheer creek banks and portage around a particularly difficult rhododendron thicket. It did not take long for the cold water to penetrate “waterproof” boots. For almost an hour, I endured the discomfort of soaking wet and freezing feet, while continuing to make progress up the drainage gorge. Not even exhaustion or numb feet could prevent my being impressed with such closeness to nature or enjoying the excruciating venture. However, no signs of a hydraulic ram-jet pump installation were encountered anywhere, and it seemed more and more unlikely that one could have been installed in this rough little branch.
Upon reaching an opening in the dense cover, where an old Forest Service road crossed the creek, I spotted something very peculiar in the distance. It surely did not have a natural look about it—that thing poking above the tops of the rhododendrons, about twenty or thirty yards upstream. Actually, it looked straight enough to be a pipe and not a bare tree trunk that had been stripped of its branches and leaves. What could it be?
As fast as my weary legs and numbed feet could carry me, I plunged through the rhododendron growth ahead and, at last, burst into a wide opening. The day seemed to have gotten brighter, and the creek and everything around it were much more visible now. Suddenly, I could see that it was an old, cast-iron standpipe that had caught my attention. Like a lighthouse guiding sailors at sea, this iron pipe protruding straight as an arrow out of the rocks and high into the air had led me to that spot. Much to my surprise, there was a man-made, stone dam holding back the waters of the creek. A dam!
This must be it, I thought at once. It has to be the place where the hydraulic ram-jet pump was installed. And yes, that is exactly what it turned out to be. The stonework in the dam was as beautiful as the day it was laid. Over the years, however, the impoundment behind it had filled with silt, and vegetation growth had gradually crept in from the creek banks, such that it now resembled a broad and shallow stretch of the stream. Amazingly, though, water still flowed through a weir constructed at the top of the dam, spilling into the creek several feet below.
Considering that it is more than a century old, the dam is in astonishingly good condition. The stonework appears to be mostly intact, with the mortarless joints still fitting tight together. Approximately eight-feet high, two-feet thick at the top, and fifty-feet across, bank-to-bank, the dam would have formed a reservoir in the creek that could easily supply water with adequate pressure and a constant flow to the hydraulic ram-jet pump.
David Henson had allowed that the pump was enclosed in a little rock house close to the dam, and it had a door opening—with no door—and a dirt roof (probably overlaid on sheet metal). He remembers very well helping his Uncle Paul clean the leaves and silt out of the large pool of water behind the dam. Also, each year before the cold winds blew in from the North, he recalls his uncle stacking bags of leaves in the door opening, presumably to seal up the rock shelter and keep the pump from freezing up.
Interestingly, David remembers seeing a tall iron pipe protruding out of the top of the pump house, while listening to the noisy pump operation. It surely was the same cast-iron standpipe which protrudes, to this day, from a pile of rocks that are obviously the remains of the pump house.
Although there are no signs of the old ram-jet pump—which almost certainly was salvaged during the Buck Spring Lodge demolition stage—we can confidently establish its location with the standpipe and rock pile, just below the dam. This arrangement allowed for the water supply line to pass through the bottom of the dam directly into the pump. It is surmised that the iron standpipe would have been attached to the supply line, and its function was to remove air and stabilize the water flow to the pump.
From this location, almost three hundred feet lower than Buck Spring Lodge and half-a-mile away, the hydraulic ram-jet pump forced the “sweetest mountain spring water” all the way up to the highest point in the highest lodge building. David said that the iron discharge pipeline running from the ram-jet pump to the lodge was partially exposed in some places, and he believes it ran along the course of the old Vanderbilt Road for part of the way. Undoubtedly, evidence of this pipeline still exists, and I might try to find it one day—whenever my feet thaw out.