Today, there is a gap in the Newfound Mountain Range — about where the paper mill town of Canton straddles the Pigeon River — through which General Griffith Rutherford led a Revolutionary War army on a punitive campaign against the Cherokee Indians.
A century later, engineers would exploit this same gap to route their railroads deep into the remote fastness of Haywood County. However, millions of years before these relatively recent historical events occurred, this same breach in the Newfound Mountains served yet another purpose.
Noted Haywood County historian W.C. Allen wrote that eons ago a monster river drained all the waters of Haywood County and the extreme western region of North Carolina.
However, this ancient river flowed not toward the west and the Mississippi River and subsequently the Gulf of Mexico, as the Pigeon River does today.
Instead, it coursed in an eastward direction through an opening in the Newfound Mountains near Canton. This “old Canton water gap,” as Allen and others have referred to it, facilitated a giant river’s escape of its mountain confines to the Atlantic Ocean.
Formation of the Appalachian Mountains
To understand how the old Canton water gap may have been formed requires some extreme stretching of our faculties. Past geologic events and weathering forces occurring over hundreds of millions of years, which formed the Appalachian Mountain Range, must be considered.
Publications by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service indicate that the birthing of the Appalachian Mountains began more than 400-million years ago.
An oceanic plate of the earth’s crust began sliding under another passive plate to create a zone of subduction at the interface, or border, of contact. The extreme pressures and heat generated by the forces of two of the planet’s crust plates colliding with each other spawned volcanoes in the zone of subduction. These volcanic eruptions formed peaks and spewed ash and lava, blanketing the landscape with layers of igneous rock.
In addition, the sedimentary rock deposited in previous ages on the top passive plate began to be uplifted as the underlying oceanic plate continued to push and fold. Thus, more mountains were built up.
Subsequent extreme weather events created streams and torrents of water, which gradually eroded the mountains away. Rock, debris, and sediment were carried to lower elevations where new layers of sedimentary rock were formed. And in this relentless and violent manner, longer ago than we can fathom, the early Appalachian Mountains were born.
After the Appalachians began to form, the mountain-building plate tectonics continued as continent after continent collided and melded together to create a supercontinent called Pangea.
It is thought that the Appalachian Range grew to Himalayan proportion by the time Pangea was completely developed, approximately 240-million years ago. Then, sometime around 220-million years ago, the supercontinent began to break apart and the land mass that would ultimately become the continent of North America rifted and drifted away from Pangea.
As a result, the tectonic forces that created the Appalachians were stilled and another cycle of weathering and erosion prevailed, beginning to wear away the mountains again.
By the end of the Mesozoic Era some 65 million years ago — which was about the time of the great dinosaur extinction — the Appalachian Mountain terrain had been worn down to an almost flat plain, perhaps only a few hundred feet above sea level.
Thence and until the present day, uplifting caused by ongoing plate collisions and familiar weathering and erosion forces have been constantly at work to produce the distinctive topography we recognize as the Appalachian Mountains.
Birth of the Pigeon
In his book The Annals of Haywood County, North Carolina, Allen wrote that by the end of the Mesozoic Age western North Carolina was a broad flat plain with sluggish meandering rivers throughout.
It was marked then, as it is today, by two areas of higher elevation — the Great Smokies to the west and the Blue Ridge Range in the east. These mountain ranges, which ran parallel with one another in a northeast to southwest direction, were probably comprised of only low rounded hills reaching elevations no higher than 3,000 feet above sea-level.
During that age, as now, the Great Smokies were slightly higher in elevation, thus forming the continental divide of streams flowing to the western gulf waters and those seeking the Atlantic Ocean.
The expansive and relatively flat valley between these two mountain ranges was drained by two main rivers. One had its source in the northern Appalachians and ran along a southwesterly course through the vicinity where Asheville is located today.
The other river originated in the extreme western end of the state and flowed in a northeasterly direction, eventually passing through an opening in the Newfound Mountains —where Canton is today — and then joining up with the previously mentioned stream near Asheville.
Consider this second river that falls out of the Great Smokies in the far west and gathers up enormous volumes of water on its route out of the mountains. Topographic features visible today and geological evidence reveal that its ancient course passed through the modern areas of Topton, Bryson City, Sylva, and Balsam Gap.
From there it flowed through the Haywood County regions of Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Clyde, and then, after collecting the Pigeon Valley drainage, made its escape through the Newfound Mountains at the Canton water gap. This monster river continued along its bed toward Asheville to join up with the other river draining from the north. Their combined waters ultimately escaped the Blue Ridge Range and meandered through North and South Carolina before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
For millions of years, the waters of Haywood County were gathered up by that second ancient river and carried over a now extinct riverbed through the gap in today’s Newfound Mountains — the old Canton water gap. Only after more gradual uplifting of the region occurred and the resulting swifter mountain streams devoured significant portions of the softer rock of the Great Smokies did the drainage patterns begin to change.
Near a point now known as Waterville, Tennessee, ruthless mountain streams finally succeeded in cutting a small breach through the Great Smoky Range. It was an opening that presented a more favorable gradient for the waters on the eastern side of the divide to flow into another drainage basin—one that drained to the west.
Over a very long period of time, the waters of that ancient monster river were gradually tapped to drain through this new path of less resistance. Similar paths were carved in the Smokies that would give rise to other new rivers such as the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers.
In this manner, the old monster river eventually reversed its course, and today’s Pigeon River was born. The Pigeon drained to the west and finally into the southward flowing waters of a mega-stream that would later be known as the Mississippi River.
With the birth of the Pigeon River came the demise of the old Canton Water gap. Presently, there is a little creek whose headwaters are on the eastern slopes of that old Canton water gap, and it still flows into Buncombe County. Known as Hominy Creek, this stream generally follows the bed of the ancient monster river on a meandering course toward Asheville and the French Broad River.
Interestingly, W. C. Allen noted that the passive Hominy Creek stream is gradually, little by little, eroding and cutting its way backward toward the Pigeon River. One might surmise that someday, perhaps centuries or a millennia or a million years in the future, the Pigeon River will be diverted from its present course to once again flow toward the east — through the old Canton water gap.
Local author Carroll C. Jones was born and raised in Canton.
Note: Research material for this article was taken from multiple sources, including The Annals of Haywood County, North Carolina by W.C. Allen, Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913 by John Preston Arthur, publications by Garrett A. Smathers for the Town of Canton, and Rooted Deep in the Pigeon Valley by Carroll C. Jones.
Local author Carroll C. Jones was born and raised in Canton, North Carolina, in the heart of western North Carolina. He is descended from the Hargrove, Cathey, Shook, Moore, and Crymes families who pioneered Haywood County. His latest book is titled Thomson’s Pulp Mill: Building the Champion Fibre Company at Canton, N.C.—1905 to 1908. Find out more about Carroll’s books on his website http://carrolljones.weebly.com.