A drive along western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway can offer more than a scenic passage through the mountains with breath-taking views of wilderness forests.
For example, motorists who stop at the milepost 407.6 overlook can also experience a magical passage back in time. This was the very spot where a wealthy New Yorker named George Washington Vanderbilt II built a rustic hunting lodge.
It was a favorite retreat for the founder of Asheville’s Biltmore House, and a place where he and his guests could enjoy close encounters with nature within his Pisgah forest land holdings.
Vanderbilt called his complex of log buildings “Buck Spring Lodge.” The lodge is now gone forever, but tantalizing traces of it can still be found.
Today, visitors to the Buck Spring Gap Overlook can experience the same vistas surrounding Mount Pisgah that enchanted Mr. Vanderbilt and his friends. These views include the distant monolith Looking Glass Rock and the fabulous flower kingdom known as the Pink Beds.
For history sleuths, intriguing remnants of cut stone stair steps, building foundations, retaining walls, and even an old log structure survive to remind us of the Vanderbilt connection.
Construction of Vanderbilt’s grand French-chateau-style mansion in Asheville was ongoing from 1889 to 1896. During this time, before the advent of motor cars in the mountains, the New York City native frequently rode on horseback or in carriages along crude roads and trails penetrating his vast Biltmore estate.
This included more than a 100,000 forested acres, then known as the Pisgah forest.
A contemporary newspaper reported that on one of these excursions Mr. Vanderbilt had been high up in the Pisgah mountains when a violent thunderstorm suddenly caught up with him. His description of the fearful encounter leaves no doubt of the deep impression that was made: “…the fierce lightning, accompanied by successive explosions of Heaven’s artillery, was like the din of a thousand battles raging simultaneously.”
After taking refuge under a great cliff until the fury had subsided, Vanderbilt pressed on until he and his party had passed “through and above the storm. Standing on a little plateau where the lodge has since been built, we saw the occasional lightning flash and heard the thunder of the subsiding storm in the valley below.”
This was the same plateau under the pinnacle of Mount Pisgah where it was said Vanderbilt would sit for hours “on a ledge of rock,” his feet dangling over a 1,700-foot high precipice as he gazed upon the expansive French Broad River drainage tracts of his Pisgah forest domain. It was this plateau with its rock ledge that was chosen as the site for a hunting lodge, one that the owner would insure “nothing shall be lacking that may conduce to comfort and pleasure.”
These conditions were surely demanded of Vanderbilt’s architect, Richard Howland Hunt, the son of Richard Morris Hunt who had designed the main Châteauesque mansion named Biltmore. Hunt’s specifications called for a rustic main lodge, guest cottage, and dining hall/kitchen, all fashioned out of huge chestnut logs in the Adirondack style. The manager of the Biltmore estate’s forests at the time, Dr. Carl A. Schenck, remembered that the project required approximately a thousand logs, forty feet in length and straight. Since logs of this species and size did not grow at the tops of mile-high mountains, Schenck, who was the founder of America’s first school of forestry, endeavored to build a transport road to the lodge site.
Students of the forestry school, or so-called “forestry apprentices,” were put to work building a wagon and sled road from Haywood County’s rural settlement of Cruso, located in the Pigeon River Valley southwest of Pisgah Mountain, to the lodge site. As incredible as it seems, an account given by Schenck states that his students built the four-mile long road, with a grade not exceeding six percent, in just a few weeks.
Contracts were let to farmers and loggers in the Cruso area to supply the thousand logs needed to construct Vanderbilt’s lodge. Apparently, it was impossible to obtain all of the chestnut logs required, so architect Hunt consented to use logs of other species, provided they were of the proper dimensions. Thus, mainly poplar and chestnut logs, harvested from the forests of the Pigeon River Valley, were transported by wagons and sleds pulled by horses and oxen over the newly-built road to the construction site.
Materials of another sort were also required to construct the foundations, fireplaces, chimneys, and retaining walls. Huge granite stones had to be hauled to the site over the forestry students’ road and other primitive sled paths. One contemporary source stated that “twenty-hundred tons of native granite boulders” were used, and “the major part of them put in place with such care that even the natural moss on the outer surfaces remains undisturbed.”
Buck Spring Lodge, its name taken from a nearby gushing mountain spring, was constructed in 1896. It is believed that the original lodge complex was comprised of only the three log structures designed by Hunt, all connected by covered porches and walkways. Later renovations and expansions in 1903 and 1910 increased the footprint of the lodge. A tattered drawing discovered in the National Park Service’s digital archives reveals there were more buildings added over the years. This planning document from the early 1960’s shows at least five structures associated with the lodge, and that does not include the garage, caretaker’s house, sheds, and a small log springhouse.
Buck Spring Lodge
The main lodge building was constructed on the highest point of the site, with a large porch extending over a rock ledge. It was described as “a masterpiece of quaintness, all of logs and stone. Its front balcony projects over a chasm almost sheer for 1,000 feet.
From this most picturesque standpoint, Mr. Vanderbilt’s guests shoot at clay pigeons or glass balls.” This balcony — or porch — would have offered the same breath-taking views that Vanderbilt had experienced on early exploratory trips, while sitting and dangling his legs over a sheer wall of the prodigious chasm.
The rustic log structure had a 30-foot-square sitting room surrounded by the Vanderbilts’ bedrooms and two other chambers. Overhead were galleries that looked down upon the open space, accessed on one side by a rustic winding stairway and the other by a perpendicular “Jacob’s ladder.”
At one end of the sitting room was a yawning stone fireplace and hearth, with an opening measuring 9-feet wide by 6-feet high. A pair of andirons representing couchant bucks with spreading antlers could cradle 8-foot long logs to burn.
The fireplace was outfitted with a large cooking crane, wrought-iron pot hooks and rack, pots and kettles, and, naturally, a fire poker.
Beautiful animal pelts collected by Mr. Vanderbilt decorated every wall of the room, including those of bears, deer, catamounts, foxes, skunks, squirrels, birds, and reptiles. Interestingly, this collection also included the hide of a large polar bear.
Scattered throughout were “every conceivable design of curious rustic tables, chairs, settees, lounges, and a big block on which to crack walnuts.”
The guest cottage was located adjacent to the main building on a sloping hillside, joined by a covered breezeway. Just below it and connected to the guest quarters by another covered breezeway was the dining and kitchen facility.
Reportedly, the dining room was 25 by 35 feet in size with a 12-foot-wide stone fireplace — likely the entire breadth of the stonework.
On the building’s south side were three French doors that led outdoors to an expansive covered porch. Although there were no pictures decorating the interior walls, “three hundred” tanned skins of wild animals and stuffed birds were lavishly displayed, including “immense eagles perched on the beams.”
At the lowest point of the lodge complex were the stables and barn. These facilities were necessary, of course, because in the early years the Vanderbilts and their guests traveled from Asheville to Buck Spring Lodge on horseback and in carriages.
In 1910, a motor road was at last completed from Asheville to the lodge, and the twenty-mile trip could be made by automobile. Renovations were eventually made to convert the stable area into a large courtyard and garage facility.
By 1903 the lodge had a “perfect system of plumbing supplies including baths of several kinds, and complete toilet arrangements installed. For drinking, the sweetest mountain spring water is…forced up an elevation of 286 feet by a small hydraulic ram.”
This ingenious pump was driven by a head of water and did not require electricity, a practical device in the years before Buck Spring Lodge had its own electricity plant.
Just a memory
Soon after George Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, his wife Edith sold almost 87,000 acres of the Pisgah forest lands to the National Forest Commission for five dollars an acre.
This transaction excluded the Biltmore mansion with 11,000 surrounding acres, as well as Buck Spring Lodge with 471 contiguous acres. Edith avowed that it was her husband’s wish to turn the property over to the nation.
A member of the Forest Commission stated that the “Pisgah forest is the most attractive forest in the country…The turning of this large tract into a game preserve is bound to bring thousands of visitors to Western North Carolina annually.”
For the next half century, the Vanderbilt family along with friends and guests retreated to Buck Spring Lodge to enjoy the amenities of nature that George W. had recognized and appreciated from the beginning.
However, in 1959, the Biltmore Estate elected to sell the lodge along with its 471 acres of surrounding forestland to the State of North Carolina. The state, in turn, granted a 7,000-ft right-of-way through this property to the National Park Service, specifically for routing of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
During the initial planning stages for the section of scenic Parkway routed through the Mount Pisgah highlands, Buck Spring Lodge was considered as a venue for a visitors’ center. Parkway officials recognized George Vanderbilt’s involvement with Dr. Carl A. Schenck in founding America’s first school of forestry.
One official stated that, “As part of our Parkway interpretive program, tentative plans are to make this [Buck Spring Lodge] the center for telling the story of the American forest and forestry movement.” He went on to add a qualifying statement: “However, no decision will be made until we have investigated its suitability as a visitors’ center site.”
A year later, in late 1961, ads began running in local newspapers for the sale of salvaged building materials from Buck Spring Lodge. One of these read as follows:
CHESTNUT PANELING, beams, house logs, all sizes, lengths, immediately available from Vanderbilt Lodge atop Pisgah Mountain, deliveries anywhere, all kinds of building materials everything must remove at once, very reasonable distressed prices, apply premises anytime…. “Salvage Associates.”
Seemingly, the wreckers literally moved in shortly after the Parkway officials ruled out the use of Buck Spring Lodge as an interpretive visitors’ center. For reasons unknown, that idea did not pan out, and one can only conclude the project was simply too expensive.
Noted historian and columnist, John Parris, wrote at the time, “…progress sometimes does sad things to historic landmarks. The National Park Service has relegated it [Buck Spring Lodge] into the limbo of memory.”
Buck Spring Lodge today
All one must do to revive memories of Buck Spring Lodge is visit the site where it once stood. The Buck Spring Gap Overlook is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 407.6.
A sign at the road reads “Mount Pisgah Parking Area,” so pull off here and park in the first of two parking areas.
Now, all you need to do is simply walk less than two hundred yards to the high ground where George Vanderbilt sat on a ledge and dangled his legs over the abyss.
Conveniently, the Mountains-to-Sea hiking trail, which passes through the paved parking area, leads southward directly to the old lodge site.
The first thing you will notice are the broad cut-stone steps that lead off the pavement and up the gently sloping hill to the lodge site. These 17 granite steps are remindful of the fine stonework used throughout the Biltmore estate.
A 1935 photograph, made by Parkway architect Edward H. Abbuehl, shows these same stone steps leading up to the lodge buildings from a motor road junction near the caretaker’s house.
Undoubtedly, one of the roads pictured at the juncture was that original track built by Dr. Carl Schenck’s forestry students leading down into Haywood County’s Pigeon River drainage.
The other would be the first motor road completed in 1910, connecting Asheville with the Buck Spring Lodge through the Stony Fork settlement.
The short hike up to the overlook passes a leveled grassy area where once a lodge building was located. It was not an original lodge structure, but an addition constructed later and possibly used as a Honeymoon cabin or a schoolhouse for George and Edith Vanderbilt’s daughter, Cornelia.
Just a short distance beyond this, you will arrive at the high point of the Buck Spring Lodge site where the main building stood for 65 years. In addition to the delightful view of Pisgah Forest, you will know this is the right spot because of the sitting benches and an historical interpretive panel conveniently placed there for visitors.
As previously described, the main lodge structure with an expansive viewing porch was founded here, on the very top of the ridge. Below it, log buildings housing the guest quarters and the dining/kitchen accommodations were arranged in a cascade fashion on the sloping hillside.
A worn path leads all the way down the inclined lodge site, where these buildings were located, to another smaller flight of steps that still survive. Upon descending these rock steps, one will arrive at a beautiful and extensive clearing that served as a garage courtyard at Buck Spring Lodge.
Prior to the completion of Vanderbilt’s motor road in 1910, this same location was home to the stable grounds where the horses and carriages were sheltered.
Retaining walls made of mountain rock were used to construct the lengthy terrace, one holding back the steep slope on the upper side and another on the lower side containing the fill material.
Today, thanks to the Carolina Mountain Club’s clean-up efforts, the old courtyard has been converted into a beautiful grassy area with shade trees.
It is an ideal venue for picnics on the ground in dappled sunlight or just wandering about and dreaming of days gone by at Buck Spring Lodge.
A short stroll along the terraced courtyard leads directly back to the parking area. However, visitors are encouraged to not return to their vehicles without one more exploratory venture.
There is a beaten trail leading south from the garage courtyard (direction opposite the parking lot) down to another remnant from the Buck Spring Lodge—a rustic outbuilding that somehow escaped the Park Service wreckers in the early 1960s.
It only takes a minute or so to walk down the trail and discover an old springhouse that is still standing. The cool spring water captured inside this ten-by-ten-foot square log building provided a vital service to the Vanderbilts and their guests back in the day.
In addition to being a source of fresh water, it was a place where food items such as meat, fruit, dairy products, and canned goods were stored. The cool spring water environment very effectively prevented food spoilage during the warm-weather months.
Restoration work has obviously preserved this old springhouse, but the logs, joinery, split-shingle roof, and rock foundation still look as strong and authentic as ever.
After you have studied and enjoyed the springhouse, re-trace your steps back to the terraced courtyard and then on to the parking area.
With a new-found appreciation of Buck Spring Lodge, you can now resume your ride along the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway.
On the other hand, if still filled with vim and vigor, you might want to stroll over to the adjacent Mount Pisgah trailhead and surmount the towering peak.
It is true what a noted local historian claimed 60 years ago that the National Park Service had relegated Buck Spring Lodge into “the limbo of memory.”
Yet, the lodge site, where George Vanderbilt and his guests experienced the Pisgah forest’s wild mountains, has been preserved and is easily accessible today.
The same views can still be appreciated, the lodge grounds can be explored, and there is an intact log springhouse that has survived for almost 125 years.
Do not allow this western North Carolina historic treasure to remain in the limbo of memory any longer. Take a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Buck Spring Gap Overlook at milepost 407.6 and ensure memories of Buck Spring Lodge remain alive for another generation or two. You will be glad you did.
Local author Carroll C. Jones was born and raised in the papermill town of Canton, located in the heart of western North Carolina’s mountains. 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.