Towns County, Ga. preserves the top of Bell Mountain…

Towns County, Ga. preserves the top of Bell Mountain, scarred by 1960s mining debacle, ‘from any more commercial or private development’

— The 3,420-foot mountain in north Ga. is tourism curiosity for its mining gap
— Towers over Lake Chatuge, a scenic TVA lake impounding Hiwassee River
— Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition affirmed a ‘keeper of the mountains’
— Sole Commissioner Kendall said in 2006, ‘It’s time to talk about water’

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

Hiawassee, Ga., Jan. 4, 2016 – After years assessing them firsthand, I hesitate to name any one act of exploitation of the Hiwassee River watershed as the most brazen and fatuous, so plentiful have they been.

Yet a standout candidate for such a designation is the 1963 try by three Murphy, N.C. men who formed Hiawassee Stone Co. to ream out the top of 3,420-foot Bell Knob (as it’s identified on U.S. Geological Survey topography maps) here for commercial quartzite/silica.

The steep 3,420-foot mountain immediately drains TVA’s stunningly scenic Lake Chatuge that spreads out below, a vulnerable and fragile wonder of the Blue Ridge.

Its big-time erosion danger didn’t stop the N.C. trio from leaving a permanent gouge upon the crest of the mountain then owned by the Georgia Baptist Foundation Inc. of Atlanta. It appears the three investors proceeded without good economic and geological data. The very next year of 1964 saw a U.S. Dept. of Commerce study by a University of Ga. professor immediately concluding in his third paragraph on his first page that “a market does not exist for the Bell Mountain silica.” How much did they lose? I wish I knew.

Grover C. Mauney, Walter Mauney, Dr. William A. Hoover and their dynamiter, whoever he was, left quite a rude cavity up there. It’s visible for miles. For more than a half-century, it’s been a kind of poster peak for 20th century environmental indifference here in the watershed, and particularly for harm to its water quality.

The notoriety of this unfortunate feature is apparent at nearby Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, Ga. The hotel has a Mining Gap Room for banquet events. This sort of backhandedly memorializes the granite oddity nearby.

There’s more. Twenty-three miles away in Murphy, N.C., the same Hiwassee River (bound for the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Gulf of Mexico) passes beneath the Dr. William A. Hoover bridge on the U.S. 19-74-129 four-lane highway through the heart of the town. Grateful patients and politicians often name bridges here for physicians to thank them for having sacrificed and practiced medicine here in these remote mountains instead of in cities. The Dr.William A. Hoover Bridge (verbatim from the signage) surely is in that worthwhile vein. Based on the work at Georgia’s Bell Mountain, the bridge cannot be so named for Dr. Hoover’s having stressed water quality.

TOWNS COUNTY CITIZENS thankful for a legal barrier being thrown up against any more gapping on the mountain in their midst filled the Recreation Center here tonight. They applauded and one of them told Commissioner Bill Kendall, Sole Commissioner of Towns County, “I’m glad we’ve got you.”

This came as the onetime Towns County High basketball coach and teacher signed an ordinance “accepting on behalf of Towns County citizens the gift from the Hal Herrin estate of the 18-acre summit atop of Bell Mountain and that said property be designated Bell Mountain County Park and Historical Site…”

“Herrin shared my desire of protecting Bell Mountain from the scars of commercial or private development and to preserve it for all future generations to enjoy its beauty.”

A Powerpoint show on the screen behind the commissioner was displaying off-road vehicle use of the mountain that persists today and has made a deep trough. “The challenge we have now is to make a road out of it,” Kendall said. He has $150,000 in his fiscal 2016 budget for “a one-lane road with turnouts” and the work will begin “when the weather clears up.”

HAL HERRIN DIED at 87 in 2009. The World War II Marine veteran owned H.M. Herrin and Associates advertising agency in Atlanta and retired to Young Harris. He and E.N. Dowdy bought Bell Mountain Land Lot 71 from Georgia Baptist Foundation Inc. in 1971 for $60,000, according to Towns County Deed Book T-1 page 80.

“We’re just glad the Top of the Bell is going to be preserved,” said Anna Herrin, a daughter. “Daddy didn’t want to see it ever blasted again.”

Callie Moore, executive director of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, said: “We’re very excited about this.” Her non-profit and the Towns County Historical Society were designated by Kendall to be Keepers of the Mountain, but let me tell you, she and HRWC have been that for a long time. The protection of every upland reach over the Hiwassee and its lakes named Chatuge, Nottely, Hiwassee and Apalachia in two states is advocated by HRWC.

IN FEBRUARY 2006, Moore emailed me saying, “Sole Commissioner Kendall is ready to talk about the water.”

He did more than talk. Kendall’s Sept. 2006 Mountain Protection Ordinance is a model for this watershed. See August 31, 2007 WATR Column

The Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan was completed in 2007 and is a master work of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. If only it had been in place when three men from Murphy stood lakeside to look up at Bell Mountain and plan mine-gapping it. HRWC’s plan is at the Lakes Programs click.

KENDALL WAS THE ONLY commissioner in the Hiwassee River watershed to oppose an environmental buster of a scheme earlier this century, the would-be “I-3” interstate highway from the port of Savannah, Ga. to Knoxville, Tenn. A talked-about route would have crossed Lake Chatuge beneath Bell Mountain. Congress perfunctorily aired “I-3” and let it die. http://www.dailyyonder.com/death-highway/2012/05/04/3957/

“Think of the noise pollution of that,” Kendall said tonight. “Think of what you’d be looking down on from Bell Mountain if we had that (I-3) today.”

EACH PAINSTAKING REFORM benefitting the environment takes time and patience. Rare payoffs come now and then. For example, a lanky and kindly onetime basketball coach who’s now the sole commissioner of government in the same locale signed tonight an ordinance to save the Top of the Bell.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer and winner of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com