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QUERY IV.




A NOTICE OF ITS MOUNTAINS?


For the particular geography of our mountains I must refer to Fry and Jefferson's map of Virginia, and to Evans's analysis of his map of America for a more philosophical view of them than is to be found in any other work. It is worthy of notice, that our mountains are not solitary and scattered confusedly over the face of the country, but that they commence at about 150 miles from the sea-coast, are disposed in ridges one behind another, running nearly parallel with the sea-coast, though rather approaching it as they advance Northeastwardly. To the Southwest, as the tract of country between the sea-coast and the Missisipi becomes narrower, the mountains converge into a single ridge, which, as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico, subsides into plain country, and gives rise to some of the waters of that Gulf, and particularly to a river called the Apalachicola, probably from the Apalachies, an Indian nation formerly residing on it. Hence the mountains giving rise to that river, and seen from its various parts, were called the Apalachian mountains, being in fact the end or termination only of the great ridges passing through the continent. European geographers however extended the name northwardly as far as the mountains extended; some giving it, after their separation into different ridges, to the Blue Ridge, others to the North Mountain, others to the Alleghaney, others to the Laurel Ridge, as may be seen in their different maps. But the fact I believe is, that none of these ridges were ever known by that name to the inhabitants, either native or emigrant, but as they saw them so called in European maps. In the same direction generally are the veins of lime stone, coal and other minerals hitherto discovered; and so range the falls of our great rivers. But the courses of the great rivers are at right angles with these. James and Patowmac penetrate through all the ridges of mountains eastward of the Alleghaney; that is broken by no watercourse. It is in fact the spine of the country between the Atlantic on one side, and the Missisipi and St. Laurence on the other. The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion, that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been dammed up by the Blue Ridge of mountains, and have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that continuing to rise they have at length broken over at this spot, and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disrupture and avulsion from their beds by the most powerful agents of Nature, corroborate the impression. But the distant finishing which Nature has given to the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the foreground. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way too the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, its terrible precipices hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederic Town, and the fine country round that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic. Yet here, as in the neighborhood of the Natural Bridge, are people who have passed their lives within half a dozen miles, and have never been to survey these monuments of a war between rivers and mountains, which must have shaken the earth itself to its centre.[1](2)

The height of our mountains has not yet been estimated with any degree of exactness. The Alleghaney being the great ridge which divides the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Missisipi, its summit is doubtless more elevated above the ocean than that of any other mountain. But its relative height, compared with the base on which it stands, is not so great as that of some others, the country rising behind the successive ridges like the steps of stairs. The mountains of the Blue Ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America. From data, which may found a tolerable conjecture, we suppose the highest peak to be about 4,000 feet perpendicular, which is not a fifth part of the height of the mountains of South America,[2] nor one-third of the height which would be necessary in our latitude to preserve ice in the open air unmelted through the year. The ridge of mountains next beyond the Blue Ridge, called by us the North Mountain, is of the greatest extent; for which reason they were named by the Indians the Endless mountains.

[To what is here said on the height of mountains, subsequent information has enabled me to furnish some additions and corrections.

General Williams, nephew of Dr. Franklin, on a journey from Richmond by the Warm and Red Springs to the Alleghaney, has estimated by barometrical observations the height of some of our ridges of mountains above the tide-water, as follows:

Feet.

The Eastern base of the Blue Ridge subjacent to Rockfish Gap,

100 

Summit of the mountain adjacent to that Gap,

1,822 

The valley constituting the Eastern basis of the Warm Spring Mountain,

943 

Summit of the Warm Spring Mountain,

2,247 

The Western valley of the Warm Spring Mountain, being the Eastern base of the Alleghaney,

949 

Summit of the Alleghaney, 6 miles Southwest of the Red Springs,

2,760 

In November, 1815, with a Ramsden's theodolite of 3½ inches radius, with nonius divisions to 3′, and a base of 1¼ mile on the low grounds of Otter River, distant 4 miles from the summits of the two peaks of Otter, I measured geometrically their heights above the water of the river at its base, and found that of the sharp or South peak

2,946½

That of the flat or North peak

3,103½

As we may with confidence say that the base of the peaks is at least as high above the tide-water at Richmond as that of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap, (being 40 miles farther westward,) and their highest summit of course 3,203½ feet above that tide-water, it follows that the summit of the highest peak is 343½ feet higher than that of the Alleghaney, as measured by General Williams.

The highest of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, by barometrical estimate made by Captain Partridge, was found to be 4,885 feet from its base, and the highest of the Catskill mountains in New York 3,105 feet.

Two observations, with an excellent pocket sextant, gave a mean of 37° 28′ 50″ for the latitude of the sharp peak of Otter.

Baron Humboldt states that in latitude 37°, (which is nearly over medium parallel,) perpetual snow is no where known so low as 1,200 toises=7,671 feet above the level of the sea, and in sesquialtoral ratio nearly to the highest peak of Otter.]

A substance supposed to be Pumice, found floating on the Missisipi, has induced a conjecture, that there is a volcano on some of its waters; and as these are mostly known to their sources, except the Missouri, our expectations of verifying the conjecture would of course be led to the mountains which divide the waters of the Mexican Gulf from those of the South Sea; but no volcano having ever yet been known at such a distance from the sea, we must rather suppose that this floating substance has been erroneously deemed Pumice.[3]

  1. Herodotus, 1. 7, c. 129, after stating that Thessaly is a plain country surrounded by high mountains, from which there is no outlet but the fissure through which the Peneus flows, and that according to ancient tradition it had once been an entire lake, supposes that fissure to have been made by an earthquake rending the mountain asunder.
  2. 1. Epoques, 434. Musschenbroek, § 2,312. 2. Epoques, 317.
  3. 2. Epoques, 91, 112.