Perched on the crest of the Blue Ridge atop the Eastern Continental Divide, the Orchard occupies a unique spot in both America’s landscape and history. Geography has been a key to the Orchard’s story on both counts. Occupying a commanding location above two important watersheds – the North Toe River, which eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Fork of the Catwaba, which finds its way to the Atlantic – the Orchard has been a vital travel route since our continent’s earliest settlers began exploring these mountains. Buffalo and elk traversed here, followed by the Cherokee Indians and eventually European settlers.
The ancient game paths became foot trails and then trading routes. Early settlers defied British attempts to make peace with the Indians by disallowing settlement to the west of the mountains. Their resentment of British rule culminated when they formed the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War, marching to King’s Mountain and handing the British a stinging defeat recognized as a turning point of the conflict.
The Orchard’s first permanent resident was Charlie McKinney, whose legend has grown due to his prodigious family. McKinney had 48 children by four wives he somehow managed to co-exist with simultaneously. The mountain pass where the Orchard sits was named for him, and you will still see the McKinney name everywhere in the area today, with dozens of families tracing their lineage to him.
America’s industrialization came to the area in the 1890s. The Orchard’s location on the lowest pass through the Blue Ridge in the surrounding 100 miles dictated that the nation’s railroad barons would find it. Several bankruptcies hindered the line’s construction, but in 1908 the Clinchfield Railroad opened, complete with an engineering marvel: the Clinchfield loops, consisting of 18 tunnels in 13 miles of track built beside and below the present-day Orchard. Four thousand immigrants crowded those slopes to build the bed and tunnels, with many dying in accidents, fights and murders.
The railroaders rechristened McKinney Gap as Altapass, or high pass. A resort soon blossomed on the spot, with two hotels and a golf course sprouting near the railroad station. Within a few years, though, Clinchfield discontinued passenger service and the resort withered, its demise quickened when a highway was built through nearby Gillespie Gap.
But the railroad gave direct birth to the Orchard. Recognizing an opportunity, the Clinchfield planted trees on several hundred acres. Once again, geography played a key role: facing southeast, the land is frost-free most of the time, with cold air sinking into the nearby valleys, replaced by warm air. The operation soon prospered, growing state champion apples repeatedly and at its peak producing 125,000 bushels of apples a year. It became a mainstay of the local economy, with dozens of families supported by its jobs.
The arrival of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930s was yet another key chapter in the Orchard’s history dictated by geography. The route following the ancient buffalo trails promised a tourism boom, but it also split the Orchard in half, sparking a bitter court fight that eventually reached the NC Supreme Court. The road builders won the battle and the Orchard lost its momentum as an agricultural enterprise. Local residents despaired as its prosperity and jobs waned. Many feared the land’s spectacular views would fall prey to real estate developers, but the current owners forestalled that by purchasing the property in the 1990s. They sold the upper half of the acreage to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and on the lower half established a nonprofit Appalachian cultural and history center – while maintaining the operation of the apple orchard – that is dedicated to keeping this unique history alive.
The owners of the Orchard at Altapass are doing everything right. They purchased the property to prevent it from being developed into condos or a golf course. They wanted to protect and promote the culture of the Mountain people in the area of the Blue Ridge Mountains.B Seagram