In 1920, the Holston Land Company, which had been working closely with the Clinchfield Railroad, purchased land on either side of the railroad in North Carolina and began planting apple trees—the land was ideal, climate conducive, and offered potential income and community employment opportunity.
The Holston Land Orchard became McKinney Gap Orchard (to become the Orchard at Altapass) with 330 acres, and Hefner Gap Orchard (further north) with 108 acres. That first orchard would boast 11,046 trees after an average of 8 years.
Holston employed 4,000 workers (70 employed at the Orchard), built an elegant hotel to draw tourists, which it did, and named the area Altapass (“alta” meaning high and “pass” for nearby McKinney Gap).
The most productive years at the McKinney Gap Orchard were in the 1930s when over 50,000 bushels left the grounds on trains going north and south. Years passed—the hotel burned to the ground, the Great Depression intervened, and Congress approved the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which split the 32,000-tree orchard (both peach and apples) in half. Commercial vehicles were prohibited on the Parkway, leaving half the fruit on the trees, unable to reach the train. Sales plummeted. Passenger travel was eliminated. The dreams of a burgeoning revenue stream and a thriving community slowly dissipated.
The year was 1995. Kit Carson-Trubey, while visiting her brother and his wife (Bill and Judy Carson) in Little Switzerland, noticed a “for sale” ad in the local paper for “277 acres of unrestricted land” on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She made a call and took a look. It was amid the declining orchard rimmed by spectacular, shadowy mountains, that they agreed the land should be preserved, not developed. She made an offer. Thus began the Carson legacy and the Orchard at Altapass. Bill, Judy, and Kit spent two years pulling weeds and cutting out poison ivy before any apples were actually picked. Eventually, the processing plant that had consumed the “red barn” during its hayday was moved to the basement, where it remains today, apples began selling, and free live music was born.
Between 2002 and 2004, two non-profits were established—to preserve the land, the Orchard, and the heritage of the region. In 2021 both organizations came together under one roof as the Altapass Foundation, Inc. Judy Carson passed that year, but the dedication and diligence of the founders remain. The projects and programs, both educational and entertaining, attract over 100,000 visitors per season and unite local residents and visitors with a common goal—to
“save the good stuff.” As Bill Carson once said, “The principal joy after over two decades is the way the Orchard has changed and affected people who visit. Makes all the weed pulling worth it.”