A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

The forest is swallowing up the old town. Nature’s demolition crew. Vines grow from the windows of two dilapidated homes. A lone chimney, made of rocks, rises from a hill

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The forest is swallowing up the old town. Nature’s demolition crew. Vines grow from the windows of two dilapidated homes. A lone chimney, made of rocks, rises from a hill

Entering Western North Carolina’s Lost Cove

A thick forest surrounds Lost Cove's remaining structures.

The forest is swallowing up the old town. Nature’s demolition crew. Vines grow from the windows of two dilapidated homes. A lone chimney, made of rocks, rises from a hill next to the rusting shell of a 1938 pickup truck, now splattered with bright green moss. A stone wall runs parallel to the narrow footpath that leads from the once-busy southern part of town to a small cemetery up on the northern edge, where gravestones reveal names like Tipton, Bailey, and Miller.

Lost Cove is dead now, gone for more than six decades, the only evidence of human activity decomposing, rusting away, and scattered across 350 acres of dense forest high above the Nolichucky River in Yancey County, where North Carolina meets Tennessee.

Photo of the Miller Family, former residents of Lost Cove.

Lost Cove was remote even in its heyday, when it was home to the Miller family and others. Now, a challenging hike through Pisgah National Forest is the only way in — and out. Photography courtesy of Teresa Miller Bowman

When our hiking party arrives here after a two-hour adventure descending the steep and rocky switchbacks that zigzag down the north face of Flattop Mountain near Burnsville, the sky opens up and rain pours down on us. Our guides, Appalachian historian and avid hiker Christy A. Smith and her partner, Thomas Glenn, lead us to a small clearing, where Lost Cove’s most prominent surviving home sits next to the remnants of a makeshift campfire held together by what looks like parts of an old backhoe.

“At one time, Chester Bailey’s family lived here,” Christy says, reaching for the hood of her jacket and pulling it over her knit ski cap to provide a little shelter from the storm. “But multiple families lived here at different times over the years.” She points down the footpath: “You had Millers living over that way, toward the school,” she says, “and over there” — she pivots and points in the opposite direction — “you had the Tiptons and the Bryants.” The individual families of Lost Cove lived in clusters, Christy explains. “But they were all one community,” she says. “One very hardworking, resourceful, and self-sufficient community.”

• • •

Christy was 10 years old the first time she hiked into Lost Cove. Her mother, Emma, a nurse with the Unicoi County Health Department just across the state line in Erwin, worked with a woman whose relatives had lived in the community decades earlier. One day, in 1982, the two decided to take their families on a day hike to the ghost town. Setting off from Unaka Springs on the Tennessee side of the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio (CC&O) railroad tracks, the group of about 10 made the three-and-a-half-mile trek up the steep mountain terrain into North Carolina as locomotives rumbled by every half-hour or so.

“You had to be extra cautious, because in some places, there’s hardly any space to get off the track,” Christy recalls. “I remember hugging a rock at one point. It was exciting.”

Dilapidated home in Lost Cove

After the last remaining residents left Lost Cove in the 1950s, the once-bustling community fell into disrepair. photograph by Tom Moors

Christy A. Smith

Christy A. Smith first became fascinated by Lost Cove on a hike when she was 10. Since then, she’s researched the families who lived there and made the town the subject of her master’s thesis and, later, a book. photograph by Tom Moors

So exciting that Christy got hooked on hiking into the cove and exploring the abandoned houses. “Just the beauty of walking in that gorge with the Nolichucky River roaring next to you,” she remembers. “I loved it! And then, when you got up to the top, there was this little community — but there were no people.”

Back then, she says, several more structures were still standing. There was the house down by the railroad tracks, near the spot where Lost Cove’s post office once sat. There was the Frank Bryant house, and some of the homes that Baileys lived in near the cemetery. And there were three or four homes lining the hill where the old pickup truck now sits.

“The houses even had furniture in them, and pots and pans,” Christy says incredulously. “And that’s because these people always thought they’d be coming back one day. They never intended to leave forever. Those houses were just sitting there, waiting for the families to return.”

Photo of historic home, since lost to time, in Lost Cove.

Today, only photographs depict the sense of normalcy that existed within the now-abandoned ghost town. Photography courtesy of Chad Fred Bailey

Christy began asking questions about Lost Cove. As it turned out, she had an indirect family connection to the town. Her grandfather Bob Johnson, an engineer for CC&O Railway, regaled her with stories about how his father, who also drove a steam engine, would stop over in Lost Cove to buy moonshine. By high school, Christy was deep into her study of mountain folkways, writing poems about her Appalachian heritage and getting published in anthologies like those compiled by the Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum.

After graduation, she set off for East Tennessee State University, where she studied English with a focus on Appalachian history and folklore. For her master’s thesis in 2007, she wrote about the people of Lost Cove, and then spent nearly 15 years expanding her research into a book, Lost Cove, North Carolina: Portrait of a Vanished Appalachian Community, 1864-1957.

• • •

Here’s what Christy has learned over the past three decades: Lost Cove was founded during the Civil War years by a Union soldier, Stephen “Morgan” Bailey, who likely set up camp in this remote area to avoid the awful conflict that was dividing his family and friends back home in Burnsville. “At that time, in the Appalachians, a lot of men were Union, so you had brother fighting against brother and neighbor fighting against neighbor,” Christy says. “But up in Lost Cove, almost everybody was Union. There was one guy who was a Confederate, but the interesting thing that I found out during my research was that, later, he switched to Union, too.”

Bailey was joined by John D. Tipton, a Union soldier with the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, who bought 230 acres. The growing community named their new town Lost Cove presumably because, at the time, it was unclear whether the land was in North Carolina or Tennessee. During the town’s first few decades, its inhabitants had limited contact with the outside world, mostly relying on each other for survival.

Black and white photo of the Free Will Baptist Church in Lost Cove

The local Free Will Baptist church was once central to life in Lost Cove. Photography courtesy of Chad Fred Bailey

Old stairs from the church, now covered in moss

All that remains of the old chapel is a set of concrete steps, carpeted with moss. photograph by Tom Moors

An abundance of spring water made the land fertile for farming. To feed themselves, the families raised hogs, chickens, and cows, and grew corn, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and herbs. Apple orchards blanketed the outskirts of the settlement, surrounded by tall oak, pine, poplar, and ash trees. For items not produced in the community — like housewares, kerosene oil, coffee, and molasses — the families used a sled to haul their crops east to the town of Poplar, where they bartered for those goods and brought them back home.

The community’s first church, Tipton’s Chapel, was built around 1880. Twenty-nine years later, its name was changed to Lost Cove Free Will Baptist Church, and later changed again to Mountain View. Walking along the footpath toward a second decaying home, Christy points to a set of moss-covered concrete steps next to the trail. “Those were the steps leading into the sanctuary,” she says. The church was the center of social life in Lost Cove, serving as both house of worship and the town’s school building.

• • •

By the early 1900s, the railroad was completed down by the river, and Lost Cove resident Mack English built a sawmill that employed most of the men in the community. By the ’20s and ’30s, the old paths once used only by people and horses accommodated a truck or two, which were brought in to haul wood and other items. Many of the women in the community made hook-rugs from socks or burlap sacks. The prevalence of so many springs in Lost Cove, as well as its location in the disputed territory between the two states, made it a perfect setting for moonshine stills, as revenue agents and the judicial system couldn’t figure out which state had jurisdiction.

And make moonshine the townspeople did: For the next half-century, families in Lost Cove were known for brewing up some of the finest hooch in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and they often sold it to passing CC&O Railway workers like Christy’s great-grandfather. Members of John Tipton’s family were the biggest bootleggers in Lost Cove, Christy says, “but every family made moonshine; they all had stills. And moonshining became particularly important during the Depression years. They really relied on it during that period.”

Dilapidated truck in Lost Cove

Many of Lost Cove’s residents relied on passenger trains to connect them with other communities — only a handful of folks owned trucks, which they used for transporting timber and other goods. photograph by Tom Moors

In its entire history — from about 1865 to 1957 — Lost Cove never had electricity, so residents read by kerosene lamps at night and stored perishable goods like milk and butter in holes dug next to the springs. During the town’s most prosperous years of the early to mid-20th century, about 100 people lived in 13 to 15 homes. There were big barns, corncribs, apple sheds, and even a commissary, where residents could buy snuff, sugar, and other goods. Lost Cove was jumping.

By the 1950s, though, the modern world had begun to encroach. Freight trains on the CC&O line replaced the passenger trains that Lost Cove residents had come to rely on for trips to nearby communities. The supply of timber had been depleted, leaving residents with few ways to earn a living. When Yancey County began consolidating its small mountain schools, students were forced to leave Lost Cove for their studies. It was just too tough to live in the town any longer, and some people began relocating to nearby Burnsville and Erwin. By 1957, only three families remained.

The author (center), Smith and her partner, Thomas Glenn, in Lost Cove.

On a recent hike to Lost Cove, the author (center) heard stories of residents from Smith and her partner, Thomas Glenn. photograph by Tom Moors

On New Year’s Day 1958, Velmer Bailey’s family became the last to leave Lost Cove. By then, the town was utterly quiet. No children laughing and playing. No sounds of saws and falling timber. Only the lone whistle of the occasional freight train rolling by on the tracks down by the Nolichucky River.

On the wall behind the pulpit of the church, Bailey wrote the words: “School closed forever at Lost Cove, December 17, 1957 … Last revival conducted by Clyde Fender, November 1956. Last Sunday school, November 26, 1957. Very sad.” Four months later, he told the Johnson City Press Chronicle, “We don’t want to leave, but we have no choice. The others have left, and we can’t stay here alone.”

• • •

The rain has slowed to a trickle by the time we begin our ascent back up Flattop Mountain. If the hike down seemed precarious, the trek back up feels almost impossible. We’re soaked, exhausted, out of food, nearly out of water, and feeling a little melancholy knowing that the people of Lost Cove never wanted to leave their remote town, and that they always hoped to one day return.

Chester Bailey's home in Lost Cove

Today, graffiti covers the siding and walls of Chester Bailey’s Lost Cove home. photograph by Tom Moors

Chester Bailey of Lost Cove

Chester Bailey, the last resident to leave Lost Cove. Photography courtesy of Jim Johnson

Christy looks over her shoulder and sighs. “At some point, you know, nature’s gonna totally reclaim every bit of this,” she says. “I know that. We all know that.” She points back at the Chester Bailey house, at the graffiti covering the siding and interior walls. She has mixed feelings about hikers coming here. On one hand, she thinks that people should experience the old ghost town to understand how mountain people lived — beyond the stereotypes depicted in books and movies and TV shows. On the other, she feels that this sacred ground should be treated with reverence.

“So it’s kind of like a catch-22 for me,” she says. “I would love for people to be able to come visit Lost Cove and see all this history. But some people just don’t have respect for the land or the community. And it’s important that this place be treated with respect.”