In April 1912, a train stopped in the quiet Smoky Mountain town of Murphy to deliver a most unusual cargo: 14 wild boar from Russia and four bison from the
In April 1912, a train stopped in the quiet Smoky Mountain town of Murphy to deliver a most unusual cargo: 14 wild boar from Russia and four bison from the Western U.S. The beasts, some shaggy, others bristly, were visible through the slats in their wooden crates. It’s easy to imagine that their grunts, rumbles, and squeals were deafening, their stench eye-watering. A crew of men assembled to wrangle the animals onto ox-drawn wagons for the arduous trip to their final destination: Hooper Bald, at 5,429 feet one of the tallest peaks in Graham County.
According to Joy Stewart of Robbinsville, who has researched the operation, word got out ahead of time about the arrival of the animals, and people lined the roads to watch. “It was like a zoo coming to town,” she says. Although the distance was only 25 miles, the journey over a rough dirt track across Hanging Dog Mountain took three days.
Hooper Bald was the site of the most unusual installation that western North Carolina had ever seen: a 1,600-acre private hunting preserve stocked with exotic game animals. The creator of this folly was my grandfather, a freewheeling business tycoon named George Gordon Moore. The ultimate self-made man, he was the youngest of 10 children in a family that had fled the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and settled in southern Ontario.
Moore was extremely intelligent — he was said to have had a photographic memory — and at age 21 was a partner in a Michigan law firm. With a keen nose for business, he made his first fortune in the early 1900s, developing electric rail systems in burgeoning Midwestern cities. He multiplied his bankroll by buying and consolidating electric power and railroad companies in Georgia and elsewhere. He moved his business operations to London so that he could obtain capital from wealthy British investors eager to put their money into the abundant natural resources of the New World.
The advent of railroads and steam-powered machines, coupled with a huge demand for lumber on the East Coast and in Europe, triggered a boom in the North Carolina timber industry at the turn of the 20th century. In 1908, Moore arranged the sale of 100,000 acres of prime timberland near Robbinsville to a syndicate of British investors. As his broker’s fee — what he called his “perquisite” — he claimed a long-term lease on 1,600 acres atop Hooper Bald.
“Nowhere have I ever seen anything so beautiful as this wild section of the Great Smokies,” he wrote to a friend years later. “Rhododendrons 40 feet high; the widest variety of foliage imaginable and views of three states from Hooper Bald Mountain, the highest peak in the center of it.”
Moore had hunted boar on a private estate in Belgium and wanted to replicate the experience in the Smokies. His aim was to create his own hunting preserve in the tradition of Gilded Age getaways, places where America’s elite — the Roosevelts, Whitneys, and Vanderbilts — went to hunt, fish, and “rough it” with friends and family. Given the remoteness of the site, it was a preposterous undertaking, but Moore had the passion and money to make it happen.
In 1908, Hooper Bald was accessible only by foot or on horseback. To build his compound, Moore hired a group of locals, including a young man from Andrews named Garland McGuire, known as “Cotton” because of his nearly white hair. McGuire was smart and capable, and Moore soon appointed him as foreman. The first order of business was to build a 20-mile road from Andrews, the nearest railroad depot, to the bald so that wagons could bring in materials. As quickly as supplies could be delivered, construction of the hunting lodge and a caretaker’s cabin for McGuire began.
Like everything he did, Moore conceived his lodge on a grand scale. It was 90 feet long and 45 feet wide, built of thick chestnut logs and topped with shingles of white oak, all milled on the property. It contained 10 bedrooms off a central hallway, two full bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a large central gathering place called the “lobby.” When I visited Robbinsville several years ago, one of McGuire’s children told me that the fireplace was so big that mule teams were needed to drag in the five-foot logs that fueled it.
Moore insisted on all the modern comforts of home. Water for indoor plumbing — unheard of then in Graham County — was piped in from a spring-fed concrete cistern. A wood-fired furnace off the kitchen heated water to supply the two bathtubs, where guests could soak after a day of sport.
Moore also installed a telephone — another first for the county — a feat that required stringing telephone wires through the Snowbird Mountains from the town of Marble, more than 20 miles to the southeast. Not content with kerosene lanterns, he put in a Delco-Light plant, a small internal combustion generator that provided electricity for lighting. His installation drew curiosity seekers from miles around. People came to Hooper Bald just to see the indoor bathrooms.
While the lodge was under construction, Moore assembled a virtual Noah’s Ark of big-game animals. In addition to the bison and Russian boar, he purchased 34 bears from several zoos, 200 wild turkeys, and four more bison, as well as six Colorado mule deer and 14 elk. Throughout the summer of 1912, these animals arrived by train in Andrews and Murphy, where they were loaded onto wagons for the three-day trek to Hooper Bald.
To contain the boar, Moore directed McGuire and his crew to build a 600-acre pen surrounded by a nine-rail-high fence constructed of solid chestnut timbers. For the buffalo and other animals, a 1,000-acre lot was enclosed with a 10-foot barbed-wire fence. Nearly a mile in circumference, it required 25 tons of double-stranded barbed wire.
Once the preserve was complete, Moore began to entertain clients and friends there. McGuire would pick up visitors at the train station in Murphy and bring them to the lodge, a trip of three hours in a mule-drawn wagon. Even in the Smoky Mountain wilderness, Moore prided himself on his extravagant hospitality. He hired expert local guides to lead hunting excursions all over the property.
The alien beasts were not always easy to manage. The bears had no difficulty climbing out of their wire enclosure. As former zoo animals, they were all too comfortable with humans and frequently appeared at the hunting lodge, demanding to be fed. One night, Moore arrived at Hooper Bald to find one of his guests, a young Englishman, with his arm and leg bandaged from wounds that he’d suffered while trying to oust a bear from his room. With his typical insouciance, Moore claimed to have found the bears’ antics “amusing.”
It soon became apparent that the local hounds were not up to the challenge of boar hunting. Moore crossed an Irish wolfhound — a breed described as “fast enough to catch a wolf and strong enough to kill it” — with a Great Dane, producing a hound that, as he put it, “could creditably hold its own.” Moore’s prey did not disappoint. “Wild boar always have the initiative,” he wrote. “You can never tell whether they’ll run away from you or run at you, all the action any hunter wants.”
One fateful day, a guest took a shot at a boar, missed his target, and killed the favorite coonhound of Moore’s chief hunter, Devereaux Birchfield. “In those days human life was a cheap commodity in the Great Smokies,” Moore wrote. “A good coonhound was slightly more valued than a child. Birchfield had already killed three men for less important causes than the death of his coonhound. I suddenly found that I had urgent business elsewhere and early the next morning our entire party returned to New York.”
Over the next few years, Moore’s visits to Hooper Bald became less frequent. His involvement in the war in Europe and his far-flung business interests left little time for hunting. In his absence, Cotton McGuire and the hunting guides kept Moore’s guests entertained. But conditions at the lodge were difficult. The hot water system was finicky. Winters were bitterly cold, and the pipes would freeze and break, requiring McGuire’s constant attention.
By the early 1920s, Moore owed McGuire more than $1,000 in back pay. He had not been to Hooper Bald for more than a year. He summoned McGuire to New York, where he handed him $1,000 and the lease to Hooper Bald. “It’s all yours,” he told him. McGuire stayed on the bald for several years, but he couldn’t afford to maintain the property, and the lease eventually reverted to the property owners.
When I stood on Hooper Bald, awestruck by the spectacular scenery, I imagined my grandfather admiring much the same view more than 100 years earlier. Although he left few traces there, he did leave a dubious legacy: Some of his boar escaped and bred with local wild hogs, their population quickly spreading throughout the South. And his sojourn on Hooper Bald remains a legend in Robbinsville and beyond.