I sat down for a break during a trek in tough terrain along Big Elkin Creek. And, whoa, there it was.
I first saw the cave when I was 11. I noticed it when Dad took me down to the Big Elkin and its Carter Falls for the very first time.
The cave was not impressive. If I crawled in on my belly I might’ve been able to squeeze all of me into the crevice between the granite top and the dirt floor. Not that I would ever try it. There is just enough dirt and mud and dark in back to potentially invite a snake to coil.
After our first meeting I looked for the cave from time to time but never saw it again. Then I forgot about it.
So it was like meeting a long, lost friend when I sat down near the impressive, 60-foot falls a few miles upstream from Elkin and there it was. Right beside me. It’s hard to see, its entrance mostly hidden by brush.
You can barely call it a cave, as small as it is. Over the many years, silting from the river during floods may have filled it in partly. But more than 50 years after our first meeting, the Carter Falls cave looked as if it hadn’t changed.
Caves like it were coveted during the Civil War. After the Confederate draft began in April 1862 good, remote hiding places were sought out by men who sided with the Union or who were sober-minded types who just didn’t want to go off to war and get their heads blown off.
For those men, hiding out in daddy’s barn loft was not good enough. Remote caves like the one along the Big Elkin served the purpose.
Men would hide, especially during the daytime when Confederate spies or the Home Guard might be out and about. The fugitives would cover narrow cave openings with brush to stay out of sight.
The cave here in the hometown would have needed to have been dug out some to provide room to hide. It would have made a good, though uncomfortable, temporary hiding spot, perhaps until dark and a chance to run northward and away from war.
I have no idea if the cave along the Big Elkin ever hid anyone during the Civil War. Great-grandfather Harris lived nearby, but during the war he took off and joined the Union army. I wonder if he ever thought of hiding out at Carter Falls instead?
The cat-and-mouse games played by draft dodgers and the Home Guard that hunted them were dramatically portrayed in the dark Civil War novel “Cold Mountain” that was popular around here in the late 1990s. In the end the Home Guard caught and killed the hero of the tale despite his efforts to lay low.
There’s a cute Civil War story about my mother’s grandfather that has been passed down through the years. Folks said he fled up into the mountains and hid in a cave with two buddies.
After three months with his buddies, so the story goes, great-grandfather decided he’d be safer in the war. He joined up and in the end made it home.
North Carolina has been blessed with more than 900 caves and caverns. The biggest one open to the public is Linville Caverns on the other side of Grandfather Mountain. The smaller Tory’s Den Cave at Hanging Rock State Park on the other side of Pilot Mountain is more like the hideouts used by draft dodgers. Another is Boone’s Cave of Daniel Boone fame that is along the Yadkin River south of Mocksville.
I’ll have to check on the Big Elkin Creek cave from time to time and keep track of my old friend, especially after they cut an easy trail to the falls for a new park. Let’s hope that someday that no beasties hiding in back spring a surprise on me or anyone else.
After all, I just may need that cave someday, if things get too hot at home, if you know what I mean.
Postscript: May I send my appreciation to Elkin lawyer Dan Park for selling the beautiful Carter Falls site to the state last summer for a park, with plans expected from the state in about a month. Mr. Park didn’t have to sell Carter Falls. If I had been in his place, I’d have parked a picturesque cabin overlooking the falls and kept the place to myself. But Mr. Park’s generous sense of public spirit will ensure that the gorgeous falls will be available for all of us to enjoy for generations to come. On behalf of us all, present and future, thank you Mr. Park.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.