Imagine the first time that settler Samuel Carter stood transfixed in virgin wilderness at the 60-foot waterfall that would be named for him. In 1760s wilderness Indian territory, Old Man Carter likely slowly sat down in awe and felt that he had found a home.
Imagine son Barney Carter and his buddies taking a break from laying logs for the area’s first water-driven grist mill. They likely sidled upstream to Sam’s cool, relaxing falls for a bit of picnic lunch with cakes of homemade corn bread. The genesis of industry on what would be called Big Elkin Creek started under the roar of the falls’ crashing whitewater.
Imagine families in mourning who rode on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon to the falls to bury their dead. The hum of the cascades below blanketed the solemn, hillside silence and spoke good-byes that the mourners could not vocalize.
Imagine the first surveyor for Carter Falls Power Co. standing at the foot of the falls in awe of its brute power. And he pondered all of the electricity for the town that would soon come.
Generations past have trekked to Carter Falls, the Elkin area’s finest jewel. They have admired its beauty, socialized among its cliffs and swam in its waters.
Now, after a few generations out of the limelight, the falls north of town is being rediscovered, admired and enjoyed once again.
Last August the state bought 43 acres surrounding the falls for a park off Pleasant Ridge Road that’s to be managed by the Elkin Valley Trails Association. In April, the trails folks cleared a new footpath to the falls that will be incorporated into the statewide Mountains-to-Sea trail.
I’ve loved the falls since I was a kid. It’s been a part of the family, owned by some of my forebears in olden days. So I jumped at a chance to observe, and not just imagine, some hometown folks experiencing Carter Falls for the first time.
On Cinco De Mayo, I trekked down to Carter Falls as an initial Explore Elkin tour consisting of about two dozen townsfolk approached. Most had not seen the falls.
I delighted in seeing their awestruck reactions and hearing comments like “It’s beautiful!” and “We’ve got to come back.”
“This has been here and nobody knows about it,” Elkin resident Chris Holthouser told me. “It’s something you hear about. But you don’t know what is here.”
A swinging bridge, Grandfather Mountain style, to be built across the most dramatic, lower section of the falls, is on tap for next year, Trail Association volunteer Herb MacDonald told the group. That will prove to be a big tourist attraction.
Coincidentally, an old family graveyard on private land near the top of the falls is being refurbished as well by the landowner. The grave stone of Revolutionary War hero William Harris (a great-great-great-great-grandfather of mine) in the cemetery will be made available for visiting as well.
After the tour group departed, I hung around the base of the falls and reflected on Old Man Sam Carter and all of those who followed, up to those in the present-day Explore Elkin tour, and who over the centuries have marveled at the fabulous falls.
Then along came campers Ryan and Emily Melton and their two girls from Raleigh.
They stayed at nearby Byrd’s Branch Campground last summer, heard about the falls, and now had returned with the opening of the new park and trail. An official grand opening for the park still is in the works.
“We’d love to retire here,” Mrs. Melton said while looking out over the falls for the first time. The couple said they loved the beauty and the peace, compared to the bustling, crowded Capital City. They vowed to return this summer and swim.
After generations farmed around the falls, the local power company saw the potential and in 1915 started Elkin’s first public electricity-generating operation. Duke Power dismantled the aging hydro-power plant in 1967, and the property passed into disuse till plans for the park surfaced in 2016.
Now, modern pioneers will make the trek to the falls, do a little exploring of their own and come to appreciate and enjoy the jewel of Elkin, as the old-timers did.
It’s the way it was, and it’s the way it should be again.
And, by the way, welcome to Carter Falls.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.