History of the Nantahala River

by | Nantahala National Forest, Nantahala River

The dark, flowing, white-tipped waters of the Nantahala River are recognized by people from all over the world as a recreational ground for outdoor enthusiasts. People travel to this natural rainforest of the south for whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, swimming, fishing and more. Throughout the history of the Nantahala River,  its beauty and wildness haven’t diminished much although it has been heavily commercialized over recent years. When you close your eyes and listen to the rushing water, and feel the wind brushing your face, you’ll step back in time to a place where the river once ran wild, and the echoes of our ancestors still bounce from mountain top to mountain top. 

vintage photo at wayah bald nantahalaWayah Bald Image Source: Southern Appalachian Digital Collection


The Nantahala River begins high in the mountains at Wayah Bald, bubbling up from springs near the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. These springs feed into Indian Creek, Kimsey Creek, Johnson Branch, Morris Branch, Mooney Creek, Long Branch, Laurel Branch, and others, which then flows into the Nantahala River. Nantahala dumps into Fontana Lake which is also made up of the Little Tennessee River and the Tuckasegee River. From there it flows into the Ohio River, down to the Mississippi River, then into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Up near the power grid (and the put-in for rafting), near a little town known as Beechertown, the upper Nantahala River takes a sharp right turn. Instead of going straight and passing into the Cheoah River and, eventually to the Little Tennessee River, a small stream, precipitated by increased water flow, caused erosion and the river was rerouted forming what is now called the Nantahala Gorge. Though it’s popular belief that Nantahala means “Land of the Noonday Sun,” it, in fact, does not. Nantahala is the English romanticized term for the Cherokee word Nundayeli, which roughly translates to noon.

The Cherokee Nation dates back to at least 15,000 years ago, and occupied the Nantahala River Valley long before white men set foot on Cherokee land. These Indigenous people camped, farmed, and hunted along both sides of the river. They left behind pottery and tools and traditions that are still practiced today by the Cherokee people. During the removal of the Cherokee from the Nantahala area via the Trail of Tears, also known as the Indian Removal Act signed into law on May 28, 1830, Nantahala was the base for their resistance. The descendants of those who were allowed to stay, and those who were labeled fugitives, help make up what is now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

 The Cherokee Nation’s ancestors were an advanced tribe, who could read and write using their own syllabary created by Sequoyah. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and United Keetoowah Band continue to read and write and speak in their ancestral language. 

vintage photo of two people walking on a swing bridge

Alma Fry Wheeler and friend on a swinging bridge over the Nantahala River. Image Source: Southern Appalachian Digital Collection


White settlers trickled into the Nantahala and Appalachian area in the 1800s. One of the earliest known settlers was Colonel Nimrod S. Jarrett (1799-1871) of the Macon County militia, who became a wealthy businessman trading ginseng and other profitable plants, farming the massive amount of land he owned, and working his talc and mica mines. His life was tragically cut short while he was on his way to Franklin on a business trip. He was murdered in an attempted robbery and found later by his wife, Nancy Avaline McKee, whose quick and unflappable thinking helped bring his murderer to justice.

vintage hewitts train tracks

Below Hewitt, NC at dusk (Frank Fry Collection)  Image Source: Southern Appalachian Digital Collection

The Fry family was one of the wealthiest to settle in the area. Frank Fry was the superintendent of the North Carolina Talc and Mining Company (also known as Hewitt’s after F.R. Hewitt one of the owners of the quarry) along the Nantahala river which still operates today, albeit under a different but similar name. Frank also had a hand in the lumber business.

In an interesting side note, Mr. Percy Ferebee, a later owner of the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Company, and a forester along the Nantahala River, was instrumental in setting aside public use of the river before commercial rafting made an appearance. Ferebee was an engineer for the U.S. Forest Service and settled in Andrews, North Carolina in 1913. In 1971 he donated six thousand acres to the forest service, which ensured that the public would have access to the river and the surrounding wilderness.

vintage logging photoImage Source: Southern Appalachian Digital Collection

Long before the Nantahala River was used for recreational activities, timber men in the 1880s used the rushing water to send logs down to their sawmills.  Loggers relied on late winter and early spring flooding to move their massive logs down stream. Unfortunately, aggressive water, along with the logs, knocked out bridges, buildings, and roads, causing terrible damage in its path. 

chimney of rock in woodsImage Source: Margaret Marr

Matthew and Sarah Cole, wealthy landowners near what is now the commercial rafting put-in, leased land to the Nantahala Lumber and Manufacturing Company for a reservoir to hold logs before being delivered to the sawmill site. You can still see the chimney across the river that was once attached to the Cole’s 1870s farmhouse–a remnant left over from bygone days, reminding us that people once lived, loved, raised children, and prospered here long before we were born.

Bartram Trail in nantahalaImage Source: NPS/Martinson

William Bartram was recorded as Nantahala’s first tourist, although he was basically on a business trip. He traveled here to note the flora and fauna of the area, finding dogwood, umbrella leaf magnolia, white oak, mountain camellia, ginseng, and the bog turtle. The Nantahala River is a source for morel mushrooms and branch lettuce. Bartram also  dipped into rock-hounding, discovering veins of kaolin, which he described as clear white earth. This “white earth” is used to make pottery, most especially porcelain. Later a trail was named after him, the Bartram Trail, which follows in his footsteps through the Nantahala wilderness.

Nantahala lake dam photo with blue mountains behind.Photo Source: Swain County Chamber of Commerce & Duke Energy

When the Nantahala Dam was built in 1942 to serve the needs of World War II defense projects and provide electricity to the area, recreational activities were a happy by-product of the dam. One of the most famous pull-offs along the river is a place called Patton’s Run where the first class II rapids begin. A one-armed postman named Charlie Patton taught beginner canoeists as an instructor at Camp Mondamin in the early days of whitewater sports. Patton’s Run is a tribute to this instructor.

Pattons Run riverPatton’s Run | Image Source: Margaret Marr

In 1972 rafting on the Nantahala became commercialized. Since then many companies, including Carolina Outfitters, who started their business in the early 80s, secured a permit to commercially raft the Nantahala River. The season runs from about mid March to the end of October. Thousands of tourists pour into the region looking for a wild adventure, and they are sure to find it in these mountains–an experience of a lifetime for those who have never stepped foot on a leaf strewn path or stood below lofty trees along a rushing river. These mountains and rivers keep them coming back. Nowhere on earth can you find such peace as when you stand beside a roaring river, or in the quietness of a hiking trail, or in a field of flowers surrounded by the twittering and rustling of wildlife through the laurels.

The above is just a small taste of the rich history of the Nantahala River and surrounding area. If you’re hungry for more, pick up a copy of The Nantahala River: A History & Guide by Lance Holland. You can also get a paperback copy from the Nantahala General Gift Shop below Carolina Outfitter’s office.

Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 


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