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Postscript: LeConte phone line July 2, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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The older of the two vintages of LeConte phone line.

The older of the two vintages of LeConte phone line—a single-wire system.

After posting my blog about climbing LeConte via the old phone line route, I had some discussions with folks about the history of the line that connected the base of the mountain near the Rainbow Falls trailhead with the Lodge at the top.

First of all, Doug Borton kindly posted a photo from 1975 by Clair Burket of the barn used by Herrick Brown, which housed the phone. It was located east of the trailhead along the Cherokee Orchard Road. I confirmed with my friend Dick Ketelle that Brown used one and only one barn—I’d been a bit doubtful about this one because it seemed too far away from LeConte Creek. Thank you, Doug.

Barn used by Herrick Brown in Cherokee Orchard.

Barn used by Herrick Brown in Cherokee Orchard.

Then I asked Dick to tell me more about the phone line. He worked at the Lodge for two years when the old phone system was still in operation, and one of his jobs was to “run down the phone line when there were problems—fix them—and then return to the top,” he emailed me. “Sometimes these adventures occurred when storms were about, and keeping things grounded to avoid static voltage discharges from that long wire was mandatory.”

Incidentally, Dick’s family is one of the famous families of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Famous to me, anyway. I was privileged to know his dad, Bruce Ketelle, who was one of the original Oak Ridge scientists and a lifelong adventurer. The first time I met Bruce, on an SMHC hike, he told me of doing some sketchy route on the Diamond Face of Longs Peak in Colorado back in his youth. The Ketelles were always great off-trail explorers.

Dick added more information about the phone line. “Did you know that the original phone line to the lodge was routed up Bearpen Hollow? It was, and there used to be ceramic insulators hung on the trees by short pieces of that same kind of galvanized wire that was used as the conductor wire on the single strand old crank phone system.

“Herrick put the two conductor insulated (black) wires in by the mid 1960s because this allowed him to get connected to the outside world. That phone connection was used to manage reservations (yes, the reservation book was kept on the mountain in a small space that is the pantry). People would call directly to the lodge to make or cancel reservations. The two-wire line was connected to South Central Bell lines at Twin Creeks. That is why keeping the phone line in service was critical.

“As you might expect, it was in the sections above Rainbow Falls where we typically had difficulty with the line because of tree falls and squirrels chewing the insulation. Later, after the lodge concession went over to the ‘new’ management by the 1980s, the lodge started using a radio phone communication system and reservations were managed by the folks in the office down below. At that point the phone line was abandoned.

“The park service asked that the wires be removed where they were near the trail and Herrick went up and stripped some of it out. I have a couple of coils of the one-wire line that I keep at my house and I use small chunks of it now and then when I have a need for some stout wire to hold things together. That habit I learned from Herrick, who was the ultimate in using bits of this and that to keep things held together.”

Thank you, Dick.

The newer two-line insulated wires.

The newer two-wire insulated line.

Comments»

1. Brian Worley - July 2, 2013

Thanks for the interesting postscript, Jenny.

Jenny - July 3, 2013

Glad you liked it. You know some of the people and places mentioned here.

2. James Locke - July 3, 2013

Nice stuff! As I was leading my hike to Gregory Bald on Father’s Day Dick hiked right past our group, and I didn’t even recognize him. Thankfully Ed pointed my folly out to me and Dick was able to answer some questions I had about Chapman Prong. He is a wealth of Smokies info, like your postscript shows, and seems to know every holler, creek, and summit in the park. I’m just so lucky that there are people like you and him to learn from.

Jenny - July 3, 2013

Dick knows a lot more about the Smokies than I do! When I arrived at the Smokies in the 1980s, he’d already been hiking there since childhood, and we’re somewhere around the same age. He had some good mentors in addition to his own dad, people like O.K. Sargeant and Charlie Klabunde (whose knowledge I benefited from decades later).

3. AdamBeal - July 3, 2013

Like James I have ran into Dick a few times up on the AT around Icewater springs. I introduced myself to him once there on a long hike and told him he was a hero of mine. I also ran into him in town somewhere once too. Great blogs Jenny I have enjoyed both of these on the phone line route. I imagine someone not knowing about it and finding these wires while bushwhacking would be wondering what they had been for.

Jenny - July 3, 2013

Yes, Dick has done a tremendous amount of work in connection with maintaining the A.T.

4. Al - July 3, 2013

The line seen on the recent SMHC trip on the upper Will Thomas Turnpike was a smaller line with a green tint, maybe this is the newer style ??
I remember a small kiosk or hut at NFG back in the 70s or 80s. Begs the questions, were they equiped with phones ? The line on the WTT turns north toward the gap at a point about midway ‘tween Minni Ball Branch and the NFG area.

Jenny - July 3, 2013

Al, I can’t remember from that hike. Was that an insulated wire? I’d be interested if anyone knows about the hut at Newfound Gap.

Al - July 4, 2013

Did not seem to be insulated. It was along the TP where we paused to rest and eat a bite. This was where we picked it up and it turned away from the TP and went north up toward NFG. I wish we had followed it a bit.

Jenny - July 4, 2013

I’m coming to the conclusion that an infinite variety of wires were used—coated with an insulating material, not coated, different colors, some with the white ceramic insulators and some not. I think things were not standardized very much in the early days of phone communications.

5. Al - July 5, 2013

I asked Bill Hart about the “hut” and he did not recall seeing it. He did say that he had read somewhere that CCC personnel ran a phone line to NFG preceeding President Roosevelt’s dedication of the Park in 1940.

6. Joe Schlatter - August 3, 2013

I am Joe Schlatter, age 68, now living in Northumberland County, VA. I worked at LeConte Lodge in the summers of 1962 and 1963 when Herrick and Myrtle Brown owned the Lodge. My brother John worked at the Lodge for two summers in the late 1960′s.

I was bowled over to find that someone actually went up the old phone line trail to LeConte!!!

Those of us who worked there went up and down LeConte via the phone line. As for the ceramic insulators — Herrick (“Brownie” as we called him) and I installed most of those in the summer of 1963. I don’t recall the whole story but we hauled insulators and loading coils in our rucksacks and installed them at measured intervals along the line. Brownie had cut a piece of rope to a certain length; we used that to measure distances and we would stop every so often, cut the line, strip the insulation off the wires, and install insulators and a loading coil. The loading coil balanced the capacitance in the line due to the wires being so long and so close together.

Some of the features along the phone line were:

1. A bench mark — a square about 2 inches on a side — chiseled into the top of a large boulder near the possession cabin.

2. The possession cabin. It’s a long story . . . go to my website for the story.

3. A bench mark chiseled into the rocks at the top of Rainbow Falls.

4. A bench mark . . . a large copper nail . . . in the root of a large hemlock tree about half-way between Rainbow Falls and the Lodge.

Check out my website: LeConte Lodge Alumni at

http://www.lecontelodgealum.org/

Here’s my recollections of the phone line trail and the possession cabin:

http://www.lecontelodgealum.org/Joes%20stories/phone%20line%20and%20possesion%20cbn.htm

Now that I think about it, there were TWO phone lines. One was installed about the time the Browns bought the Lodge from Jack Huff . . . this one was for a regular telephone. The second was a single strand of bare wire that ran between the Lodge and the barn in Cherokee Orchard. This second line connected two old crank telephones, one at the Lodge, one at the barn. We used this to talk to Amos Matthews, the pack man. Amos would ring us from the barn in the Orchard before leaving with the pack horses to come up the mountain to ask what we needed for him to bring up.

The old crank phones were exciting because, during thunderstorms, lightning would induce a fairly large voltage in the single bare line, causing the phones to ring and sparks to hop around the instrument.

Thank you, Jenny, for bringing back lots of pleasant memories,

Jenny - August 4, 2013

Wonderful to hear from you, Joe! I appreciate your detailed recollections. It’s quite something to think about the sparks flying and the phones ringing during the thunderstorms! It was a lot of fun doing the hike up the phone line. I wondered while I was doing it how much the vegetation has grown up since then, especially where the blackberries are thick. Thanks again for visiting.

7. Al - August 4, 2013

Page 4 of Attenhoffer’s photos’ seems to show the old phone line running in the trees just as the pack animals reach the lodge. The Attenhoffer link is on Joe’s web page.


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