Mount Mitchell, stone walls, and Sunday school

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 12:17 PM

How are the stone walls that surround the old UNC-Chapel Hill campus connected to the highest mountain in eastern North America?
You can use this question to separate Chapel Hill newcomers from folks who have been around for a while.
Most old-timers know the story about Elisha Mitchell bringing the stone wall idea from New England when he came to Chapel Hill to teach in the early days of the university. Even newcomers know that Mount Mitchell is the highest peak this side of the Mississippi. But they might not know that the mountain is named for the same man who is responsible for our stone wall tradition.
John Blythe, special projects and outreach coordinator at UNC Library’s North Carolina Collection, reminded me about these connections in a recent Sunday school class he taught at University Presbyterian Church. That church is right across Franklin Street from the stone wall that borders the university’s old campus.
Your question then might be, what do Mitchell’s stone walls and high mountain have to do with anything related to a church?
Good question, and I will share Blythe’s answer in a minute.
But first, a little more about the mountain, courtesy of Timothy Silver’s informative book, “Mount Mitchell & the Black Mountains.” We may have a hazy notion that Mount Mitchell is a part of the Great Smoky or the Blue Ridge Mountains. Actually, it is part of an entirely separate mountain group called the Black Mountains. This small range has six of the 10 highest peaks in eastern North America, and 18 of its peaks are over 6,300 ft. high.
In 1835, a time when Mount Washington in New Hampshire was thought to be the highest in the east, Mitchell measured what he thought to be the highest peak in the Black Mountains at 6,476 feet, which was higher than the then-reported height of Mount Washington, 6,234 feet.
Today’s measurement of Mount Mitchell puts the height at 6,684 feet, but Mitchell got the relative position of the Black Mountain peak he measured just right.
Twenty years later, however, a question arose about whether Mitchell had actually measured the highest of the Black Mountain’s peaks. When the question developed into a bitter controversy, Mitchell, as a much older man, attempted to retrace his climb to the top of that highest one. On the climb he fell to his death, leaving behind for eternal debate the question of which peak he actually measured in 1835.
Back to the question of why Mitchell was the subject of a Sunday School lesson. Blythe reported that, in addition to teaching the sciences and math, surveying the geology western North Carolina, and serving in various university administrative positions, including acting president, Mitchell was a licensed Presbyterian minister. He led chapel services at the university and was probably the first supply minister of the Presbyterian congregation that organized in the late 1820s.
Perfectly appropriate then, wasn’t it, for a Presbyterian Sunday School class to be learning about their church’s first pastor?
Note: You can follow John Blythe’s blog about connections to North Carolina history at:

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at