2/19/1812, Letter dated 1/10/1812, Burke County
I herewith communicate to you a brief account of the cause of those dreadful shocks which have lately shaken these mountains to their base, whole foundations were laid when the Almighty Architect first reduced chaos to order.
On the morning of the 16th ultimo, a great smoke was seen to issue from the top of "Spear's Mountain," which is detached from that range and extends from the Blue Ridge to Swananoe River, and ends some miles below its junction with French Broad.* The great noise that was heard through the day, and continued smoke, left no doubt but it was a VOLCANO, that had burst out during the earthquake. The mountain is conical and insulated; it's base is washed on the west side by French Broad River, on the east side it is separated by a narrow valley (overhung in some places by large rocks) from that ridge called French Broad Mountains; their bare socks, stunted vegetation, and arid surface, shew that they have long felt that subterranean fire, which probably gave heat to the Warm Springs, and has at last burst out with such dreadful fury. It still continues to burn with great violence, and throws up lava, scoria, ashes, calcined stones, and vitrified matter, in great quantities, and with the most tremendous noise.
The quantity of lava discharged at the beginning of the eruption was immense; it ran down the mountain in a stream of liquid fire, for more than three quarters of a mile, and has formed a dam across French Broad River, so high as to overflow about two hundred acres of prime bottom land, to the great injury of the owners.
In the night time, the ignited stones, cinders, &c. which are thrown two or three hundred feet in the air, present a grand appearance, and have a great resemblance to artificial fire-works, such as rockets, &c. During the day a column of whitish smoke issues from the crater; at night it has a flame-like appearance, and where it has been driven with the wind, has withered the small dwarf pines which had taken root in the barren soil of this and the neighboring mountains; their bark and leaves are incrusted with a yellowish powder, which has an acrid taste, and a strong sulphuric smell.
No person has had courage sufficient to approach the crater; but those who were acquainted with the top of the mountain before the eruption, say that it was uneven and very rocky. ---The crater appears (judging by the smoke) to be twenty yards in diameter, and is growing larger. Yesterday a large mass fell in, with a greater noise than the loudest artillery: it shock the country round, and was echoed from the mountains and vallies. The lava, where cooled, has the appearance of vitrified basalt. --The stone on the mountains is hard and coarse grained, with an uneven conehoidal fracture--but no appearance of basalt. The scoria are fonorous, having a ferruginous appearance, and shews strong magnetic attraction.
Notwithstanding the terror which seized me on viewing this awful sight, I could not help smiling at the credulous simplicity of the people who inhabit the mountains.--They view it with as much awe and terror as the Children of Israel did Mount Sanai: Some say the end of Time is arrived, and think the crater is the mouth of a "bottomless pit,"--the fantastic appearances of the electric fluid, which is seen darting in various shapes through the smoke after night, by the help of fancy they transform into spirits, devils, &c. These wild ideas have been encreased by the declarations of an itinerant preacher, who calls upon them to repent, not in the language of Jonah, "Yet forty days," &c. but saying, "Behold the place of punishment for the wicked!"
In a few days, I shall go and take another look at this western Aetna. It is hoped that it will draw the attention of some Geologist or man of science, who will be able to give a correct description of it. I have seen but two pieces of pumice stone.
John Clarke Edwards
*The junction of these two rivers is laid down in Tennessee, near the border of N. Carolina, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, and in lat. 35.45, long. 83. At or near the above place are some springs, which have been long noticed for their medicinal quality and the heat of their waters, which are said to be equal to blood heat.