Most A.T. Enthusiasts Know About Katahdin, But Whatís
The Story Behind Springer
by Victoria Logue

Plaque on Springer"Those mountains are nothing but a desert with trees," said historian Bob Davis, Jr. of the North Georgia Mountains. Shunned by Indian and settlers, alike, the history of the mountains of North Georgia remains a mystery. And, Springer, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail seems to bear the biggest question mark of all.

Like the rest of the Appalachian Mountain chain, Springer Mountain was unimaginably ancient when the Rockies and Himalayas did not yet exist, Davis explained. In nearby Pickens County, there are signs of Indianís mining and trading quartz about 5,000 years ago. The first westerners to enter the area were Hernando De Soto and his conquistadors who in 1540 ventured into Gilmer County, where Springer is located. They brought with them diseases which decimated the Indian kingdom of Coosa. When English explorers ventured south from Virginia in the 17th Century, they found the area almost unpopulated, according to Davis.

To the north of Springer, the Cherokees made their last, desperate, and unsuccessful stand against the invading American militia in 1776, Davis said. The Indians bypassed Springer and its surrounding mountains and settled in the Cohutta Mountains of Northwest Georgia. Less than 100 years later, most of the Cherokees were removed permanently from Georgia by way of The Trail of Tears.

In 1832, Davis said, the North Georgia mountains were surveyed into land lots and given away to Georgia citizens by lottery. But this deciduous desert was eschewed by it owners who sold their lots to land speculators.

"Vast empires of trees and mountains were owned by land speculators in Philadelphia and Baltimore who never even came to Georgia," Davis explained. "Because so much of the land was owned by these distant few, the population of North Georgia remained extremely sparse until after the Civil War."

Even the North Georgia Gold Rush left Springer unmarred. The few people who lived among the coves of the North Georgia mountains had been driven their from their former homes by wealthy, slave-owning planters. Unfriendly to the Confederacy because they feared enslavement for themselves, many of the mountain people fled the mountains for Union-friendly states. Following the War between the States, the starving, over-taxed mountain folks were forced into making alcohol and tobacco illegally.

"The mountains provided an ideal haven for producing untaxed alcohol," Davis explained. The remnants of stills can still be found--even along the Appalachian Trail. While the moonshine wars raged, lumbering devastated the land around Springer. But, as families fled the mountains for the cities in the first half of this century, 741,000 acres of North Georgia mountains were purchased to create the Chattahoochee National Forest. The scars slowly healed and much of the natural beauty has returned to the area.

At least as late as 1910, the U.S. Geological Survey was calling the long, loaf-shaped mountain by the name of Springer. But where did the name Springer come from. The most likely possibility is that it was named in honor of William G. Springer, an early settler appointed in 1833 by Governor Lumpkin to implement legislation to improve conditions for the Indians. There is a chance that Springer was named for the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in Georgia--John Springer--who was ordained in 1790.

As late as 1959, some residents of Gilmer County were still calling Springer, Penitentiary Mountain. According to the Gilmer County Historical Society, the name was officially changed by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC). Nobody seems to know why it was called Penitentiary--the origin of the name having been lost over time.

At 3,782 feet, Springer is the mountain which divides the northern and southern extensions of the Appalachians in Georgia--one branch heading northwest to the Cohuttas, the other southwest to Mount Oglethorpe.

When in 1956 (the Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937) the GATC saw the increasing devastation around the southern terminus of Mount Oglethorpe, the group recommended to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) that a new terminus be found. A road to the summit of Oglethorpe had made it easy for vandals to achieve access to the mountainís peak and to the marble monument to Georgiaís founder--James Edward Oglethorpe. The desecration of the monument and massive littering along with uncooperative landowners who lumbered the area and set up trailside chicken coops brought the need for a new terminus to a head.

The possibilities for a new terminus were studied and included Fort Mountain in the Cohuttas, and Amicalola Lake and Frosty Mountain, which were between Springer and Oglethorpe. Because Fort Mountain would mean constructing another 40 miles of trail and Amicalola Lake and Frosty were too easily accessed by the public, it was finally decided to recommend Springer with the existing trail from Amicalola to Springer being used as a blue-blazed approach trail. The 14 miles from Amicalola to Oglethorpe would be abandoned. With the trail starting on Springer, the southern terminus would be on public rather than private land. The summit of Springer Mountain now features the southern terminus of the Benton MacKaye trail as well as the Appalachian Trail.

Springer Mountain can be reached in a number of the ways, the most popular of which is by the approach trail at Amicalola Falls State Park. The 8.7-mile approach trail starts behind the visitors center and there are several difficult climbs before you reach Springer Mountain. According to Patty Wade, a naturalist at Amicalola, the park office registered 270 people attempting the hike to Springer from between December of 1990 and November of 1991. She said another 243 wrote that they would be attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Wade said that the figures werenít entirely accurate because not everyone who uses the approach trail to Springer signs in at the visitor center. She also said that although they have no count of the number of people who never make it to Springer, she knows that each year there are a number of people who turn around and come back or after hiking for a few days find a phone and call to be picked up.

"I wish we did know how many people do not make it," she said, "because it would be nice for people to see the reality of the difficulty of the trail."

Springer can also be reached by USFS 28 at Nimblewill Gap and by USFS 42 at Big Stamp Gap. At Nimblewill Gap, it is a 2.5-mile hike north to Springer. Unfortunately, there are many times during the year that USFS 28 is closed to anything but four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicles because wet weather can wash out the road.

From Big Stamp Gap, it is a .9-mile hike south to the summit of Springer. USFS 42 is usually open to most traffic although the shortcut, by way of USFS 28 and USFS 77, is often impassable by anything but four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicles.

Maps of Chattahoochee National Forest (showing details of how to get to Springer) are available both at Amicalola Falls and through the USFS at:

      Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests
      1755 Cleveland Highway
      Gainesville, GA 30501
      Phone: 770 536-0541

~Copyright 1990 Victoria Logue

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