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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, November 2014

An Expedition to the Mysterious Stonewalls & Cairns at Mount Carbon, West Virginia

by: Dr. Greg Little

With the help and support of a local government employee—and the chance to see and hear a cuckoo bird (and other rare birds)—we spent one grueling October (2014) day at Mount Carbon (also known as Armstrong Mountain) in Fayette County, West Virginia. We were assisted by Fayette County employee Rachel Davis, a local river and bird-watching guide (Paul Shaw), and Rachel’s daughter Emma, who used the trip as a way to gather material for a school story. My wife (Dr. Lora Little), Andrew Collins, and I were primarily interested in whether any of the remains of the mysterious stonewalls and stone cairns were remaining at the site. The site was discussed extensively in several 1800’s Smithsonian publications.

We obtained permission for the trek from the mining company that holds the rights to the entire mountain, which has been logged, mined, and is currently piping gas from the mountain’s summit. However, we were required to walk up the mountain as the company would not unlock a massive metal gate that closes off the muddy and rugged logging/ mining road that winds back and forth up the mountain (liability issues kept the gate locked). It took us nearly 3 hours of continual walking up to the mountain’s 5-mile-long top. (It took only 2.25 hours to go back down.) On the top we spent about 3 hours making our way through the dense woods that are covered with fallen trees, sheer cliffs, and rocky ledges. Rattlesnakes and copperheads were one danger we were warned about, but only two snakes were seen. Unexpectedly, we encountered two small 4-wheel drive trucks driven by bear hunters who were using dogs to hunt a black bear. They had gained access to the very muddy logging road by driving into a creek bed that skirts the gated entrance some distance from the gate. They had managed to tree the bear, but it escaped before they could get a shot off. We found a lot of evidence of the bears and found that the bear paths were the best way to maneuver around the top of the mountain—until the path led to a sheer cliff. I was the only person in our group who was armed (I have a permit) but I’m not sure that a .40 semi would do much to a black bear. Luckily we did not encounter a bear but we did see and hear a lot of unusual birds—but sadly no cuckoo—which is something I’d really like to see in the wild. The area is a paradise for bird watchers and has several festivals throughout the year.

Armstrong Mountain’s mystery walls have been reported since the first settlers entered the area. The black flint found on the mountain was highly desired and was utilized for a variety of tools as early as the Clovis period (circa 10,000 B.C.). In 1884 Col. Norris of the Smithsonian visited the site and excavated several rock cairns. (These were unusual rock burial mounds that contained some skeletal remains, pottery, and a variety of artifacts. These mounds had circular shafts from their top to the bottom, which have mistakenly been called “wells” by some writers.) In one area of the mountain Norris reported that 21 rock cairns were present. He also reported that there were several massive stonewalls arranged around the mountain’s edges, but he wrote that they were probably not used for defense. Many earlier reports stated that the walls extended for 10 miles around the mountain’s cliff sides, but that assertion is unlikely. There were at least 5 or so separate walls, many of which were 20-30 feet wide with varying heights. Norris also found massive quantities of black flint from the site and at the museum in South Charleston we saw a lot of flint artifacts from the site and nearby areas. The purpose of the walls remains a mystery.

Norris did not complete his work on the mountain; he died of a heart attack while excavating a cairn there. This event may have led to the mysterious walls being nearly forgotten, but several times in the past locals have tried to survey the site. In 1935 a large group of Boy Scouts examined the mountain with locals and found that most of the walls and cairns were still there. In 1958 archaeological work was done at the site by James Kellar of the University of Georgia. He found that many of the 21 cairns remained along with several large portions of the walls. However, by 1970 it was reported that strip mining had destroyed almost all remaining traces of the ruins. Several newspaper reports detailed trips by groups of archaeologists to the site in 1970 with the culmination being a public meeting held on a flat area at the top of the mountain. The area was flattened by the mining company at a spot where two roads had been crudely made by a bulldozer. It was at the spot where a large “flint workshop” and the 21 stone cairns were once located. One of the cairns at this location was described as a “stone tower” in the Smithsonian reports. It was 10 feet high with a diameter of 50 feet. At this precise location we found countless black flint chips and large pieces of flint scattered everywhere. A round pit for toxic waste was located next to an active gas well in the center of the flat area. The newspaper reports from 1970 related that it was this precise area where the “tower” had once been located as well as the other 21 cairns. The newspaper related that it had all been destroyed by the mining operations but the mining company blamed archaeologists for not informing them of the locations of the archaeological ruins.

Near this flat area we discovered the remains of one large stone cairn that had apparently been partly excavated. It had been spared because it was near a road and was obscured by earth and stone pushed into adjacent woods by a bulldozer. There is no doubt that it was a cairn and the local guide found evidence from tree stumps that the cairn had been undisturbed for some time. The partial excavation of the cairn led me to suspect that this had been the cairn Norris was excavating when he suffered his heart attack. We searched the adjacent wooded areas but could find only one other possible mound in the immediate area. In several wooded places in the area of the 21 cairns we found that masses of rocks had been scattered and flattened. Some distance away, perhaps 2 miles from the flat area, we attempted to locate several mounds that had previously existed, but we found that they had sadly been located in a clear-cut area that had been flattened for a pipeline or power lines that were not yet up—but the poles for the lines were lying on the ground.

Andrew Collins was also able to find the remains of one rock wall that had been obscured by years of tree growth, fallen limbs, and decades of decaying leaves. It was a long row of rocks of various sizes that had been arranged on the edge of a steep cliff. We were able to look only at a small part of the mountain due to time constraints and perhaps 90% of the areas where walls and other structures are supposedly located were not visited. We did take GPS coordinates of all of the formations we did find. We are planning a return trip.

In summary it is clear that at least some of the mysterious ruins on Armstrong Mountain/Mount Carbon remain at the site. Mining has not destroyed all of it, but it’s likely that the sheer numbers of the walls and cairns that were spread out for miles on the mountain’s top is the key factor involved in their preservation. One recommendation that we would make is that Fayette County establish a portion of a local museum (perhaps with the Fayette County Historical Society) that is devoted to the Mount Carbon ruins. We would be pleased to contribute some photos and film for this project. We will publish these photos in the Mound Encyclopedia.


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