WHAT HAPPENED IN THE MOUNTAINS
If I speak of myself in this story, it is because I have been
deeply involved in its startling events, events doubtless among the
most extraordinary which this twentieth century will witness.
Sometimes I even ask myself if all this has really happened, if its
pictures dwell in truth in my memory, and not merely in my
imagination. In my position as head inspector in the federal police
department at Washington, urged on moreover by the desire, which
has always been very strong in me, to investigate and understand
everything which is mysterious, I naturally became much interested
in these remarkable occurrences. And as I have been employed by the
government in various important affairs and secret missions since I
was a mere lad, it also happened very naturally that the head of my
department placed In my charge this astonishing investigation,
wherein I found myself wrestling with so many impenetrable
In the remarkable passages of the recital, it is important that
you should believe my word. For some of the facts I can bring no
other testimony than my own. If you do not wish to believe me, so
be it. I can scarce believe it all myself.
The strange occurrences began in the western part of our great
American State of North Carolina. There, deep amid the Blueridge
Mountains rises the crest called the Great Eyrie. Its huge rounded
form is distinctly seen from the little town of Morganton on the
Catawba River, and still more clearly as one approaches the
mountains by way of the village of Pleasant Garden.
Why the name of Great Eyrie was originally given this mountain
by the people of the surrounding region, I am not quite Sure It
rises rocky and grim and inaccessible, and under certain
atmospheric conditions has a peculiarly blue and distant effect.
But the idea one would naturally get from the name is of a refuge
for birds of prey, eagles condors, vultures; the home of vast
numbers of the feathered tribes, wheeling and screaming above peaks
beyond the reach of man. Now, the Great Eyrie did not seem
particularly attractive to birds; on the contrary, the people of
the neighborhood began to remark that on some days when birds
approached its summit they mounted still further, circled high
above the crest, and then flew swiftly away, troubling the air with
Why then the name Great Eyrie? Perhaps the mount might better
have been called a crater, for in the center of those steep and
rounded walls there might well be a huge deep basin. Perhaps there
might even lie within their circuit a mountain lake, such as exists
in other parts of the Appalachian mountain system, a lagoon fed by
the rain and the winter snows.
In brief was not this the site of an ancient volcano, one which
had slept through ages, but whose inner fires might yet reawake?
Might not the Great Eyrie reproduce in its neighborhood the
violence of Mount Krakatoa or the terrible disaster of Mont Pelee?
If there were indeed a central lake, was there not danger that its
waters, penetrating the strata beneath, would be turned to steam by
the volcanic fires and tear their way forth in a tremendous
explosion, deluging the fair plains of Carolina with an eruption
such as that of 1902 in Martinique?
Indeed, with regard to this last possibility there had been
certain symptoms recently observed which might well be due to
volcanic action. Smoke had floated above the mountain and once the
country folk passing near had heard subterranean noises,
unexplainable rumblings. A glow in the sky had crowned the height
When the wind blew the smoky cloud eastward toward Pleasant
Garden, a few cinders and ashes drifted down from it. And finally
one stormy night pale flames, reflected from the clouds above the
summit, cast upon the district below a sinister, warning light.
In presence of these strange phenomena, it is not astonishing
that the people of the surrounding district became seriously
disquieted. And to the disquiet was joined an imperious need of
knowing the true condition of the mountain. The Carolina newspapers
had flaring headlines, “The Mystery of Great Eyrie!”
They asked if it was not dangerous to dwell in such a region. Their
articles aroused curiosity and fear—curiosity among those who
being in no danger themselves were interested in the disturbance
merely as a strange phenomenon of nature, fear in those who were
likely to be the victims if a catastrophe actually occurred. Those
more immediately threatened were the citizens of Morganton, and
even more the good folk of Pleasant Garden and the hamlets and
farms yet closer to the mountain.
Assuredly it was regrettable that mountain climbers had not
previously attempted to ascend to the summit of the Great Eyrie.
The cliffs of rock which surrounded it had never been scaled.
Perhaps they might offer no path by which even the most daring
climber could penetrate to the interior. Yet, if a volcanic
eruption menaced all the western region of the Carolinas, then a
complete examination of the mountain was become absolutely
Now before the actual ascent of the crater, with its many
serious difficulties, was attempted, there was one way which
offered an opportunity of reconnoitering the interior, with out
clambering up the precipices. In the first days of September of
that memorable year, a well-known aeronaut named Wilker came to
Morganton with his balloon. By waiting for a breeze from the east,
he could easily rise in his balloon and drift over the Great Eyrie.
There from a safe height above he could search with a powerful
glass into its deeps. Thus he would know if the mouth of a volcano
really opened amid the mighty rocks. This was the principal
question. If this were settled, it would be known if the
surrounding country must fear an eruption at some period more or
The ascension was begun according to the programme suggested.
The wind was fair and steady; the sky clear; the morning clouds
were disappearing under the vigorous rays of the sun. If the
interior of the Great Eyrie was not filled with smoke, the aeronaut
would be able to search with his glass its entire extent. If the
vapors were rising, he, no doubt, could detect their source.
The balloon rose at once to a height of fifteen hundred feet,
and there rested almost motionless for a quarter of an hour.
Evidently the east wind, which was brisk upon the Surface of the
earth, did not make itself felt at that height. Then, unlucky
chance, the balloon was caught in an adverse current, and began to
drift toward the east. Its distance from the mountain chain rapidly
increased. Despite all the efforts of the aeronaut, the citizens of
Morganton saw the balloon disappear on the wrong horizon. Later,
they learned that it had landed in the neighborhood of Raleigh, the
capital of North Carolina.
This attempt having failed, it was agreed that it should be
tried again under better conditions. Indeed, fresh rumblings were
heard from the mountain, accompanied by heavy clouds and wavering
glimmerings of light at night. Folk began to realize that the Great
Eyrie was a serious and perhaps imminent source of danger. Yes, the
entire country lay under the threat of some seismic or volcanic
During the first days of April of that year, these more or less
vague apprehensions turned to actual panic. The newspapers gave
prompt echo to the public terror. The entire district between the
mountains and Morganton was sure that an eruption was at hand.
The night of the fourth of April, the good folk of Pleasant
Garden were awakened by a sudden uproar. They thought that the
mountains were falling upon them. They rushed from their houses,
ready for instant flight, fearing to see open before them some
immense abyss, engulfing the farms and villages for miles
The night was very dark. A weight of heavy clouds pressed down
upon the plain. Even had it been day the crest of the mountains
would have been invisible.
In the midst of this impenetrable obscurity, there was no
response to the cries which arose from every side. Frightened
groups of men, women, and children groped their way along the black
roads in wild confusion. From every quarter came the screaming
voices: “It is an earthquake!” “It is an
eruption!” “Whence comes it?” “From the
Into Morganton sped the news that stones, lava, ashes, were
raining down upon the country.
Shrewd citizens of the town, however, observed that if there
were an eruption the noise would have continued and increased, the
flames would have appeared above the crater; or at least their
lurid reflections would have penetrated the clouds. Now, even these
reflections were no longer seen. If there had been an earthquake,
the terrified people saw that at least their houses had not
crumbled beneath the shock. It was possible that the uproar had
been caused by an avalanche, the fall of some mighty rock from the
summit of the mountains.
An hour passed without other incident. A wind from the west
sweeping over the long chain of the Blueridge, set the pines and
hemlocks wailing on the higher slopes. There seemed no new cause
for panic; and folk began to return to their houses. All, however,
awaited impatiently the return of day.
Then suddenly, toward three o’clock in the morning,
another alarm! Flames leaped up above the rocky wall of the Great
Eyrie. Reflected from the clouds, they illuminated the atmosphere
for a great distance. A crackling, as if of many burning trees, was
Had a fire spontaneously broken out? And to what cause was it
due? Lightning could not have started the conflagration; for no
thunder had been heard. True, there was plenty of material for
fire; at this height the chain of the Blueridge is well wooded. But
these flames were too sudden for any ordinary cause.
“An eruption! An eruption!”
The cry resounded from all sides. An eruption! The Great Eyrie
was then indeed the crater of a volcano buried in the bowels of the
mountains. And after so many years, so many ages even, had it
reawakened? Added to the flames, was a rain of stones and ashes
about to follow? Were the lavas going to pour down torrents of
molten fire, destroying everything in their passage, annihilating
the towns, the villages, the farms, all this beautiful world of
meadows, fields and forests, even as far as Pleasant Garden and
This time the panic was overwhelming; nothing could stop it.
Women carrying their infants, crazed with terror, rushed along the
eastward roads. Men, deserting their homes, made hurried bundles of
their most precious belongings and set free their livestock, cows,
sheep, pigs, which fled in all directions. What disorder resulted
from this agglomeration, human and animal, under darkest night,
amid forests, threatened by the fires of the volcano, along the
border of marshes whose waters might be upheaved and overflow! With
the earth itself threatening to disappear from under the feet of
the fugitives! Would they be in time to save themselves, if a
cascade of glowing lava came rolling down the slope of the mountain
across their route?
Nevertheless, some of the chief and shrewder farm owners were
not swept away in this mad flight, which they did their best to
restrain. Venturing within a mile of the mountain, they saw that
the glare of the flames was decreasing. In truth it hardly seemed
that the region was immediately menaced by any further upheaval. No
stones were being hurled into space; no torrent of lava was visible
upon the slopes; no rumblings rose from the ground. There was no
further manifestation of any seismic disturbance capable of
overwhelming the land.
At length, the flight of the fugitives ceased at a distance
where they seemed secure from all danger. Then a few ventured back
toward the mountain. Some farms were reoccupied before the break of
By morning the crests of the Great Eyrie showed scarcely the
least remnant of its cloud of smoke. The fires were certainly at an
end; and if it were impossible to determine their cause, one might
at least hope that they would not break out again.
It appeared possible that the Great Eyrie had not really been
the theater of volcanic phenomena at all. There was no further
evidence that the neighborhood was at the mercy either of eruptions
or of earthquakes.
Yet once more about five o’clock, from beneath the ridge
of the mountain, where the shadows of night still lingered, a
strange noise swept across the air, a sort of whirring, accompanied
by the beating of mighty wings. And had it been a clear day,
perhaps the farmers would have seen the passage of a mighty bird of
prey, some monster of the skies, which having risen from the Great
Eyrie sped away toward the east.