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The Mysteries of Paris Mountain

May 14, 2010

            Earlier this spring, I was teaching a storytelling class at Furman University. As I was leaving the picturesque campus of my alma mater nestled at the foot of Paris Mountain, I recalled a brutal afternoon I spent on the mountain.

As difficult as it may be to believe, when I was a student at Furman and many pounds lighter, I was on the track and the cross-country teams. I was a long distance runner. One day at cross-country practice, Coach Jimmy Carnes said that he thought we might play a game of basketball. “But first,” he said with a smile on his face, “I want you warm up.  Run from campus to the top of Paris Mountain and back down the other side.”

We thought he was kidding. He was not.

We ran the entire eighteen mile loop. Then we played basketball.

My legs have never been the same. I developed a crippling case of shin splints and was on crutches for several weeks. 

Forty-six years have passed since I panted and plodded up and down the twisting road that crosses Paris Mountain. On my recent visit, I decided to drive to the top of that ancient peak.

As I enjoyed the view from the summit, several questions came to mind. Why does this mountain sit alone as if alienated from its Blue Ridge cousins? Why is there a state park all but hidden at the bottom of the mountain? Why would a mountain in Greenville County be named for the capital city of France?

I spent the next several hours learning the answers to my own questions.    

Paris Mountain is a monadnock located north of the city.  Monadnock is originally a Native American term for a lone mountain that stands above the surrounding area. In the Carolinas these only occur in the Piedmont. Other examples are Pilot Mountain, Kings Mountain, and Table Rock. These mountains have survived erosion. They tower above the rolling hills.  Paris Mountain is a single giant rock of hard basalt that rises about 1800 feet above sea level.  

From 1889 to 1918, the Paris Mountain Water Company built numerous lakes and dams on the mountain creating the first water system for Greenville. The City of Greenville purchased the company and operated the system until a new reservoir at Table Rock was created.  In 1935, the city donated the land for use as a state park.

Paris Mountain State Park was originally built during the economic recovery efforts following The Great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park, building many of the facilities that are still in use. The original stone and timber construction takes visitors back in time.

Archaeologists have found evidence that confirms Native American activity on the mountain as early as 11,000 years ago. The area was part of the Cherokee hunting grounds. The tribe ceded these lands to South Carolina in 1777. The Indians remained in their mountain homeland for several years after signing the treaty.

The first settler is commemorated on an historical marker at Reedy River Falls Historic Park. The inscription reads:

Richard Pearis, Greenville’s first white settler, was an Irish adventurer who had settled in Virginia with his wife and family by the middle of the eighteenth century. He developed good trade relationships with the Cherokee Indians, had a son by an Indian woman, and in 1770 acquired title to 100,000 acres of Indian land in what is now Greenville County. He set up his Great Plains Plantation with a trading post and grist mill on the banks of the Reedy River. Pearis was wooed by both Patriots and Tories when the American Revolution began. When he went with the British, Patriots burned his home, mill, and store. He fled to the Bahamas and never returned to Greenville.  Paris Mountain is named for him.

In her book, Hidden History of Greenville County (2009), Alexia Jones Helsley tells the rest of the story.

In 1786, the South Carolina Legislature created Greenville County. Lemuel James Alston offered land for the new courthouse. Alston had been a delegate in 1788 to the South Carolina Convention to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America.

Lemuel Alston acquired the former site of Richard Pearis’s Great Plains Plantation. With the courthouse location set, Alston laid out the plan for the village of Pleasantburg.

The new town sat on hills just below the falls of the Reedy River. By 1805, the town had still not developed as Alston had envisioned. After serving two terms in the United States House of Representatives, Alston was defeated, and he became discouraged.

In 1815, he sold the village of Pleasantburg to Vardry McBee, a successful, self-made businessman from Lincolnton, North Carolina. McBee is known as the father of Greenville.

Some say there are ghosts on Paris Mountain. The old Greenville Tuberculosis Hospital is located nearby. After it was no longer a TB sanitarium, the 40,000 square foot building was used to house the criminally insane. It is now known as Devil’s Castle.

Legend has it that at twilight the sound of trudging footsteps can be heard and fleeting shadows can be seen moving across the mountain in the fading light.

I have it on good authority that all that commotion is just an exhausted Furman sophomore whose legs are hurting. He’s struggling to keep up with his teammates and get back to campus before dark.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2010
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