LOST COVE, NC. (WJHL) — Back in the mountains above Erwin stand the remains of a town long abandoned and sometimes forgotten.
For nearly 100 years, Lost Cove stood in proud isolation. A once thriving community in the mountains between Unicoi County, Tennessee and Yancey County, North Carolina. For nearly 50 of those years, neither state would lay claim to the town, spurring rumor and lore for what was happening high up in the hills.
It’s no easy feat to get to Lost Cove. By foot is the only option, even when it was inhabited, paved roads never entered the town.
The origins of Lost Cove are shrouded in mystery; some claim it dates back to Daniel Boone. According to historian Christy Smith, no records indicate it was formed before the Civil War.
“The first person in here was Morgan Bailey — Stephen Morgan Bailey — and he was a Union soldier with the third mountain infantry,” said Smith. “Deeds before the early 1900s, they’re pretty hard to find…the earliest that I could find anything was around 1868.”
According to Smith, Morgan Bailey and Rev. John D. Tipton were the first to own land in the Cove. Until the early 1900s, Lost Cove was a disputed territory, not claimed by either North Carolina or Tennessee. Despite that, the town kept growing.
“At the height of the town, there were close to 100 people that lived here at one time,” said Smith. “What you don’t see is that there were around 13 to 15 houses as well.”
Smith said the town has always been known as Lost Cove well before it was abandoned. There are many theories as to how the town got its name.
“Especially when it came to moonshine and because of [it being] disputed territory, they were actually charged in a court of law for being into disputed territory, hence Lost Cove,” said Smith.
Smith said moonshining enabled Lost Cove residents to earn extra income, and their isolation often protected them from the revenuers enforcing liquor laws.
The town became practically self-sustaining. Within 20 years, a church was established.
“The first known one was built in 1880; it was called Tipton Chapel,” said Smith. “Eventually, the church, according to the Jack’s Creek Free Will Baptist Association, the church would gain their membership, lose it — their charter — and then it became Mountain View Free Will Baptist in the early 30s.”
The building also served as the Lost Cove School House. Children from kindergarten to 11th grade all learned in one room. One of the resources they always imported was teachers.
“[Teachers] would actually live with Velmar Bailey’s family as well as Chester Bailey’s family during the week,” said Smith. “On the weekend, they would go home.”
Teresa Miller-Bowman’s mother, Faye Johnson, taught in Lost Cove, which is where she met Teresa’s father, Ulis Miller. By the time Johnson started teaching in Lost Cove, Ulis Miller had already moved out with the Army. Bowman said her mother, who grew up in another part of Yancey County, was asked by her former principal to teach in Lost Cove. Ulis Miller and Faye Johnson met when Miller had returned to visit.
“They had the June meeting, which is the decoration and preaching services and all at the cemetery,” said Miller. “People who’ve moved away would come back in, and my father didn’t live there anymore. He lived in Erwin.”
Bowman would eventually move in temporarily with her mother. She was asked to teach again when long-time teacher Sinclair Conley fell ill.
“That’s when I was three,” said Bowman. “We were staying with Carrie and Chester [Bailey]…that would have been about 1957 or so.”
Bowman said her mother hiked up to Lost Cove from the railroad in high heels. Students would meet them at the railroad to carry little Teresa up the mountain.
Eventually, lumber became the primary source of income for the residents. Smith said the first sawmill was built in Lost Cove in 1905; another was built after 1910 by Mac English, and yet another in 1939 after the second burned down. The sawmills drew more people into the Cove, creating more families.
Roy Guthrie was born in Lost Cove in 1941. His parents, Trula Bryant and Ari Lee Guthrie, met in Lost Cove. Bryant was born and raised in Lost Cove. Guthrie’s father and grandfather had moved in to work in lumber.
“My granddad [worked] for lumber,” said Guthrie. “Granddaddy Guthrie went in there with his logging, and daddy went in with him.”
Timber had also brought Bowman’s grandparents into Lost Cove. Her father and uncles also worked in lumber before leaving the town.
“Daddy and Uncle Cliff were driving the truck in Lost Cove to bring the logs down to the railroad track,” said Bowman.
Despite the increased connection to the outside world, the families mostly produced their own food.
“They raised cattle and chickens and they had hogs, and they had their resources that they lived from,” said Bowman. “They grew gardens, of course. And like I mentioned, my grandfather, John had a little apple orchard.”
That self-sufficiency would not last forever. Eventually, Lost Cove transformed into the memory it is today.
“The outside world started trickling in because they could no longer ride a passenger train ride; they could no longer use the timber because all of it had been depleted,” said Smith.
The end of passenger trains made getting in and out of town more difficult. Even with the train, visitors had to hike into town; without it, that trek became even longer.
“It was hard for people to get back and forth,” said Bowman. “They had to either walk to Poplar, North Carolina for supplies or walk to Erwin. It was just an economic thing.”
Just as work had brought Guthrie’s father into town, it was also the reason he left.
“My daddy went to work in Newport News in the shipyard,” said Guthrie.
Guthrie, his mother, and two brothers would spend more time in Lost Cove after initially moving out.
Bowman’s father and his brothers turned to the military and eventually took other jobs outside of Lost Cove.
In 1957, the school closed due to consolidations in Yancey County. Students had to leave town and board with families in other Yancey County towns to get an education. The few who were left ended up moving out.
“Isaiah Bailey was one of the last ones in 11th grade,” said Smith. “In his 12th-grade season, he had to go to Bee Log School. So, he had to actually walk out of Lost Cove.”
Lack of access to medical care also took some people out of Lost Cove. If residents needed medical attention, doctors and midwives hiked into the town or they had to travel miles out to a hospital.
“They would call in a doctor if needed,” said Smith. “A lot of times, you could see the attending doctor, whether that was here, or whether that might have been in Burnsville, or Spruce Pine or somewhere like that, where there was a hospital or a doctor.”
At times, illness was devastating. Guthrie lost both his mother and youngest brother to tuberculosis. Guthrie was just 3-years-old when his mother died. His brother Odell died at 15 months old. Both are buried in the Lost Cove Cemetery.
Tuberculosis and meningitis took other young people in the Cove as well.
“Bonnie [Miller] was 16 when she died; she died from tuberculosis,” said Smith. “One of the youngest is Nola Tipton, and she died around 1 year old…I think it was meningitis.”
Bonnie Miller was the older sister of Ulis Miller, Bowman’s aunt.
In time, it became too hard to stay. According to Smith, Isaiah Bailey’s family was the last to leave Lost Cove in 1958. However, she said no one truly believed it was a permanent goodbye.
“Almost everybody left their stoves, left their beds, left tables and chairs in their houses,” said Smith. “They always thought that they would come back.”
Although the families had all moved out, many returned on occasion for vacations over the years. Bowman said her family often returned for weeks during the summer. She said they would haul in just what they needed on a cart her dad had made. Time spent up there was used to relax and reminisce.
Eventually, vandals, fires and fallen trees took their toll. Only two homes still stand; stone foundations and chimneys mark where others once stood.
The earth continues to reclaim more and more of the hand-built town.
“A lot of them built their houses out of the timber that they cut,” said Smith. “I don’t think this house will be standing in more than a year, year two…the trees already come into the back of it, right? So, the land will eventually take her back.”
Descendents said maintaining the town’s memory is important, as so few who lived there are still alive today.
“Anything in history is important, in my opinion,” said Guthrie. “That’s a place that will never come back.”
Bowman said she is proud of her family who worked so hard to maintain life in Lost Cove. She wants people to know who they truly were.
“They were very hard-working and self-sufficient, resourceful people,” said Bowman. “I’m just very proud of them.”
Smith began visiting Lost Cove in the 1980s as a child. In 1995, she began writing about the town. In 2007, she wrote a dissertation on the town for her graduate degree from ETSU. The same year, she collected interviews from those who had lived in Lost Cove. Smith recently released her book, “Lost Cove, North Carolina: A Portrait of a Vanished Appalachian Community, 1864-1957.” It is now in its second print and is available for purchase on Amazon.