On this day in WNC history: The mountains of WNC occasionally experience earthquakes, which often pass without much notice or damage. In 1874, however, the mountains at the eastern edge of the Hickory Nut Gorge began to thunder and shudder the day after a self-styled preacher reportedly exhorted the Lord to cause the earth to tremble to compel the sinners around him to take heed.

Posey (or Posay) Owensby was a farmer living on the McDowell County side of Stone Mountain (see map). Newspapers of the day reported he held a three-day revival before local residents felt the first tremors under the mountain. In a state of religious fervor, many locals supposedly panicked, thinking the world was ending or a volcano was set to erupt. Loud booms and rumblings continued episodically for the next month and news began spreading throughout the country. Geologist Warren DuPre of Wofford College embarked on a journey in mid-March “to allay, if possible, the fears of the inhabitants.” Travelling up and around Bald and Stone mountains, he decided the epicenter lay underneath Stone Mountain and was caused by mundane geologic activity from the natural subsidence of the mountain range, and determined blasting on the WNC Railroad near Old Fort was not to blame.

DuPre also quickly ascertained that some of the reported paranoia had been exaggerated by news accounts, noting the locals of varying intelligence he met “unanimously contradicted the many rumors of gaping rocks, smoking peaks, sinking caverns, melting snows, &c.” with which newspapers teemed. Nevertheless, the northern press—particularly Harper’s Weekly—ran with the story as the activity continued over the next month. In April, Harper’s described the frenzied paranoia of locals flocking to preachers in repentance, including a moonshiner who confessed his transgressions to authorities. They also portrayed the inhabitants as “simple hearted…poor whites…ignorant and superstitious to the last degree,” living in crude houses and subsisting on illegal distilling. While DuPre’s words mostly reached a limited audience at the Smithsonian, the latter depiction of the region reached a wide readership in the same year Frances Fisher Tiernan and her illustrator toured WNC, inspiring her later novel “The Land of the Sky.”

Depiction of terrified family, Harper’s Weekly, April 11, 1874

Lynch’s complete map of Rutherford County, 1905, East Carolina University Digital Collections

Excerpts of DuPre’s report, “On A Series of Earthquakes in North Carolina, Commencing on the 10th of February, 1874.”

Raleigh News, March 31, 1874