The trails of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park are more than entryways to view natural beauty. They are more than paths to be chronicled and hiked.
Often they are the portals through which the history of the mountains can be accessed.
Whether they run along the same spines carved by native peoples’ generations before Europeans set foot in North America or they were carved later with a specific purpose in mind, the trails of the Smokies lead to the mountains’ history.
They lead past historic settlements and homesteads. They weave through ancient lumberjack camps and the rotting remains of eccentric millionaires’ wonderlands.
They lead you to the stories of the mountain people, poor, resilient, self-reliant and they lead you to exotic getaways designed to cater to the nation’s wealthy before the stock market crash.
They are conduits through which you can access bits and pieces of a very different time.
The Grapeyard Ridge Trail is one of these.
The fateful steam engine crash at Injun Creek
The Grapeyard Ridge Trail connects the Greenbrier Community to the Roaring Fork Motor Trail region, though many hikers don’t try to attempt the nearly 15-mile full length of the trail.
No. There’s a destination spot, about three miles from the trailhead off Greenbrier Road, which serves as an excellent stopping point and a history lesson all in one.
The story is this: Back in the 1920s, before the park was created, loggers operated in the mountains, felling massive numbers of tall, straight trees that made lumber for the nation.
While lumberjacks were employed, machinery was key in the success of the operation. And so it was that a Michigan-made Nichols and Shepard steam tractor engine made its way into a creek at the bottom of a ravine in the Smoky Mountains.
According to multiple sources, the driver of the engine – which was essentially a tractor that looked like a small steam locomotive – was drunk and drove the machine off the side of the cliff.
The engine – which had a belt system that could be detached and used to power a lumber saw deep in the forest – rolled down the mountainside and landed in what was later dubbed “Injun Creek”.
The same sources also indicate the name of the creek came from the fact that a mountain surveyor who came upon the wreckage could not spell “engine”.
A look at the wreckage 100 years later
Now, 100 years later, several large pieces of the engine and tractor remain in surprisingly non-rusted condition.
Partially enveloped by the creek and the soft forest ground, there’s a large piece of the engine, lying upside down, as well as a wheel, some gears and an axel.
I imagine other parts of the tractor now rest under the forest floor while, undoubtedly, some smaller pieces have been carried off.
It’s remarkable to see century-old machinery there in the middle of the wilderness, almost impossible to imagine a world in which you could drive a tractor deep into these woods to fell trees for profit.
There’s something cold and hard and ancient about the feel of the remains of the metal workhorse. Something foreign and otherworldly.
How to find the wreckage site
It’s easy on a hike of this nature to worry that you’ve gone too far or somehow missed it. You didn’t.
The wreck is exceedingly obvious right where the rail meets Injun Creek. It can’t be missed.
To get up close and personal and get really good pics for the ‘gram, you’ll have to climb down into a little gully.
Getting to the wreck and back should take about 4 hours (5.8 miles) of moderate hiking through a forest of Rhododendrons.
The historic Whaley Cemetery rests near the trailhead along with rock walls and an old chimney that hint at life before the park.
You’ll cross the creek several times, and waterproof hiking shoes are a good idea.
The hike is fairly steep at the start, but there are several stretches of level hiking.
It is a well-worn path without a lot of roots or rocks that make the walk more difficult.
Another historic relic to discover nearby if you’re feeling adventurous
There are other relics, including a back-country camping spot and Levi Ogle’s old farm, along the path for those who choose to continue on to the Roaring Forks Motor Trail where hopefully they’ve planned to have someone meet them.
It’s an additional 7.6 miles one way up and down Grapeyard Ridge.
Have you seen the wreckage of the 100-year-old steam tractor engine? Does it sound like something you’d want to explore? Let us know in the comments!