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Namesake: Mellinger Death Ridge in Great Smoky Mountains

6:05 PM, Oct 29, 2010   |    comments
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  • Deadfall Bear Trap

An unmarked path near the Roaring Fork Historic District in the Great Smoky Mountains leads to the remnants of an old abandoned home.  All that remains are a few large logs and a stack of rocks that were once a chimney.

Deeper along the trail up a steep slope sits a small moss-covered plateau with four graves.  It is here that you will find the final resting place of Jasper Mellinger, a blacksmith who called the Roaring Fork area home in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

However, Mellinger's lasting mark on the Great Smoky Mountains comes far away from his family's cemetery.  Miles away at the ridge between Elkmont and Hazel Creek is where Jasper's untimely demise in the early 1900s changed the landscape to become known as "Mellinger Death Ridge."

"Jasper Mellinger was a blacksmith who was walking towards North Carolina along the ridge.  He may have been traveling somewhere for work to earn some money," said Allen Coggins.

Coggins is a historical researcher and author who wrote the book Place Names of the Smokies.  He has also done extensive research for an upcoming book on disasters that occurred in Tennessee.

Coggins said there are several theories and versions of stories about what happened to Mellinger. 

"It's a real mystery. Mellinger Death Ridge is one of the more exciting stories that captivate people when they learn about the Smokies," said Coggins.  "Some say it was a father and son who killed Mellinger.  Another version says it was two brothers.  Some think he just fell off the mountain.  The one thing that we know for sure is that Mellinger died there and local people started calling it Mellinger Death Ridge."

Most stories say Mellinger was caught in a bear trap placed along the ridge illegally by hunters.  Coggins said the bear trap was either a steel leg-hold trap or another contraption known as a deadfall bear pen trap.

"The deadfall bear traps were illegal.  A large log collapses in a way that traps the bear.  By the time the hunter checks the trap the bear is either dead or he kills it," said Coggins.

Whatever type of trap was used, it captured Mellinger, shattered bones, and stranded him on a rugged and unforgiving mountain.

"Mellinger was slowly dying of exposure and starvation when the two guys who set this trap, which was illegal, came along and found him," said Coggins.  "They knew they were in trouble when they found Mellinger maimed and near death in an illegal trap."

The trappers faced a decision.  They could help save Mellinger and risk retaliation from his family.  Helping Mellinger also came with the legal consequences of their illicit trapping.  Instead, the men decided to save their own skins.

"They killed Mellinger.  He was most likely bludgeoned to death with a large rock or log," said Coggins.

Various accounts say Mellinger's body was either buried in a shallow grave or thrown off a cliff so that it would appear that he had accidentally fallen to his death.  Years passed before anyone discovered Mellinger's broken body. One item found alongside Mellinger stood the test of time to positively identify Jasper's remains.

"There was a pocket watch that seems to be the key to this story. Back then Mellinger of course did not have any ID, but a pocket watch would have been something very personal," said Coggins.

At least one of Mellinger's killers is said to have been plagued by a guilty conscience for the brutal crime.  The poacher reportedly stated on his deathbed that he would "see hell for killing Jasper Mellinger."

"Some historians believe Mellinger's body was found and nobody knew he was the victim of a crime until after the confession.  Others say the confession is how people knew where to find Mellinger's remains," said Coggins.  "However it happened, this type of event was a very big deal for the mountain people.  Mellinger Death Ridge was an unnamed and probably very insignificant place until that event occurred.  When something like that happens, then the place takes on a name.  It was named by Mellinger Death Ridge by the locals and has been ever since."

The event continues to inspire historians, storytellers, and artists.  Singer-songwriter Jimmy Davis recorded and released a song titled "Death Ridge" on the album Campfire Songs Coggins said he believes the story of Jasper Mellinger continues to resonate for several reasons.

"Some of it is the gore and the violence, but it is all linked to human emotions," said Coggins.  "As a researcher you try to look at the cold hard facts, but these stories about specific events can get emotional.  You wonder how much suffering did this guy go through.  Was he already dead when they found him in the trap?  If he wasn't, how did the other person feel when they decided to bludgeon him?  There is fear on both sides.  It is definitely a human tragedy."

From tragedy to maps

The exact time line of events varies depending on which historical archive your read.  It is believed Mellinger's death occurred in 1901 or 1903.  Many historical accounts say his body was found in 1905.

Annette Hartigan, a librarian with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, indicates records of the ridge being identified with the Mellinger name as early as 1905.  However, there are several fluctuations in the spelling of the name from then until 1943.  That is when "Mellinger Death Ridge" was officially recognized and adopted as the ridge's name by the park and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Supervisory park ranger Kent Cave searched historical maps of the park for the Mellinger Death moniker.

"The 1926 map of the proposed national park boundary does not name the ridge," wrote Cave. "However, the 1934 park map names the ridge with an incorrect spelling 'Maldening.' How they came up with that is anybody's guess, but I would suppose it was a poorly translated piece of handwriting."

Death Ridge Retort

Some versions of the Mellinger Death story say the two men responsible for the killing were brothers.  Most indicate the killers were father and son, with the father ordering the son to finish Mellinger off.

Some accounts are specific enough to name the men said to be responsible. An excerpt from Dr. Gail Palmer's upcoming book on cemeteries in the park said Art Huskey and his son were accused, faced trial, and subsequently acquitted of the crime when a jury could not decide which man was responsible for the deed.  Palmer also says a Huskey descendant declared this tale was erroneous, and that Jasper had fallen rather than being murdered.

Joseph Hall's book Smoky Mountain Folks and their Lore quotes a fireguard at the park as saying Mellinger was accidentally caught in a bear trap set by John Beasly.  The book goes on to say Beasly and his son found and bludgeoned Mellinger to death.  Beasly's son confessed to the crime after falling mortally ill a few years later.  Hall goes on to quote other residents who defended Beasly by casting doubt on the bear trap story in its entirety. 

The pocket watch that identified Mellinger's remains is also a source of doubt that the event was a murder.  Some argued the watch and other personal items of value would have been taken by the killers.

Whatever the true circumstances were surrounding Jasper Mellinger's death, the rarely visited ridge that bears his name will undoubtedly continue to stoke the flames curiosity.  For those who question why they call it that, the person who provides the answer will have no shortage of options in order to weave a tale of a life brutally punctuated on Mellinger Death Ridge.

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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'

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