Less than two weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th Anniversary featuring people who addressed the building of the roadway. A 90 year old participant was R. Dillard Teer who in 1937 was a 17 year old sent to spend his summer working with a construction company building the Blue Ridge Parkway at Gillespie Gap in North Carolina. One of Mr. Teer’s entertaining stories was of how it did not take the two foremen on the job long to determine that Teer did not have any skills that were of use to the project. Consequently he became a “gopher” running a variety of errands one of which he described as driving truck loads of dynamite from Marion, North Carolina to the work site.
This story immediately brought back to mind an experience I had while working at Gillespie Gap in the mid 1980’s. I was in our office located in the rear of the Minerals Museum when a young couple came to the front desk to report a minor deer vs. auto crash. The husband, concerned about the condition of the injured animal, tracked the deer down the front of Bear Den Overlook at mile post 323. His mission was abruptly stopped when he almost fell over what looked like a box of dynamite.
I followed them back to the spot running all kinds of scenarios through my mind. This was prior to the fear generated by 9/11 and terrorism so I wondered if someone had stolen the dynamite from a local mining operation planning to commit some heinous crime.
As the couple with the crumpled bumper pointed the way I scrambled down the rock strewn face of the overlook to the tree line below. The husband finally directed me to the spot and I found before me a wooden box without a lid and inside it appeared to be a least twenty neatly packed sticks of dynamite. The box appeared to be quite old but intact. The sticks also appeared aged, discolored, and covered with a foamy substance. Now I remembered seeing in movies where old dynamite can sweat nitroglycerine and become very unstable. Being in such a rural area there were no police agency or military explosives teams within hours. Since there were a number of mines in the area I contacted one of them and they sent two of their explosives experts who worked with dynamite every day.
The two men who showed up in a pickup truck did not exude confidence on my part. I decided to stay at the top of the overlook and do the directing to the spot this time. One of the men called back that “Yea its dynamite, it looks old, and we can take it out.”
They then just picked up the box and carried it back up the steep rocky terrain to their truck where they dropped the box into the bed. I nearly jumped out of my boots as the box banged against the metal. Once I collected myself I questioned their technique and they informed me that the dynamite was safe unless a blasting cap was present and they could not find any around the box. The mine had the facilities to safely dispose of the explosives, so they offered to take it. The last I remember was the passenger waiving out of the window as the truck bounced away down the road. I breathed a sigh of relief as the dynamite moved further and further away.
So as Mr. Teer spoke about hauling dynamite in 1937 I thought once again about where that dynamite might have come from. As Teer was escorted from the stage I approached him and asked, “When you were working at Gillespie Gap did you ever misplace a box of dynamite?”
His eyes lit up and he said, “What makes you ask that?”
I told the story of find the box at Bear Den Overlook. Mr. Teer then asked if it was a wooden box and did it have the word “ATLAS” on it in large capital letters. I informed him that he had described it to a tee.
“Oh yea, that was one of ours. I would not be surprised if there are not a lot more of those boxes up there. By the end of long hard work days the crews were not so great at bringing all their gear back up the steep slopes.”
So the mystery of the source of the dynamite was solved. Now the question is how much more may be out there?
For a view of Bear Den Overlook go to: