Sunburst, a logging village, harbored a community
by Rob Neufeld
Benjamin Blaylock, age fourteen, was working in a field two miles south of Canton on a June day in 1907 when a flying rock hit him in the head and killed him.
The rock had come from a blasting operation of the Pigeon River Railway.
Two years earlier, Champion Coated Paper Company president Peter Thomson had engaged local attorney George Smathers to buy timber tracts along the Upper Pigeon. Log transport, it was determined, could not be accomplished by wagon or water.
A road bed had to be carved through the mountains with dynamite. Reuben Robertson, Thomson’s son-in-law, went with Smathers to get right-of-ways from property owners.
Captain Terrrell in Bethel demanded a fair price for lost property. Captain Ledbetter, a corn distributor, feared losing his market, and refused to yield. In his “Memories of Champion Fibre Company,” Robertson recalls having to use “the railroad right of eminent domain in order to cross (Ledbetter’s) property.”
Difficulties in buying tracts in the Balsam Mountains led Champion to move Sunburst, its logging community, four miles downriver to a new location, called “bastard Sunburst” by some locals. Here, for a dozen years, a model village served as the home for five hundred residents and the gathering place for workers coming from logging camps in the region.
Author Charles Frazier’s grandfather, Andrew Frazier, left South Carolina to work at Sunburst, which had gone into full operation after the railroad had reached it in 1913. Getting his mail at the Lavinia Post Office one day, he spotted the postmistress’ daughter, Jessie Inman. “He decided right away he was going to marry her,” recounts Phyllis Inman Barnett in her book, At the Foot of Cold Mountain.
The post office, one mile north of Sunburst, was near Inman’s Chapel, established by Jessie’s grandfather, James Anderson Inman, a Universalist preacher.
Homes in the backwoods logging camps were modules moved around by trains. In Sunburst, the buildings were permanent, and had indoor plumbing and electricity.
Barnett’s mother and aunt were born in Sunburst.
Dr. Sam Stringfield served Sunburst and the camps, pumping a speeder—a bicycle that ran on the rails—to get to injured loggers at any time of the night or day.
Joe Gaddy gave bootleggers rides to a moonshining factory in Canada, Jackson County by driving a locomotive to Camp 19.
Mrs. Georgie MacAfee, an African American resident of Sunburst, slept in the kitchen of her parents’ house, and got up at 6 a.m. to make way for the workers boarding upstairs, who wanted breakfast.
Tink Gibson, a mentally disabled man, went around with a hammer in his pocket, and would hit you if he felt you insulted him. He was afraid of water, and you could scare him away with a glass of it. He made deliveries of mail and moonshine on request, and froze to death one night on a trip to Canada.
The schoolhouse became so popular, Mrs. Frank Battles had to move her first grade class to a room under the town jail. She kept an eye on her children in the yard to make sure they didn’t get run over by nearby train cars.
Activity in Sunburst ceased after the clear-cutting of the mountains and a bad fire. Champion flooded the abandoned buildings by building a dam to control water flow for its downriver mill. The dam created Lake Logan, now the site of the Lake Logan Episcopal Center.
The information for this article was derived from At the Foot of Cold Mountain by Phyllis Inman Barnett (2008); Sonoma—Valley of the Moon: Sunburst by Hugh K. Terrell’s eight grade class, Bethel Junior High School (1978); and Past, Present, Future: How the Lake Logan Episcopal Center Came to Be.
Homes and buildings surround the log pond at the Sunburst mill and village in Haywood County, c. 1915.