The story of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure cannot be told without recounting the life of one man—Lucius B. Morse—who demonstrated what uncompromising vision and foresight can accomplish. The rugged beauty of Chimney Rock and the surrounding area so captivated him that it shaped the rest of his life and those of his older twin brothers, Hiram and Asahel. The land that comprises the Park and the dreams of the Morse family are still entwined today, more than 100 years after Lucius B. Morse first glimpsed the magnificent Rock.
Born in 1871 in Missouri, Dr. Morse was a practicing physician when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Advised to seek a more healthful climate, he made his way to the thermal belt of Western North Carolina. He loved to wander the area, often riding horseback down to Chimney Rock to view the giant monolith towering over the ten-mile gorge. It so intrigued him that he paid a man 25-cents to take him by donkey to the top. Surrounded by panoramic vistas, he conceived his dream here, not only of the Park but of the development of Lake Lure and the town of the same name.
At the time, Jerome B. ("Rome") Freeman owned Chimney Rock, having purchased it and the surrounding 400 acres from a speculation company for $25.00 around 1870. It was Freeman who first thought of making a trail to the base and erecting a stairway to the top of the "Rock"; he opened it to the public in 1885.
In 1902, with the financial backing of his brothers, Morse paid Freeman $5,000 for 64 acres of Chimney Rock Mountain, including the Chimney and cliffs. Many small tracts purchased over the years have expanded the Park to nearly 1000 acres.
In those days, tourists arrived on horseback or in carriages from the railroad stations of Hendersonville and Rutherfordton. Dr. Morse and his brothers built a bridge across the Rocky Broad River and started a three-mile narrow dirt road up to the base of the Chimney. Dedicated on July 4, 1916, the bridge was soon swept away by Hurricane Hilda and the great flood of 1916. Not to be deterred, they rebuilt and added a stone gatehouse two-thirds of the way up the road with a gatekeeper's lodge beside it (still on the road up the mountain). That bridge stood strong until March 1984, when a new steel bridge replaced the old structure.
Guilford Nanney, a local man with inventiveness and skill, was responsible for the first trail (now the Cliff Trail) and for the complicated series of stairways that lead from the parking lot around Pulpit Rock and the Rock Pile to the top of the Chimney. This was the beginning of the modern improvements, vantage points and trail system to Hickory Nut Falls that exist in the Park today.
As time passed, visitors did not relish walking the 470 steps on the trail from the parking area to the summit of the Chimney. In 1946, plans were drawn for an elevator to transport people to the top. Blasted out of the solid granite cliff, a 198-foot tunnel led into the mountain to the 258-foot elevator shaft. A massive piece of construction, it took eight tons of dynamite and 18 months to complete. The elevator was opened to the public in 1949, the same year the entrance parking lot, three-mile drive and upper parking lot were paved. Next, the Sky Lounge, a gift shop and snack bar, was built on top of the elevator.
In the spring of 1963, a jeep trail was added to the base of Hickory Nut Falls, ending just a few feet of the 404-foot drop. Jeeps were discontinued due to the energy crisis in 1977, and the trail became known as the Forest Stroll walking trail.
During the 1970s and 80s, Lucius B. Morse III and Todd B. Morse (Hiram Morse’s grandson and great-grandson) became actively involved as the directors of the Park. They focused on improvements to make the grounds and trails safer and more convenient. They replaced bridges and stairs, improved trails, added scenic view points, and refurbished the buildings and elevator.
In 1981, they created the five-acre Meadows to meet the needs of large groups visiting the Park. One of the most dramatic rebuildings during this time period occurred after the Sky Lounge burned to the ground on Labor Day weekend in 1981. Helicopters were used to transport trusses and other building supplies to the work crews at the top of the Cliff side building site, and the new Sky Lounge was ready for Park visitors in June of 1982.
In addition to making the Park safer and more convenient, the Morses placed an even greater emphasis on the preservation of plants and wildlife in Hickory Nut Gorge. In 1978, two University of North Carolina at Charlotte professors had surveyed the Park and discovered an astonishing diversity of plants and many unique geological features. Based on the initial study, the Park opened its gates to botany, geology, and other natural science students and professors. Through the work of these scholars, educational trail guides were developed, and many rare and endangered plant and animal species were identified within the Park’s nearly 1,000 acres. Chimney Rock Park hired a botanist in 1986 and an ornithologist in 1989 to supplement the work of the students and professors and to provide guided walks and educational presentations.
In 1987, a Nature Center opened at the top of Chimney Rock road in a small, old stone building that had previously been used for storage and Park maintenance. The Nature Center presented information about the plants and wildlife of the Park and housed exhibits about the Park’s development. In 1992, a new larger Nature Center opened at the Meadows to provide visitors with a better understanding of the Park. Developed by then-Park Naturalist Elisabeth Feil, it offers you an introduction to the history, botany, geology, and other special aspects that make the Park a truly natural attraction.
A year-round schedule was adopted in 1992, and since that time visitors have been treated to the wintertime beauty of the Park. In the spring of that same year, Todd B. Morse, who had been manager for a short stint in the mid-80s, returned to assume the role of president and general manager of the Park. While the family has always nurtured the property, Todd became the first member of the Morse family to manage the Park full time since Dr. Morse.
In 1999, the Park celebrated the 50th anniversary of the elevator, and in November 2002, it celebrated 100 years of the Morse family dream to “acquire, protect and share this natural wonder with the world.” A commitment to this dream continues today through expanded efforts to make the Park accessible to all ages and capabilities.