How the Highest Point in the Region Got Its Name

Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. 

Some research and deliberation often precedes being labeled as "the highest point." So it’s not surprising that it was a debate over the height of the peak that explains how the mountain got its name. 

According to North Carolina State Parks, it was back in 1835 that Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, visited the mountain to try and determine just how high the peak really was. Until then, Grandfather Mountain was assumed to be the highest point in the region. Mitchell thought differently. 

He measured air pressure with a barometer. He crunched numbers in mathematical formulas. He determined the mountain to be 6,476 feet—that’s higher than Grandfather Mountain. He made several return trips to the peak, and with further calculations, determined the height to be ever greater: 6,672 feet. That actually was just 12 feet off from the current calculation. 

All was well until a few years later. In 1850, Thomas Clingman, a former student of Dr. Mitchell's and a United States senator, said that Grandfather Mountain was the highest peak at 6,941 feet. The Senator said that Mitchell had measured another mountain. 

Determined to prove he hadn’t made a mistake, and to once again verify his measurement, Mitchell returned to the mountain seven years later. However, tragedy struck during the trip. Mitchell fell from a cliff above a waterfall during a hike. He drowned in the water below. 

To honor the researcher, the highest peak in the Black Mountain range was named in his honor the following year. Mitchell was buried in Asheville, but his body was reburied atop Mount Mitchell one year later. 

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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