Appalachian Mountains

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Appalachian Mountains

USGS Appalachian zones in the United States.
Appalachian Map.jpg
Appalachian Mountains Map

Appalachian Mountains


The Appalachian Mountains, often referred to as the Appalachians, are a vast system of mountains in eastern North America. Definitions vary on the precise boundaries of the Appalachians. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines the Appalachian Highlands physiographic division as consisting of thirteen provinces: the Atlantic Coast Uplands, Eastern Newfoundland Atlantic, Maritime Acadian Highlands, Maritime Plain, Notre Dame And Megantic Mountains, Western Newfoundland Mountains, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, Saint Lawrence Valley, Appalachian Plateaus, New England province, and the Adirondack provinces. A common variant definition does not include the Adirondack Mountains, which are often said to have more in common with the Canadian Shield than the Appalachians.




The range is mostly located in the United States but extends into southeastern Canada, forming a zone from 100 to 300 miles (160 to 480 km) wide, running from the island of Newfoundland 1,500 miles (2,400 km) south-westward to central Alabama in the United States (with foothills in northeastern Mississippi). The system is divided into a series of ranges, with the individual mountains averaging around 3,000 ft (900 m). The highest of the group is Mount Mitchell in North Carolina at 6,684 feet (2,037 m), which is the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Appalachian Mountains
Appalachian Mountains.jpg

The term Appalachian refers to several different regions associated with the mountain range. Most broadly, it refers to the entire mountain range with its surrounding hills and the dissected plateau region. However, the term is often used more restrictively to refer to regions in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, usually including areas in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and North Carolina, as well as sometimes extending as far south as northern Georgia and western South Carolina, as far north as Pennsylvania, and as far west as southern Ohio.


The Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas and Oklahoma were originally part of the Appalachians as well, but were disconnected through geologic history.


While exploring the northern coast of Florida in 1528, the members of the Narváez expedition, including Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, found a Native American town whose name they transcribed as Apalachen. This name and its pronunciation were applied to the Apalachee Native Americans, as well as a nearby body of water, now spelled Apalachee Bay, to the Apalachicola River, Apalachicola Bay, and the Apalachicola Native Americans, and to the city known as Apalachicola, Florida.


The word Apalachen was also applied to an inland mountain range, and through the course of time it became applied to the entire range and its spelling was changed.





The whole system may be divided into three great sections: the Northern, from the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador to the Hudson River; the Central, from the Hudson Valley to the New River (Great Kanawha), in Virginia and West Virginia; and the Southern, from the New River onwards.


The northern section includes the Long Range Mountains and Annieopsquotch Mountains on the island of Newfoundland, Chic-Choc Mountains and Notre Dame Range in Quebec and New Brunswick, scattered elevations and small ranges elsewhere in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the Longfellow Mountains in Maine, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and The Berkshires in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Metacomet Ridge Mountains in Connecticut and south-central Massachusetts. The central section comprises, besides various minor groups, the Valley Ridges between the Allegheny Front of the Allegheny Plateau and the Great Appalachian Valley, the New York - New Jersey Highlands, the Taconic Mountains in New York, and a large portion of the Blue Ridge. The southern section consists of the prolongation of the Blue Ridge, the Unaka Range, and the Valley Ridges adjoining the Cumberland Plateau, with some lesser ranges.


The Adirondack Mountains in New York are sometimes considered part of the Appalachian chain but, geologically speaking, are a southern extension of the Laurentian Mountains of Canada.


In addition to the true folded mountains, known as the ridge and valley province, the area of dissected plateau to the north and west of the mountains is usually grouped with the Appalachians. This includes the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York, the Poconos in Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny Plateau of southwestern New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia. This same plateau is known as the Cumberland Plateau in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and northern Alabama.


The dissected plateau area, while not actually made up of geological mountains, is popularly called 'mountains', especially in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, and while the ridges are not high, the terrain is extremely rugged. In Ohio and New York, some of the plateau has been glaciated, which has rounded off the sharp ridges, and filled the valleys to some extent. The glaciated regions are usually referred to as hill country rather than mountains.


The Appalachian region is generally considered the geographical dividing line between the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Midwest region of the country. The Eastern Continental Divide follows the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania to Georgia.


The Appalachian Trail is a 2,175-mile (3,500 km) hiking trail that runs all the way from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, passing over or past a large part of the Appalachian system. The International Appalachian Trail is an extension of this hiking trail into the Canadian portion of the Appalachian range.

Chief summits

The Appalachian belt includes, with the ranges enumerated above, the plateaus sloping southward to the Atlantic Ocean in New England, and south-eastward to the border of the coastal plain through the central and southern Atlantic states; and on the north-west, the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus declining toward the Great Lakes and the interior plains. A remarkable feature of the belt is the longitudinal chain of broad valleys—the Great Appalachian Valley—which in the southerly sections divides the mountain system into two subequal portions, but in the northernmost lies west of all the ranges possessing typical Appalachian features, and separates them from the Adirondack group. The mountain system has no axis of dominating altitudes, but in every portion the summits rise to rather uniform heights, and, especially in the central section, the various ridges and intermontane valleys have the same trend as the system itself. None of the summits reaches the region of perpetual snow.


Mountains of the Long Range in Newfoundland reach heights of nearly 3,000 ft (910 m). In the Shickshocks and Notre Dame ranges in Quebec the higher summits rise to about 4,000 ft (1,200 m). elevation. Isolated peaks and small ranges in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick vary from of 1,000 - 2,700 ft (820 m). In Maine several peaks exceed 4,000 ft (1,200 m)., including Mount Katahdin (5,267 ft). In New Hampshire, many summits rise above 4,000 feet (1,200 m), including Mount Washington in the White Mountains (6,288 ft), plus Adams (5,771), Jefferson (5,712), Monroe (5,380), Madison (5,367), Lafayette (5,260), and Lincoln (5,089) In the Green Mountains the highest point, Mt. Mansfield, is 4,393 feet (1,339 m) in elevation; others include Killington Peak at 4,226 ft (1,288 m)., Camel's Hump at 4,083 ft (1,244 m)., Mt. Abraham at 4,006 ft (1,221 m)., and a number of other heights exceeding 3,000 ft (910 m).


In Pennsylvania, there are over sixty summits that rise over 2,500 ft (760 m); the summits of Mount Davis and Blue Knob rise over 3,000 ft (910 m). In Maryland, Eagle Rock and Dans Mountain are conspicuous points reaching 3,162 ft (964 m). and 2,882 ft (878 m)., respectively. On the same side of the Great Valley, south of the Potomac, are the Pinnacle (3,007 ft) and Pidgeon Roost (3,400 ft). In West Virginia, more than 150 peaks rise above 4,000 ft (1,200 m)., including Spruce Knob (4863 ft), the highest point in the Allegheny Mountains. A number of other points in the state rise above 4,800 ft (1,500 m). Thorny Flat (4,848 ft) and Bald Knob (4,842 ft) are among the more notable peaks in West Virginia.


The Blue Ridge Mountains, rising in southern Pennsylvania and there known as South Mountain, attain in that state an elevation of about 2,000 ft (610 m).; southward to the Potomac its altitudes diminish, but once in Virginia the Blue Ridge again reaches 2,000 ft (610 m). and higher. In the Virginia Blue Ridge, the following are the highest peaks east of the New River: Mary's Rock (3,523 ft), Stony Man (4,031), Hawksbill Mountain (4,066), and Peaks of Otter (4001 and 3875).


In the southern section of the Blue Ridge is Grandfather Mountain (5,964 ft), with three other summits above 5,000, and a dozen more above 4000. The Unaka Ranges (including the Black and Great Smoky Mountains) have eighteen peaks higher than 5,000 ft (1,500 m)., and eight surpassing 6,000 ft (1,800 m). In the Black Mountains, Mt. Mitchell (the culminating point of the whole system) attains an altitude of 6,684 feet (2,037 m). In the Great Smoky Mountains, Clingman's Dome (6,643 ft) is the highest peak, with several others above 6,000 and many higher than 5,000.


In spite of the existence of the Great Appalachian Valley, the master streams are transverse to the axis of the system. The drainage divide of the Appalachians follows a tortuous course which crosses the mountainous belt just north of the New River in Virginia; south of the New River the rivers head in the Blue Ridge, cross the higher Unakas, receive important tributaries from the Great Valley, and traversing the Cumberland Plateau in spreading gorges, escape by way of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers to the Ohio and Mississippi, and thus to the Gulf of Mexico; in the central section the rivers, rising in or beyond the Valley Ridges, flow through great gorges (water gaps) to the Great Valley, and by south-easterly courses across the Blue Ridge to tidal estuaries penetrating the coastal plain; in the northern section the height of land lies on the inland side of the mountainous belt, the main lines of drainage running from north to south.



A look at rocks exposed in today's Appalachian Mountains reveals elongated belts of folded and thrust faulted marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and slivers of ancient ocean floor, which provides strong evidence that these rocks were deformed during plate collision. The birth of the Appalachian ranges, some 300 million years ago, marks the first of several mountain building plate collisions that culminated in the construction of the supercontinent Pangaea with the Appalachians near the center. Because North America and Africa were connected, the Appalachians form part of the same mountain chain as the Anti-Atlas in Morocco. To the northeast, the same mountain chain continues into Scotland, from the North America/Europe collision.


During the middle Ordovician Period (about 496-440 million years ago), a change in plate motions set the stage for the first Paleozoic mountain building event (Taconic orogeny) in North America. The once-quiet Appalachian passive margin changed to a very active plate boundary when a neighboring oceanic plate, the Iapetus, collided with and began sinking beneath the North American craton. With the birth of this new subduction zone, the early Appalachians were born. Along the continental margin, volcanoes grew, coincident with the initiation of subduction. Thrust faulting uplifted and warped older sedimentary rock laid down on the passive margin. As mountains rose, erosion began to wear them down. Streams carried rock debris down slope to be deposited in nearby lowlands. The Taconic Orogeny was just the first of a series of mountain building plate collisions that contributed to the formation of the Appalachians, culminating in the collision of North America and Africa (see Appalachian orogeny).


By the end of the Mesozoic era, the Appalachian Mountains had been eroded to an almost flat plain. It was not until the region was uplifted during the Cenozoic Era that the distinctive topography of the present formed. Uplift rejuvenated the streams, which rapidly responded by cutting downward into the ancient bedrock. Some streams flowed along weak layers that define the folds and faults created many millions of years earlier. Other streams downcut so rapidly that they cut right across the resistant folded rocks of the mountain core, carving canyons across rock layers and geologic structures.


The Appalachian Mountains contain major deposits of anthracite coal as well as bituminous coal. In the folded mountains the coal is in metamorphosed form as anthracite represented by the Coal Region of northeastern Pennsylvania. The bituminous coal fields of western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, southeastern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and West Virginia is the sedimentary form. Some plateaus of the Appalachian Mountains contain metallic minerals such as iron and zinc.

Sources: Brooks, Maurice (1965), The Appalachians: The Naturalist's America; illustrated by Lois Darling and Lo Brooks. Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company; Caudill, Harry M. (1963), Night Comes to the Cumberlands; Constantz, George (2004), Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: an Appalachian Mountain Ecology (2nd edition). West Virginia University Press; Morgantown; Weidensaul, Scott (2000), Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians. Fulcrum Publishing.

Recommended Reading: Appalachia: A History (496 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press). Description: Interweaving social, political, environmental, economic, and popular history, John Alexander Williams chronicles four and a half centuries of the Appalachian past. Along the way, he explores Appalachia's long-contested boundaries and the numerous, often contradictory images that have shaped perceptions of the region as both the essence of America and a place apart. Williams begins his story in the colonial era and describes the half-century of bloody warfare as migrants from Europe and their American-born offspring fought and eventually displaced Appalachia's Native American inhabitants. He depicts the evolution of a backwoods farm-and-forest society, its divided and unhappy fate during the Civil War, and the emergence of a new industrial order as railroads, towns, and extractive industries penetrated deeper and deeper into the mountains. Continued below…

Finally, he considers Appalachia's fate in the twentieth century, when it became the first American region to suffer widespread deindustrialization, and examines the partial renewal created by federal intervention and a small but significant wave of in-migration. Throughout the book, a wide range of Appalachian voices enlivens the analysis and reminds us of the importance of storytelling in the ways the people of Appalachia define themselves and their region.

He or she who cares deeply about this region needs this book. (Blue Ridge Country).

An outstanding interpretation of Appalachian history. Williams's explanations on many topics are the best presently available from any publication.(Author/historian Gordon B. McKinney, Berea College)

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Editor's Pick: Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Hardcover) (1864 pages) (University of Tennessee Press) (March 1, 2006). From Booklist: The University of Tennessee Press received support from a number of companies, individuals, foundations, and organizations to fund the production of this comprehensive source of a major region of the U.S. The editors worked for almost 10 years on the project. Abramson is a journalist with the Los Angeles Times and a native of Alabama. Haskell is former director of and professor in the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University. The encyclopedia adopts the 2005 definition used by the Appalachian Regional Commission, describing Appalachia as consisting of 410 counties in 13 states from Mississippi to New York. The organization of the encyclopedia is thematic. There are five broad subject areas: "The Landscape," "The People," "Work and the Economy," "Cultural Traditions," and "Institutions." Each section begins with a five- to six-page introduction and is then subdivided into smaller subsections. "Work and the Economy" includes "Agriculture"; "Business, Industry and Technology"; "Labor"; "Tourism"; and "Transportation." Each subsection is an A-Z of people, places, and things.

The perception of Appalachia has been tarnished with numerous social, environmental, and economic problems, and the editors confront these as well as covering the positive aspects of the area. The 2,000 entries, written by more than 1,000 contributors from academia and journalism, include stereotypical topics (Feuds and violence, Hillbilly) but also subjects such as urban Appalachia and cultural institutions like the Pittsburgh Symphony. The entries are concise, well written, and readable both for the layperson and the scholar. Although publicity for the encyclopedia advertises its ease of use, for a true reference source, a single alphabetical sequence would have improved quick access. The major finding aid, the general index, is sandwiched between the index of contributors and the photo credits. There are no color illustrations, and the black-and-white photographs do not really enhance the text. This is an additional "area" encyclopedia but covers a larger section of the U.S. than other recent encyclopedias treating Chicago, New England, and New York. The editors and publisher are to be commended for completing a monumental work, and the reasonable price makes it a recommended purchase for all academic and large public libraries and also for high-school libraries in Appalachia. Christine Bulson Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


Recommended Reading: The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America. Description: Few places in the United States confound and fascinate Americans like Appalachia, yet no other area has been so markedly mischaracterized by the mass media. Stereotypes of hillbillies and rednecks repeatedly appear in representations of the region, but few, if any, of its many heroes, visionaries, or innovators are ever referenced. Continued below…

Make no mistake, they are legion: from Anne Royall, America's first female muckraker, to Sequoyah, a Cherokee mountaineer who invented the first syllabary in modern times, and international divas Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, as well as writers Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey, and Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck, Appalachia has contributed mightily to American culture — and politics. Not only did eastern Tennessee boast the country's first antislavery newspaper, Appalachians also established the first District of Washington as a bold counterpoint to British rule. With humor, intelligence, and clarity, Jeff Biggers reminds us how Appalachians have defined and shaped the United States we know today.


Recommended Reading: The Appalachians: America's First and Last Frontier (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: Some 23 million people live in Appalachia, a region covering 200,000 square miles through 13 states. Congress recently declared a "Year of Appalachia," highlighted by the Folklore Festival, a two-week celebration on the Washington, D.C., Mall attended by 1.1 million visitors…Over 30 contributors cover all aspects of Appalachian life and culture, from "living-water baptism," coal mining, feuds, folktales, Foxfire, moonshiners, mountain music and snake handlers to the stately grandeur of North Carolina's Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a 3,840-acre wilderness. Citing stereotypes and pop culture connections (Snuffy Smith, The Andy Griffith Show, The Waltons, Deliverance), Santelli (The Big Book of the Blues) sets the scene with an overview of the real Appalachia's origins, hardships and triumphs. Continued below…

Evans, the film's executive producer, writes that book and film provide "a multifaceted glimpse [of] the history of Appalachia: who came to the land, why they came, what they found, what they did, and why they stayed." Former Rolling Stone Press editor George-Warren presents a "Hillbilly Timeline" from 1900 to 2000. Many of the contributors, among them scholars, writers and naturalists, offer nostalgic childhood memories. Includes quotes, images, lyrics, poems, excerpts from 19th-century writing, more than 180 superb photos and illustrations, Archie L. Musick's scratch-board art, song sheets, engravings and R. Crumb drawings. 16 full-pages of color photos.


Recommended Viewing: Hillbilly: The Real Story (2008) (The History Channel). Description: Join host Billy Ray Cyrus on a journey into the hollers and runs of Appalachia to discover the proud legacy of the region's mountain folk. Learn how hillbillies, long misunderstood and maligned as isolated and backward, actually have a 300-year history of achievement and success that has contributed significantly to our national identity. In this two-hour special you'll meet outcast immigrants, war heroes, isolated backwoodsmen, hard working miners, fast moving moon shiners, religious warriors, musicians and statesmen. Continued below...

You'll learn of their contributions, which include establishing the first labor unions, battling the British, and spawning some of the most popular aspects of American culture today, like NASCAR and country music. And you'll see them in a whole new light. “The numerous candid interviews highlight this outstanding addition.”


Recommended Reading: Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Description: In this pioneering work of cultural history, historian Anthony Harkins argues that the hillbilly-which has been portrayed in the various guises of "briar hopper," "brush ape," "ridge runner," and "white trash"-has been viewed by mainstream Americans simultaneously as a violent degenerate who threatens the modern order and as a keeper of traditional values of family, home, and physical production, and thus symbolic of a nostalgic past free of the problems of contemporary life. "Hillbilly" signifies rugged individualism and stubborn backwardness, strong family and kin networks but also inbreeding and bloody feuds. Continued below…

Spanning film, literature, and the entire expanse of American popular culture, from D. W. Griffith to hillbilly music to the Internet, Harkins illustrates how the image of the hillbilly has consistently served as both a marker of social derision and regional pride. He traces the corresponding changes in representations of the hillbilly from late-nineteenth century America, through the great Depression, the mass migrations of Southern Appalachians in the 1940s and 1950s, the War on Poverty in the mid 1960s, and to the present day. Harkins also argues that images of hillbillies have played a critical role in the construction of whiteness and modernity in twentieth century America. Richly illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawings, and film and television stills, this unique book stands as a testament to the enduring place of the hillbilly in the American imagination.

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