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Elk River Falls is a spot that continues to beckon today, perhaps with the Elk River Queen’s
descendants lurking in its depths.
Photo by Michael Hardy

Originally published: 2012-12-07 11:54:35
Last modified: 2012-12-07 11:54:35

Our Avery County: The Elk River Queen

Michael Hardy / (

Have you ever heard of the Elk River Queen? That name might evoke an image of a famous paddle-wheeled steamboat that once plied the mighty Mississippi River, like the Comet, launched in 1813, or the Natchez, first launched in 1823. Or the image one recalls might possibly resemble the title character of the famous 1951 Humphrey Bogart flick, “The African Queen.”

Of course, those who have visited the Elk River or hiked to Elk River Falls know that riverboat navigation on these waters would prove rather difficult. 

The Elk River is rather small. It forms on the northwestern side of Peak Mountain (across from Grandfather Mountain), and runs west. (The Linville River forms on the southwestern slopes of Peak Mountain, but that is another story.) Tributaries of the Elk River include Curtis Creek, Cranberry Creek, Heaton Branch, Shawneehaw Creek and Nowhere Branch. 

Highway 184 is built beside the Elk River as it flows into Banner Elk. From Banner Elk, the river continues its westward trek, through Elk Valley and Heaton. Just north of Elk Park, the Little Elk River flows into the Elk River. And just north of that is Elk River Falls. Shepherd Monroe Dugger called the spot the “Big Falls of Elk” and wrote in “War Trails of the Blue Ridge” that “Elk Creek leaps into Tennessee, down over great ledges of granite. Chief of these is the Falls of Elk, thundering in its foam and spray like the thunder in the clouds.” The Elk River flows into Tennessee not far below the falls, and eventually into the Watauga River.

While the Elk River has many historical milestones, like being dammed by Edgar Tufts to supply electricity to Lees-McRae Institute (now college), and folklore, like bags of silver coins being tossed into the pool below the falls for safe keeping during the Civil War, it is known far and wide for trout fishing. 

For centuries, people have been coming to fish in local rivers and streams. In 1935, Greensboro Daily Record ran a story under the headline “Elk River Queen Defies Nimrods.” It seems that Greensboro resident W. T. Combs had spent three years trying to catch the “queen of the Elk River.” According to Combs, the “queen’s reputation is known to a select few.” Combs had “tried to interest her six different times, and only once has she given me tangible recognition. On that occasion she made a fool of me ... 

“Only once has she shown me her rosy cheeks and broad sides,” Combs continued. “[T]he queen, you know, is a trout, a royal crimson striped, rosy cheeked rainbow trout ... and that evening she was gallivanting among lesser fry in a deep riffle down below her house, where she snipped a flay off my leader with a nonchalant flip, as if it were a common occurrence in her daily life.” 

It seems that Edgar Tufts had told Combs about the queen in 1932. Once again, according to Combs, Tufts had told him that “down there under that big square rock is one of the biggest rainbow in the east.” When asked, Tufts told Combs that the trout was 30 inches in length and that “for years it has been breaking up tackle for the best trout fishermen from all over the country.” 

“The home of the queen is on the right side of the big rock looking down the river,” Combs wrote. “This big rock is big as a cabin centered in the river and is balanced on smaller rocks in such a way that the trout can swim under it and out into the pools on either side. The largest pool is on the left side of the rock, looking down stream. But this pool belongs to a monster German brown, and the queen has never been seen on the left side of the river.” 

Combs goes on to describe his different trips to try and land the queen. But more importantly, he gives us a little history. During a trip up the mountain in August 1933, on arriving in Banner Elk, he paid a visit to “Uncle George Banner,” who “was in the store that night getting tackle to try her at daylight the next morning ... We got the trout history of the Elk from Uncle George. His paternal ancestors were the first settlers. Killed the elk that named ‘Banner Elk.’” 

According to Banner, “In the early [18]90s Colonel Nimpson, a Canadian, running the Cranberry mines, placed brown trout in Cranberry Creek. The record brown trout for Elk River was caught below the mouth of Cranberry in the Elk Falls pool. It weighed 11 pounds and three ounces, and was caught by a Mr. Newman over a quarter century.”

There is no record so far as to who eventually caught the Elk River Queen. Maybe it was Combs or one of his friends; maybe it was old Uncle George Banner. 

In ending his article, Combs left us with a final picture, parts of which we have all enjoyed. At the close of his 1933 trip, he watched the day die, probably standing in the Elk River: “Old Grandfather’s nose turns ruddy in the last far rays of a sun long faded from Elk valley. Beech Mountain goes from gold to purple. In the fading twilight a single venturesome white miller winds too close to the rushing mountain torrent, and is carried down past that point of rock – a crimson and gold swirl sucks him under!”

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