Bluff Mountain and the Tragedy of Little Ottie Cline Powell
By Hugh Bouchelle, Freelance Writer and Photographer
It was late fall, more than 100 years ago, when little Ottie, just short of his fifth birthday, failed to return to the one room schoolhouse with the rest of the children after collecting firewood.
Early snows had fallen in the mountains and that afternoon a freezing rain began, coating the mountains to the west with a white shimmering veneer.
The official search began within hours but by then, little Ottie was gone.
Searchers thought to bring his dog to the school and see if he might find the boy. Instead, the dog ran off towards the great Bluff Mountain that dominated the skyline. The dog was gone, they say, for most of the day.
Meanwhile, the search continued in growing circles around the school. There was no way a boy that young could have wandered that far into those forbidding cliffs.
of Bluff Mountain from the area where the one room schoolhouse was located in
Retracing Ottie's Steps
As I approach the Peak of Bluff Mountain, the wind suddenly begins to gust hard. It always seems to do this as it makes that final jump across the mountain’s top. I guess that’s expected when you are standing on the highest spot for miles around. I wonder, however, if it wasn’t that blast of wind at the peak that finally stopped little Ottie.
Just a few feet down from the absolute summit, is a small stone monument. It was placed there, according to the plaque, exactly where the body of little Ottie was found by hunters the following spring as the mountain began to thaw. He had walked more than seven miles from his school, through rough mountain terrain, up-hill the entire way. The doctor that examined the body said that he probably died from exposure that first night, when he finally laid down to rest.
Lost and alone, I wonder if when he finally reached the peak and the sleet-filled wind hit his small frozen face, he finally gave up and decided to sleep.
Today, the hike up Bluff Mountain is still a tough climb; even with the help of a forest service road, which goes all the way to the summit were it used to serve a fire tire (now removed). There, it also meets the Appalachian Trail. It is a little more than four miles to hike up the forest road and then follow the AT back down to the Punchbowl Shelter.
I try to make the hike at least once a year in the late fall as sort of a pilgrimage. I use this hike to introduce potential wilderness search and rescue students to the reality of what it means to be lost in these mountains. We always leave a small pocket toy on the monument for little Ottie. It is always gone when we return.
According to local legend, when winter’s icy breadth is on the mountain, little Ottie is seen wandering the woods looking for his way back home. Several hiking logs at the Punchbowl shelter have reported sighting a small boy who disappears when approached in the vicinity. The monument reads: “This is the exact spot little Ottie Cline Powell’s body was found April 5, 1891, after straying from Tower Hill School House Nov. 9, a distance of 7 miles. Age 4 years 11 months.”
Even with it’s tragic history, Bluff Mountain is one of the best hikes in the area for fantastic views and peaceful contemplation. Not only are the summit views open to the world almost 360 degrees around, but the climb up the forest road and back down the AT to the Punchbowl Shelter is occasionally magnificent.
From Buena Vista go south on 501 (Magnolia Ave) to 3rd street and turn left, Take that road to the t-intersection at the bottom of the hill and turn right. You will pass the entrance road to Parry McClure High School on your left. Continue out that road (which soon turns to a dirt road) for about 3.5 miles. You will climb up out of the valley and eventually come to an intersection were the road makes a “V.” Take the “V” to the right. (The left “V” takes you under an overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Continue up that dirt road until you can go no further. You will pass one turn off to the left - ignore it. When you reach the forest service gates find a place to park. The trail you want is the one leading off to the left as you drove up the road.
- Bring water. The trail to the top can be steep and there is no reliable water source.
- Take a map and a compass. This is a very isolated area. If you do not pass through a dark pinewood forest within 200-300 yards, or if you begin going downhill for more than a short distance you are on the wrong path. You will be following an old forest road the rangers used to take to get to a fire tower that no longer exists.
- Bring a cell phone and extra warm clothes; the weather can change rapidly at this elevation.
- If you take the AT down, watch for a place where the trail makes a sharp turn, almost back onto itself, to the right. There is a wooden sign there that reads, “Shelter.” Take the trail to the shelter. Standing at the shelter look toward the pond and then to the field on the other side of the pond. On the other side of that field is the trail you walked up mere hours before.
For more information on the tragedy of Ottie Cline Powell visit: https://blueridgecountry.com/archive/favorites/ottie-cline-powell/
and explore by foot, bicycle, boat, or by horsepower. The Rockbridge area offers countless outdoor recreation activities, along with family-friendly attractions, historic sites, and cultural experiences.