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The Legend of the Devil’s Looking Glass

Mountain lore abounds in the hills and valleys of Northeast Tennessee. Tales passed down from the Cherokee Indian tribes are rich with spirits and strange occurrences. Anyone who grew up around the Lamar School community, State Highway 107 toward Greeneville and State Highway 81 South toward Erwin was told many tales about the Devil’s Looking Glass.

This jagged, vertical rock face stands above a bend in the Nolichucky River in Unicoi County, just alongside Highway 81 South. For those interested in an exact location, you can find it at Latitude: 36.1414967°N, Longitude: -82.4437511°W, with an approximate elevation of 2,218 ft. The actual formation is about 800 feet above the river itself. The appearance is irregular and the rock formation faces the river and road, as if staring at travelers. Even as a child, I didn’t like traveling this road, especially at night.

Local Folklore

Popular folklore that is told and retold among local residents is filled with stories of people who were drowned near this area. The Nolichucky River, also called The Devil’s Run, is a 115-mile stretch of turbulent and dangerous water beginning in North Carolina and spilling out into the French Broad River in East Tennessee. It is filled with rocks, pools, eddies and strong currents that make it challenging to say the least.

One story passed down from my grandmother claims that the local Cherokee and Yuchi Indians called the Nolichucky “River of Death,” due to the many lives claimed by it. Known for sudden drop offs, dangerous currents and surprise flooding, the Indians traveled it with care and avoided camping too close to its banks.

Perhaps the most popular story is that of a sad Cherokee woman who flung herself from the top of the Devil’s Looking Glass. She had lost her lover in one of the Indian wars and, filled with anguish, chose to die rather than live without him. Legend tells that her pitiful wail echoed up and down the river valley as she fell. Local residents and not a few campers have told of hearing a long, wailing cry at night; some even say something can be heard crashing into the water just as the wail ends.

Why “The Devil’s Looking Glass?”

The rock formation locally known as The Devil’s Looking Glass claims its name from Cherokee Indians who could make out a terrible face when the moonlight shined on the rock face from a certain angle. Even in daylight, when the shadows fall just right, an evil face can be discerned. Some say more than one face can be seen. The Cherokee believed the rock face was a window into the netherworld, the abode of the devil, and they could see him looking out, as though he were looking at himself in a mirror; hence, “The Devil’s Looking Glass.”

Another popular story claims that a strange, deep cave is located about halfway up the rock face, but it is difficult to pick out from below because of the jagged face. Stories differ about what can be found in this cave, but most say a demon lives there, waiting to dive into the river below and capture unsuspecting canoe travelers. Indians were said to paddle quickly past this location while looking upward the entire time, so as to avoid the demon if possible.

Yet another story claims that Cherokee Indians would chase deer off the ledge of The Devil’s Looking Glass, then harvest the carcasses from below to feed their tribes. Such a horrific hunting tactic conjured up terrible spirits that supposedly haunted the cliffs to prevent this from happening anymore. Some travelers and sportsmen claim to see ghostly apparitions around the rock face or along the river below at night.

No information can be found about scaling The Devil’s Looking Glass, likely because it is too unstable and dangerous to attempt a climb. The surrounding land belongs to the U.S. Forestry Service and is nearly unpassable. Many river enthusiasts hike, fish and canoe along the Nolichucky River and pass underneath The Devil’s Looking Glass. More information on guided river rafting and fishing can be obtained from local guide services.

Do you have a first-hand story about The Devil’s Looking Glass? Share it or your other legends from Northeast Tennessee folklore with us in the comments section.


  1. Colin mckie

    I lived just below the devil’s looking Glass for over 15 years I think it’s a beautiful spot. I really enjoyed living there. I have climbed to the top of the looking Glass starting from the Little Creek to the right. As you face it. I have repelled off the top multiple times. (The story is correct there, it is way too brittle to climb) I don’t believe a cave can form. The dolomite shale composition of the looking Glass is too flaky and fragile. As example one friend leaned up against a Volkswagen size Boulder at the top and it shattered and almost knocked him off the cliff. There is some overhangs at the bottom. But I can’t quite call them caves. In the 40s a company called The embryville iron works mined Rich mountain which the devil’s looking Glass is part of. There are deep air shafts that are just open behind the looking Glass on the mountain. In the ’60s and ’70s while the mine was abandoned multiple companies dumped very toxic wastes back there and the tillings from the mining had lead deposits in them which poisons the water in the bumpus cove community to today. Waste management was paid a fortune to clean it up. But till this day I don’t believe a truck has been up there.
    One thing the story missed. Is the devil’s looking Glass is what’s called a water break. The mountain ridge used to continue all the way across the river road. And at one time the town of Erwin was a inland lake millions years ago. Somewhere years ago the water found the weak rock that consists of the devil’s looking glass. It broke through and created the cliff you see today.
    Although I have several critters stories and a few human stories. I have no ghost stories to share. I had a very pleasant time living there.

  2. Kevin

    Lived in and near this my entire 44 years. There are many “tales” of the mountain and river. The comment about the iron mine and the contamination. However, it was intention dumbing by a “trash company” that used the old Embreeville iron mill (in bumps cove)on the river to toxic chemicals and the barrels leaked. Anyway another tale not listed is that of a young woman climbing with her dog and “saw the devils face” causing her to fall to her death. Heard ages from 12 to 25 for her and many varieties of details involve; from she climb because of a bet, escaping Indians, escaping a lover and so on. I believe the name is from the moonlight face as mentioned in the article however.

  3. Farah Laws

    I lived in Erwin for a couple of years and had heard this called The Devil’s Looking Glass but never knew why until now, Thanks everyone!

  4. Bruce

    As a child in the 50s and early 60s, we would drive by on the way to visit family on the Carter side of the county line on Woodby Hill. Heard pioneer stories of both deer and the Indian maid. One of the deer stories had the buck being pursued by wolves and going over the edge to escape, as well as stories of hunting by pursuit.

    The only story of the Indian maid I remember, was her escaping a jealous suitor pursuing her after killing the one she loved. I dont remember the conclusion to know if it was tragic accident or heart-rending choice to go over the edge.

    Hadn’t thought of it in a long time and just found this when trying to remember those stories. My dad met my mom while in service in Kansas. When he got out of service and wanted to farm, the choices were with his family in Eastern Tennessee, or with her family in Iowa. Iowa farming won out, so the drives straight thru then took a lot longer than now and were filled with stories local to his childhood to pass the tome, as well as some of his experiences in service. He didn’t talk about his service experience at home, but I did learn to count to one hundred and a fair amount of vocabulary and functional phrases on those trips. By the time I was 10 or 11 the service stories stopped, but the stories of local murders and other happenings never did.

    Thanks for the story.

  5. Janet (Renfro) Osburne

    My mother who is now 90 lived inErwin for many years. She was born, raised, married and raised most of their 4 kids there. There is a cave going toward town of Erwin, on left side of I26 I believe. They used it for many years as she was growing up, to store butter, cold items and 1800 jars of home canned food at one time. This cave goes through the mountain and comes out across hay from Devils looking glass. We took her back there last year and she was full of history of the town, mountains, caves and life in general. She also knew a lot about Bimpass Cove too.

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