- 1 For Starters: Some Guesses as to Why Asbury Chose Asheville
- 2 Other Cities, Other Routes
- 3 Asheville’s Edge in the Competition
- 4 Horsecars and Electric Streetcars: A Wave in the 1880s
- 5 Asbury Goes to Work as an Asheville Street Railway Conductor, March 1900
- 6 Asbury’s Bachelor Years in Asheville
- 7 Retrospective: Larger Dynamics, 1860-1900
- 8 References
For Starters: Some Guesses as to Why Asbury Chose Asheville
Although the romantic designation as the Land of the Sky was bestowed upon Asheville in Christian Reid’s 1875 novel, this 1883 drawing in early historian Foster A. Sondley’s Asheville and Buncombe County (1922) shows a still small, bucolic mountain town of 2,600 people.
Seven years later, Lindsey’s Guide to Western North Carolina (one of many guide books of the period) waxed lyrical about what had recently transpired in distinctly urban Asheville:
Asheville has her streets lighted with electric light towers, one hundred and twenty-five feet high, placed at proper intervals over the city, with arc and drop lights, and night is almost turned into day.
Asheville has a street railway operated by electricity; and the tourist or visitor is met at the depot by the street cars and conveyed to any part of the city for five cents.
The city is also supplied with gas of the best quality at a very cheap rate.
A splendid system of sewerage has just been completed, and almost every house can now be accommodated with electricity, water, gas, the telephone, and sewerage. The free delivery of the mail is being established . . . . What more advantages can be had anywhere?
Asheville has a fire company and a splendid hook and ladder company.
There are now four railroads running into the city, and there is good prospect of three others.
As the 1887 city directory makes clear, there were still wagon makers, wheelwrights, coopers, and blacksmiths in town, but the array of commercial establishments was clearly tracking the shift toward new technologies, forms, styles, and tastes.
By 1900, Asheville was in fact a burgeoning node of modernity, and its population had increased dramatically since the 1870s. The Sanborn Map Company’s map of 1901 listed it as 14,000. Besides the infrastructural improvements Lindsey’s Guide listed, there were new upscale neighborhoods, fancy shops, daily newspapers, photographers and printers, and postcard vendors. The grand original Battery Park Hotel had commanded the
heights of downtown for nearly fifteen years, and the slightly newer Glen Rock stood hundreds of feet below at river level, across from the Southern Railway depot at Depot Street and Southside Avenue.
Asheville’s growth and modernity were not the only factors attracting Asbury, however. Other urban magnets also lay at various distances from Morganton, where so far as I have been able to determine he was (without fail probably, as we Georgia Tech engineers used to say) living and working until he decided to move to Asheville early in 1900.
Other Cities, Other Routes
Principal among the urban magnets was certainly Charlotte (incorporated 1768, nearly three decades earlier than Asheville), another node of modernism offering everything Asheville did, and much more of it, although no one had ever thought to try to sell the Queen City as a romantic “Land of the Sky.”
Asheville was only a third the size of Charlotte, but it had grown nearly 400% since 1870, and other cities among the top ten in population lay east of Winston-Salem. So as for scaled-up modernity–recalling that by now Asbury had a seven-years-and-counting romantic attachment in Morganton–it was Asheville or Charlotte.
The downside of Charlotte (bigger or not, and by how much) was how long it took to get there and back from Morganton. Consider the 1900 railroad map:
Morganton (Burke County) lies near the center; Asheville (Buncombe) is at left center; Charlotte (Mecklenburg) is toward lower right. The red lines mark the Southern Railway; green is Seaboard Airline (running southeast toward Wilmington); yellow is “miscellaneous [rail]roads.” As for rail accessibility, there was no contest: Asheville lay nearly straight west, from Morganton through Marion to Old Fort, then up the mountain and through the Swannanoa Tunnel to Asheville. To Charlotte? Two options: from Morganton through Hickory to Newton, on east to Statesville, then straight south to Charlotte. Or worse: Morganton to Newton, then a “miscellaneous” train south to Lincolnton, where you could then board the Seaboard Airline southeast to Charlotte.
The accessibility/convenience preference for Asheville was augmented by topography. Charlotte was a piedmont city, but Asbury and his near relatives had long lived in the foothills region, in sight of the mountains. Look at the railroad map again: the Blue Ridge range ran NE to SW, marking off McDowell and Rutherford counties from Buncombe, and the South Mountain range ran E and W on the shared borders of Burke, McDowell, Cleveland, and Rutherford, where Whisnants had lived for a century and a half. “Up on [or over behind] South Mountain” was a phrase I recall my grandfather using many a time.
That range seems to have lingered as a permanent feature of his mental geography.
Look briefly at one more map: The south end of the county (bordering South Carolina) lies below 900 ft. The mountains near Buncombe (left) rise to nearly 4,000 ft., as does the South Mountain range (center top). The high (1,500-2,500 ft.) mountains at upper right lie mostly in Golden Valley township, where Asbury’s family lived.
Asheville’s Edge in the Competition
And briefly, one possibly relevant factor (new sanitariums in Asheville) and two more likely persuasive ones for Asbury’s choice: family connections and jobs.
Asheville’s long (since at least 1800) reputation as a health resort strengthened after the Civil War (and especially after the railroad arrived in 1880). The National Register of
Historic Places notes that The Villa was the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the entire country, and others followed quickly. Baltimore physician Dr. William Gleitsman’s Mountain Sanitarium for Pulmonary Diseases opened in the 1870s, and pioneering Turkish tuberculosis physician Karl Von Ruck’s Winyah followed in 1888. Fittingly, the new Journal of Tuberculosis, edited by Von Ruck, was published in Asheville. His house is on the National Register.
In the same Asheville Citizen issue that advertised Von Ruck’s Winyah, Dr. T. J. Hargan’s Asheville Sanitarium touted the “phenomenal success” of its “Compound Oxygen” treatment that was curing “many cases that had been considered hopeless.” And a few months later, Quisisana’s German Method Nature Cure held out hope in the form of “Swedish Movements”–but not, unfortunately to consumptives beyond “the first states.”
The growth of this new commercial sector was a possibly attractive factor for Asbury and Ella (as in fact it was slightly earlier for Asheville development moguls George W. Vanderbilt and E. W. Grove). Having worked for a half-dozen years or so at the state hospital in Morganton, Asbury and Ella had relevant experience and expertise. And twelve- or so square-block Morganton (see 1900 Sanborn map) itself could offer little. Its population was under 2,000 in 1900, the majority of which consisted of patients and staff at the State Hospital, and students and staff at the adjacent School for the Deaf and Dumb. Its only other major employer was a large tanning company adjacent to the railroad tracks.
And what about family as a draw? The June, 1900 Federal Census listed only forty-seven Whisnants (no other spellings checked) in North Carolina, two-thirds of whom were in the Rutherford, Cleveland and McDowell County cluster.
There were none in Haywood County, to the west, where Asbury’s family had spent a few years prior to and during the Civil War.
The single Buncombe (Asheville) entry is Asbury, whom the manuscript census page shows as boarding with the Sims family: John (b. May 1855), Caroline Q (b. Feb. 1849) and their two young daughters Corra C, (b. Jan. 1883) and Addie E. (b. Oct. 1888).
Having encountered that family name earlier in some census schedules, I wondered, who are these particular Simses, and what importance did that have, if any? Cross-checking in the Whisnant Surname Center, Asbury‘s mother was Eliza Minerva Sims (b. 1844 in Rutherford County; ms. census page says 1845). Unfortunately the Surname Center offers nothing on her parents (hence on her siblings).
Fortunately, the 1860 Rutherford County census shows one Sims family, living in the Golden Valley township community of Whiteside. Moreover, Asbury’s father Pinkney’s brother Eli, also in the Whiteside enumeration, lived between two Sims families: James (b. 1832), who had a son John, born in 1855 (same as the Asheville John Sims); and Hampton (b. 1805), who had a daughter Eliza, born in 1845 (same as Asbury’s mother Eliza, whose father is also listed on the Whisnant Surname Center as Hampton Sims). Further (at least circumstantial) evidence of the family connection is that in the 1880 Rutherford County census, a Nancy Sims is listed next door to Pinkney Whisnant. Hence it seems clear that Asbury’s mother Eliza and Hampton Sims’s son John were cousins.
It seems acceptably clear, then, that in the time-honored stem- (or chain-, or serial-) family migration pattern, Asbury chose Asheville at least partly because his aunt and uncle were already established there (John was a night watchman), and he could board with them temporarily until he could find a job and his own place to live.
More confirmation may be possible, but I am satisfied: “Mama, I’m moving to Asheville. Had a letter from Uncle John and Aunt Carolina saying I could stay with them until I get a job.” Whatever factors were involved, and to whatever relative degrees, Asbury’s choice to go to Asheville appears to have been comfortably over-determined. No other place offered such a persuasive array of pull factors.
His exact arrival date in Asheville is unknown, but by the time of the 1900 census (June) and the publication of the 1900 Asheville city directory, he was boarding at 281 S. Main Street, also listed as the Simses’ residence. John and Caroline and their daughters had probably arrived fairly recently, since they are not listed in the 1890 directory.
Horsecars and Electric Streetcars: A Wave in the 1880s
The job Asbury found (after perhaps a short while working as a barkeep, or bar helper) was as a conductor with the Asheville Street Railway, whose settled-sounding name belied the turbulence of its then brief history.
According to Wikipedia‘s very useful “Streetcars in North America” entry, some U.S. cities had single horsecars by the 1820s, and organized car lines followed a decade later
(eventually including one in Boston that used 8,000 horses). The first electric car appeared in 1882, and electric streetcar lines multiplied in the mid- and late 1880s as horsecar lines faded away.
The system that set worldwide standards was Virginia’s Richmond Union Passenger Railway (UPR). It opened with ten cars on February 2, 1888 and increased to 100 cars by mid-summer. By 1895, there were some 900 lines in the U.S., and 11,000 miles of track.
Walter R. Turner has outlined the early spread of streetcar systems in North Carolina. Authorized by the General Assembly in 1881, systems did not begin to operate until Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte and Wilmington got horsecar systems between 1886 and 1888.
As Bailey, Canfield and Cox’s Trolleys in the Land of the Sky tells the story of Asheville’s experience, after an officer of the Asheville Street Railway (ASR) went to Richmond to see the UPR, the Asheville group signed a contract with its builder. If the story of the next decade of the system’s development were couched as a street railway ride, it would subject the rider/reader to a series of short hops on rudimentary lines, under unpredictable ownership and management, over ever-shifting routes, and abrupt fits and starts on uncomfortable (frequently open) cars.
An 1890 photograph of Asheville’s Court Square juxtaposes horse-drawn wagons and one of the city’s first electric streetcars.
It took more than a decade, Bailey, Canfield and Cox show, for the system to settle into a stable configuration, and even that involved various unfulfilled plans, charter
manipulations, threats from competing lines, lines proposed and authorized (or not) but not built, bankruptcies and receiverships.
In one rather sensational episode in January 1895, the whole system–“lock, stock, and barrel,” as local vernacular might have cast it: six or seven miles of track, ten cars, and associated facilities–was acquired from unnamed “New York capitalists” by the local pair Charles A. Moore and J. G. Martin at a sheriff’s sale for the sum of $900 “to settle an old judgment.”
Trolleys in the Land of the Sky contains a useful map of Asheville’s web of four interconnected short lines in operation during the system’s first decade. Click here or on map to see a larger, more readable image:
Asbury Goes to Work as an Asheville Street Railway Conductor, March 1900
The important thing for Asbury and other early employees was that there were jobs to be had, and in March 1900, he got one of them.
Six days a week before daybreak, he left the room he rented from his aunt and uncle at 281 S. Main Street and walked several blocks to the “carbarn” on the lower end of Valley Street. From there he took his 22-passenger streetcar out on the tracks. There was no center aisle, so the conductor walked along the outside running board to collect fares and punch transfers while the motorman tended to the handbrakes. Quitting time was 3:00 p.m.
So from the conductor’s platform, what did Asheville look like in 1900? If you enjoy tinkering with Google Earth, an interactive overview of Asheville, circa 1890, is available by clicking the small image at right. It will take you to an interactive map offering both historic and current details and perspectives.
The major junction in Asheville in 1900 (as it had been since the days of Indian paths and the drovers’ road) was Court (later Pack) Square.
Fairly close to the Square, on S. Main Street (later Biltmore Avenue; leading down from the right in the image above), a very early streetcar looked like the image below.
From the balcony of the Swannanoa Hotel, one would have seen the view below:
And if about six or so years later you had gone to the Square, at the top of the hill behind the streetcar and turned left on Patton Avenue, you would have encountered something like the scene below:
Sometime around 1900 (dates of construction vary), the Southern Railway built a splendid station on Depot Street, in use for decades thereafter:
Probably about 1905, Asbury and fellow conductor (or motorman?) Henry Thompson had their picture taken in front of the Depot:
Streetcar passengers willing to venture farther from town could take a car to Lookout Park (left center on the street railway map above) or Riverside Park (toward lower left on the map). Trolleys in the Land of the Sky chronicles the attractions: Lookout Park (closed in 1902) offered vaudeville performances, acrobats and clowns, and musical performances. Riverside had canoes, horse shows and races, a casino, and movies on a screen situated in the lake.
An Asheville Citizen advertisement for Riverside’s July 4th celebration in 1915 dramatizes its attractions:
Unfortunately, the park washed away in the July 16, 1916 flood.
Asbury’s Bachelor Years in Asheville
Somewhere around 1904 or 1905, the Asheville Street Railway gathered its officers and employees for a group picture in front of four streetcars. Among them were Asbury (framed by the window in the second car from the left) and his brother Charlie (listed but not locatable in photo):
Except that he was a steady employee and capable conductor on the Asheville Street Railway, not much has come to light about Asbury’s time in Asheville before he took the train down the mountain to Morganton and married Sarah Ella Austin at the State Hospital in November 1907.
For about five years, Asheville city directories confirm, he boarded with his aunt and uncle Sims–first at 281 S. Main Street and then at 37 N. French Broad Avenue. Sometime around 1903, his younger brother Charlie also got a job as a conductor and joined him. But Asbury was not listed in the 1906-07 directory, and his uncle John Sims had remarried and moved to 144 S. French Broad.
A few scattered newspaper notices suggest that Asbury maintained his relationship with Sarah Ella during his bachelor years. On August 14, 1900 the Asheville Daily Gazette reported that he had “returned from Morganton yesterday,” and in mid-July 1902 the Morganton Herald’s “Hospital Notes” column said that former employee Asbury Whisnant “visited old friends here Friday.” Whether he also had other “lady friends” in Asheville (as he called them during the dozen or so years he lived after Ella died) is unknown.
Having chronicled Asbury’s seven bachelor years in Asheville as best the sources available to me allow, I am left with other questions: Could anything else be said about his years of boarding with the Sims family and their daughters? How much time did he have to visit family and friends in Rutherford (especially Golden Valley and the Whiteside community), McDowell, Caldwell (where Lenoir was) and Burke (where Morganton was) counties? Did his Rutherford County family ever visit him in Asheville? Did he have a social circle in Asheville that extended beyond his workmates and their families? Was he involved in the streetcar workers’ union (as I know he was later, and will come back to in due time)?
My next post on Asbury and Ella will focus on their first decade and a half together in Asheville–from their marriage in 1907 until their purchase of their own home and move to West Asheville in February 1923. The dynamics of their life as a couple and a family (a stillborn child, another who lived less than a year, and then three others–all within five years), and circumstances and events in Asheville (e.g., the growth of West Asheville’s suburbs, the streetcar workers’ strike of
1913, the great flood of 1916, the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 (in which Asbury and Ella almost lost their youngest child) combined to present stability and some modest rewards, but also personal and social challenges and losses.
So one additional post–focusing retrospectively upon city and regional developments and dynamics, needs to intervene before we return to Asbury and Ella.
Retrospective: Larger Dynamics, 1860-1900
I opened this current post with a statement (and some images) about Asheville as “a burgeoning node of modernity” when Asbury arrived in 1900–as indeed it was. But the route the city had to traverse in order to get there was neither brief nor easy. Indeed, for Christian Reid to dub Asheville “the Land of the Sky” in 1875 (see previous posts) was at best premature. In the sky, certainly, but hardly of it.
Yes, in 1875 Asheville already had (indeed, had had for a half-century) some stylish hotels where dinnertime pianists played Chopin and impeccably attired African American staff served guests their food, cleaned their rooms and clothes, and (presumably) deferred in a comforting “befoh de wah” way. Carriages for hire conveyed low-country visitors to breathtaking promontories and views nearby, but public infrastructure was rudimentary at best: streets were rutted and dirty, reliable water supply still far off, and sewage was dumped wherever it could be, regardless. And the first electric streetcar was not to roll for more than a dozen years.
So whatever is to be said about Asheville’s 1900 modernity, it had emerged uncertainly and unevenly through forty years of turmoil, and in all honesty that modernity had to be called unstable and inequitable. However distant the lowland plantations, slavery in western North Carolina, Buncombe County, and Asheville had been pervasive and brutal. However far away its major battles, the Civil War had wreaked havoc upon families and communities. As everywhere, Reconstruction was a jumbled mess. And closing the gap between a pie-in-the-Land-of-the-Sky fantasy and an even marginally modern city would require thoroughgoing infrastructural development.
To these modernizing challenges and processes I turn in my next post. Afterwards we will return to Asbury and Ella themselves.
“Asbury Whisnant: Man 38 Years in Transport Service Here,” unidentified Asheville newspaper clipping, September 25, 1938; Asheville city directories (1883-1930); Foster A. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922); William S. Powell, “Karl Von Ruck,” NCpedia; Walter R. Turner, “Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina“