In summer the winds prevail from the southern points of the compass; they come to Asheville cooled by passage over the high mountains, and slightly tinctured with balsamic odors gathered there-from. In winter, as they come from northern points, their force is broken by the mountains on that side, and in descending to the valley meet the milder temperature there generated. . . . Standing in the town of Asheville, one may look far west and see the black tops of its kindred range; while east and north the towering peak of Mount Mitchell and its seven brothers give thousands of acres of surface to the balsam-tree . . . . Sen. Thomas L. Clingman (1812-1897)
For well over a hundred years, Asheville has proudly (and profitably) sailed under the “Land of the Sky” flag. And in some senses, the fit is good, as Clingman (to whose political views and career we will return later) lyrically observed.
Lying some 2200 feet above sea level at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, ringed by gorgeous mountains (some of which rise beyond 6,000 feet), blessed by (for the most part) clean air and moderate temperatures (yearly means between 45 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NOAA figures), enough but not too much rain or snow, and vast biological diversity, the area has beckoned timber cutters, health seekers and job seekers, pilgrim seekers of cultural bedrock, summer-ers and religious assembly-ers, moneyed movers and shakers, trail hikers and wilderness wayfarers, auto-borne vacationers, retirees, and (of late) artisanal bakers, brewers and coffee roasters, restauraters, redevelopers and gentrifiers.
And yet the perennial resonances of respite and refuge, grounding and transcendence, uplift and natural-magical healing, beguiling opportunity, and cultural originalism omit and obscure as much as they enticingly evoke. As does the ubiquitous tourism trope. Ultimately, one observes, Asheville was a multivalent, tropistic nexus: enchanting and revivifying but also a lode of practical promise and advantage. So how may we, for our purpose here, get off the well-beaten interpretive paths as we try to gain a sense of how such an Asheville got put together as it did?
Four strategies seem promising:
- Center on the geophysically situated Asheville bowl (as I will call it);
- Focus on the (mostly) geophysically determined passages into and out of that bowl (early and late), and the channels and junctions that occurred as a result;
- Pay due attention to the working people who, drawn to and through the junctions, helped to build Asheville–at least as much as did the elite movers and shakers who have thus far received most of the attention: stock drovers, merchants and their wagons from beyond the mountains, enslaved and free African Americans, shopkeepers, factory workers and construction workers, and myriad others whose stories are only beginning to be told. Two of them were my streetcar conductor grandfather Asbury Whisnant who arrived in 1900 (followed by his new wife Ella Austin Whisnant in 1907), and my concrete finisher grandfather Pierce Rudisill who came (also from down the mountain) with his wife Virginia Fox Rudisill and young daughter Mary Neal in 1920.
- Consider the demographic, economic and cultural mix that developed (always dynamically) within the bowl.
Having been produced partly as a result of these geophysical givens, junctions of every sort, and the historical processes that issued from all of them does not make Asheville unique, or even all that special. Any city could (indeed, must) be written about partly from such a prospective. What merits special attention is the particular array of factors and processes that have shaped Asheville, and the demography (social, economic and cultural) and experience of its array of working people.
The first task outlined here will require two posts, it seems: This one considers the bowl and its geophysical context, into which we will lay the earliest outlines of a city, not originally even named Asheville, but which over many decades became the historical “Land of the Sky” Asheville. The next post will carry Asheville forward to about the 1870s (when Reid’s novel appeared), considering how the constructed channels (trading paths, drovers’ roads, turnpikes, other roads, and eventually railroads) were laid within the given geophysical context, directing and re-directing the streams that poured through them and mixed there.
An initial caution about this post (and the one that follows): They are posts, not books, and posts are best kept short(ish). No two blog posts can “cover” the first century of Asheville history, and I do not claim that what is here is the history of Asheville. What I try to account for and characterize (at this point, at least) is the Asheville that had come to be when my grandfather Whisnant (b. 1872) began to hear about it as he grew up down the mountain in Rutherford County’s Golden Valley township. To fill out my necessarily schematic treatment here, I have provided references and links leading to further detail in the work of others.
The Geophysical Context: Circles of Mountains and a Bowl in the Sky
Many nineteenth-century visitors to Asheville (including Christian Reid, who labeled it “The Land of the Sky”) wrote of their wonderment as they stood looking at the dramatic mountains that encircled the bowl that was Asheville. And wondrous they were indeed. An early and wonderful example is a view from James Patton’s summer house in 1851:
Taking a panoramic swing, nearest was Beaucatcher Mountain to the north–destination of many a horseback ride or (later) auto drive. From atop Beaucatcher one could easily see the bowl:
Moving around the compass, the mountains rose behind each other in range after enchanting range:
But the enclosing and enchanting mountain surround was partly an illusion: those mountains were interrupted by many gaps, valleys, and other passages that had more to do functionally with where and how Asheville developed than did the mountains themselves, important as they were in some respects.
It occurs to me that two metaphors might help to explain how the bowl related to the gaps and other passages. One metaphor is the often-used mixing bowl figure (limited by economic, social, cultural, and racial boundaries as Asheville’s mixing bowl turned out to be). The other is the railway roundhouse turntable, which received engines from any direction and turned them toward any other. This latter metaphor is especially useful, it seems to me, because it provides an image for several orientations of movement from outside toward the bowl. Some of it was headed to Asheville as a final and settled destination, but some was directed that way from a certain starting point by one convenient channel before swapping over to another (as on a railway turntable) in or near Asheville, and heading in another direction toward a final destination.
Gaps, Rivers and Valleys: Natural Routes into (and out of) the Bowl
As far out as one chooses to go, the rings of mountains around Asheville are pierced by many gaps of various sizes and elevations. For our purpose here, we will stay fairly close to the Asheville bowl (elev. 2250 ft.). The “terrain” choice on a Google map of Asheville, zoomed out far enough to show topography, helps us visualize a few key details with regard to the founding and early development of Asheville:
Toward the east, beyond Black Mountain and Swannanoa, is Swannanoa Gap (elev. 2657 ft.), on the Buncombe-McDowell county line. At the bottom of the mountain lies Old Fort (elev. 1440 ft.). Further to the east one encounters Marion, Morganton and Hickory.
Southeast of Asheville on the Buncombe-Henderson county line lies Hickory Nut Gap [originally Sherrill’s Gap], at about 2900 ft., opening a way down the mountain along present US highway 74, toward Chimney Rock, Rutherfordton, and Charlotte. Toward the south is Saluda Gap. The later route of US highway 25, beyond Flat Rock and Hendersonville, passes through Saluda Gap and into a wide, open, relatively low-lying valley. Toward its lower end lie Traveler’s Rest (elev. 1100 ft.), and beyond it Greenville and Columbia SC. Heading west, roughly along present US highway 19 toward Bryson City, lies another long valley. By the time one gets to Fontana Lake (on the Tuckaseegee River), the elevation has fallen about 1000 ft. below Asheville’s.
More to the north of Asheville, roughly following present highways US 70 and 23 past Marshall and Mars Hill, one eventually encounters the Great Valley of Virginia, a major northeast-southwest migration route stretching from New England’s Green Mountains, northwest of the Great Smoky Mountains and on into Alabama’s Coosa Valley.
For eons, these gaps and their associated valleys and waterways formed conduits into and out of what eventually became the Asheville bowl. The primary river is the 200+ mile-long French Broad, examined so thoroughly and lyrically a half-century ago by Wilma Dykeman (1920-2006). Its north fork has its
origin in the 50-ft. Court House Falls in Transylvania County, high in the Pisgah Mountains near Rosman. Along its more than 100-mile course, the French Broad drops to a comparatively low elevation and runs northwest through fairly wide valleys (picking up its Davidson River and Mills River tributaries) to Asheville. It then passes through Cherokee
National Forest before crossing into Tennessee. Picking up the waters of the Little Pigeon, Pigeon and Nolichucky rivers, and joining the Holston, it snakes its way on to Knoxville and then into the Tennessee River.
What geologists refer to as the French Broad River Basin encompasses an area of 2,830 square miles, including parts of eight counties, 24 municipalities, 3,985 miles of streams, and upwards of a half-million people.
Just south of Asheville, the much smaller and shorter Swannanoa (all 22 miles of it lying within
Buncombe County) joins the French Broad.
Though frequently treated in the same romantic fashion in nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts and popular literature, the two
rivers functioned differently in early western North Carolina history and development. The former has mainly been a channel of commerce; the latter more a draw for travelers seeking picturesque attractions.
In any case, these gaps, valleys and rivers shaped in particular ways the bowl within the mountains that came to be the site of Asheville. Through and along these gaps and valleys (and many smaller related ones) and along the rivers passed trading and war paths, drovers’ roads, turnpikes, local and county roads, and highways (state, U.S. and eventually interstate). Along them moved animals, people, and goods, of course, but also cultural objects, forms, and practices–musical instruments,and ways of playing and singing, and ways of living, building, speaking, believing and worshipping. But all of that is the focus of my next post.
Two Transformations Before 1800: Indian Eradication and Land Speculation
Well before John Burton laid out his little half-acre lots in what was to become Asheville (see following post), two large-scale transformations were under way that affected (at almost geophysical scale) much of what was to happen in and around the Asheville bowl for many decades to come. One was the eradication of the Indian population; the other was the aggregation of vast amounts of land into the hands of speculators. The former story has been many times told; I will pass over it lightly, inserting links for those who wish further elaboration. But since at least in the more accessible accounts of Asheville history, the latter story has not received due attention, I will elaborate a bit more on it.
The Cherokees and other Native Americans had been in the area for millennia. During that time they had not entirely escaped molestation, but from the mid-1700s, whites pushing westward subjected them to increasing pressure. The coming of the American Revolution sharply reduced the Cherokee presence. In his scorched earth campaign of mid-1776, Gen. Griffith Rutherford laid waste to thirty-six western North Carolina Cherokee towns, destroyed their crops and livestock, and stole their provisions.
The pressure of newly arriving whites in the 1780s (up from Old Fort onto the banks of the Swannanoa, for example, but also in other places as well) forced further land cessions. These white incursions left the Cherokees bereft of most of their ancestral home and forced them into far western North Carolina. Corralled first into internment camps and stockades, all but a remnant of them (later called the Eastern Band) were force-marched to Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.
If the purpose of Indian eradication was to make more land available to whites, from the late 18th century onward the purpose of a more generalized form of pressure on land availability was to make it less so, and to dramatically restrict who could buy it and at what price.
That pressure issued from land speculators who bought vast tracts in the western North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Three eastern North Carolina brothers, John Gray, William, and Thomas Blount, went at it in a major way from the 1770s onward. William was the political manipulator who helped tailor legislation to favor land investors, and John was the businessman who employed agents in America and Europe, located lands, and formed his own land companies to buy and sell them. Manipulation of deeds and titles, brazen fraud, and other illegal machinations greased the wheels of the Blount enterprise. In 1784 they bought more than 150,000 acres from Revolutionary War veterans who received it for military service but had little or
no interest in it. In 1796 John Gray Blount bought at a High Sheriff of Buncombe County tax sale 577,920 acres [sic] for 40 pounds (for the curious, this came to 0.0000710 pounds/acre–that’s 0.7 ten thousandths–which surely qualifies as stealing it. The Blounts’ North Carolina holdings eventually totaled more than a million acres, and their lands stretched on into Tennessee and Alabama.
A related (and even longer) such story is that of New York speculator Tench Coxe, who served as assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Alexander Hamilton, and was a delegate to the Continental Congress. Coxe gained title to his first 400,000 western North Carolina acres for nine cents an acre. His later machinations are succinctly limned in this headnote on Appalachian State University’s 10,000-item collection of records from his Speculation Land Company, formed to market his spoils. Coxe, the note says,
came into possession of 400,000 acres of land in North Carolina following the Revolutionary War, much purchased from the Rutherford Land Company in North Carolina, in 1791 and established the Speculation Land Company to manage and sell the land.
The Speculation Land Company was one of the largest land owners in southwestern North Carolina during the eighteenth through the early twentieth century, owning thousands of acres in Buncombe, Henderson, Polk, Rutherford, and Mecklenburg counties in North Carolina.
More records of this company, stretching over more than 200 years (see timeline), are housed in the libraries at UNC Asheville, Appalachian State University and UNC Chapel Hill, awaiting the careful scrutiny they urgently deserve. The Blount brothers and Tench Coxe climbed through no gaps, forded no rivers, picked their way along no rock ledges. Their operations were centered in legislative chambers and court houses. And instead of tracing routes by water courses, moss on the trees, or the stars, they traced them through still scant, hand-written deed books. They were motivated by greed, not by rapt and reverent contemplation of the wondrous mountain ranges that encircled the Asheville bowl, and certainly not by any even rudimentary conception of the common good. But what they did (see the online Speculation Lands Collection, which include deeds and other legal documents) radically altered the chances of countless individuals who later made their way to Asheville through those gaps and along those rivers–whether for a brief restorative visit, to conduct their business, or to make a life there.
A synoptic map of the movement of population from east to west in North Carolina from the 1650s to the 1820s allows us to visualize the pressure on western North Carolina lands at the end of the eighteenth century:
In about ten days, I will be searching deed books in the Rutherford and McDowell County courthouses for records of my great-grandfather and grandfather Whisnant’s purchases of small farms in those two counties over (I’m guessing) maybe a forty-year period after the Civil War. As I contemplate that, having just read about Tench Coxe and the Speculation Lands Company’s connection with its predecessor the Rutherford Land Company, I wonder: could it possibly be that Pinckney and Asbury Whisnant bought farms from Tench Coxe? However that turns out, it is almost certainly the case that a few decades later, Asbury Whisnant was a conductor on Asheville streetcars that ran down Coxe Avenue. And how Coxe Avenue came to be brings us full circle: After opening his massive stone Grove Park Inn in 1913, E. W. Grove bought the old (1886) Battery Park Hotel and the hill on which it stood from Tench Coxe’s grandson Franklin Coxe, tore the hotel down, decapitated the hill with steam shovels, and built a new one. Dumped into a ravine, the 250,000 yards of dirt from the hilltop formed Coxe Avenue.
William L. Anderson and Ruth Y. Wetmore, five-part series on the Cherokees in NCPedia (2006); Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Roy B. Clarkson, Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia, 1770-1920 (1964); Stan Cohen, Historic Springs of the Virginias: A Pictorial History (1981); Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad (rev. ed., 1974); Ronald D. Eller, Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (1982), especially Chapter 3 (The Last Great Trees); Alice Barnwell Keith, “Three North Carolina Blount Brothers in Business and Politics, 1783-1812” (Ph.D. diss., UNC, 1941); H. Taylor Rogers, Rogers’ Asheville (1899); Foster A. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922); Speculation Land Company records, libraries of Appalachian State University, UNC Chapel Hill, and UNC Asheville; Wikipedia; ArcGIS [US Topo Maps online]; Buncombe County Register of Deeds online records.