The first to carve a pathway out of the wilderness along the Swannanoa River were the animals. Bears, bobcats, buffalo, turkeys, wild hogs, deer, and other species would take the path of least resistance to get to their water source, the river.
Swannanoa Valley has been inhabited for more than 12,000 years, as evidenced by archaeological finds. Although one permanent settlement has been found on the banks of the Swannanoa River, on the land that is now Warren Wilson College, it is believed that the Native Americans who used this valley were wanderers, hunters and gatherers who did not establish permanent dwellings.
The Cherokee used the Valley as their hunting grounds until the Revolutionary War. Being trading partners with the British, they sided with the British in the war, and when the British were defeated, so too were the Cherokee. They were moved further to the west, and the land in this valley was opened to immigrant settlement.
1784: The first European settlers crossed into the Blue Ridge over Swannanoa Gap. Samuel Davidson built a cabin on Jones Mountain, was killed by Indian hunting party. Wife, daughter, and slave girl escaped back to Old Fort. Shortly afterwards, Samuel’s twin brother, William Davidson, headed up a party of men who returned to the cabin, found Sam’s body and buried it, then found the Indians and took their revenge. Later, the Davidson and Alexander families moved into the valley and created the first settlement at Christian Creek.
From 1784 through 1879: The people who lived in the Swannanoa Valley were primarily subsistence farmers, living a hardscrabble life in the harsh mountain environment. Many were of Scot-Irish descent, but there were Germans, English, and also Africans who came as slaves.
1879: The coming of the railroad through the Swannanoa Valley brought radical change to most of Western North Carolina, bringing more tourists and land speculators into the region. Farmers were able to export crops and livestock to markets further east.
In the early 20th century, developers purchased land that eventually became major religious retreats, including Montreat, Ridgecrest, and YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly.
1910-1920: Logging operations clear cut many mountainsides, including Mount Mitchell.
1916: A devastating flood ravaged the valley, the erosion made worse by the clear cutting of the trees.
1925: The use of the railroad made a major impact on the Swannanoa Valley with the arrival of Charles D. Owen, who selected the valley as the site to relocate his manufacturing business, Beacon Manufacturing, from its home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Legend has it that the company dismantled much of the plant and brought it bricks and all and rebuilt the structure in Swannanoa. The reason for the relocation was that Owen found cheap labor here instead of union labor.
In the early 1920s, a developer named E.W. Grove saw opportunity in the Swannanoa Valley and started to build America’s first planned community, Grovemont. To support the recreational interests of the residents of the new neighborhood, he built Lake Eden which was to have become a country club. Grove died in 1924 before his dream was completed. Prior to his Swannanoa projects, he built the Grove Park Inn and had begun work on the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville.
In 1940, Lake Eden became the site of Black Mountain College. The college pioneered the inclusion of visual, performing and plastic arts in the liberal arts curriculum, emphasizing their importance to human development. Black Mountain College used many of E.W. Grove’s original buildings, which remain on the property today. This is now the site of Camp Rockmont.
Agriculture has remained important in the Swannanoa Valley throughout this history. The NC State Test Farm was established in the late 1930s on the land that now serves as the Swannanoa Youth Development Center. It was the job of the farm to test what strain of corn would produce the best yield, or wheat, grasses, and livestock, etc.
The Test Farm was torn down in 1942 to make way for Moore General Hospital, an Army base built in less than 4 months to care for soldiers during WWII. The land adjacent to the hospital, which is now the Swannanoa 4-H Camp, was used to house German prisoners of war.
Today, farmland is rapidly disappearing, giving way to housing developments. So too have the manufacturing jobs disappeared from the Swannanoa Valley. Many of today’s residents commute to Asheville to work, or own or work in Valley businesses. The largest employer is Ingles Markets, Inc.