A visit to the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will take you along pathways through time, from the earliest pathways carved by the animals to the concrete pathways of today.
The Swannanoa Valley has been a pathway for animals and humans for more than 12,000 years as they crossed the Blue Ridge over the Catawba River headwaters or through the Swannanoa Gap. It was one of the main routes taken by frontiersmen and pioneers making their way west.
Our 2nd Floor Permanent Exhibits include:
- The animals and plants of the region
- Early hunters and gatherers, Cherokee
- Pioneer settlement
- Stage coach and drover’s path
- The coming of the railroad
- Into the 20th century—paved roads, automobiles and development
- The pathways of today
Animals were the first to create pathways along the Swannanoa River and the ridge lines of the Swannanoa and Craggy mountain ranges as they traversed the rugged mountain countryside.
The tall forests and rich carpet of undergrowth in the uninhabited mountains provided food and shelter for bear, elk, deer, mountain lions, buffalo, and many smaller creatures.
Before the coming of man, animals roamed freely, leaving hard packed trails across the mountain gaps and down the valleys to protected drinking spots.
Archaeologists tell us that the Swannanoa Valley has been inhabited by humans for more than 12,000 years.
The prehistoric people who came through the Valley were hunters and gatherers who used the paths carved out by the animals to make their way through the forest in search of food.
In 1539-1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto ventured into the mountains of Northern Georgia and Western North Carolina bringing with him Old World diseases against which the native population had no immune defense. Thousands died.
Another Spaniard was commanded to explore what is today central and western North Carolina in search of rich farmland. According to Charles Hudson in his book, The Juan Pardo Expeditions, (University of Alabama Press, 1990) Juan Pardo made his first expedition in 1566-67, traveling as far as present day Morganton. In 1567-68 he made a second expedition, passing through the Swannanoa Valley on his way west with instructions to find the most direct road to the silver mines in Zacatecas, Mexico.
The Cherokee were shrewd traders and did much business with the English on the eastern seaboard. With the advent of the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee sided with their trading partners, and consequently were defeated. The new government of North Carolina opened the Swannanoa Valley to white settlement.
On July 20, 1777, the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Long Island (in the Holston River) with Virginia and North Carolina, giving up all lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In November, 1785, the U.S. Commissioners, acting for North Carolina, negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee to establish a new boundary between whites and Indians. The main French Broad River Valley was left to the Cherokee people, but land along the Swannanoa and Toe Rivers was opened to Europeans.
Many treaties followed—all broken.
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the land west of the Blue Ridge, including the Swannanoa Valley, was opened to settlement. Many land claims were made and recorded in the Burke County Court House, until 1791 when Buncombe became a county.
One of the famous stories about this early settlement tells of the death of Samuel Davidson, who was reputedly the first immigrant settler to build a dwelling in the Swannanoa Valley.
In 1784, Davidson brought his wife, baby, and slave girl from Old Fort (then Davidson’s Fort) to live in the cabin. He had a horse with a cowbell tied to its neck so it could be easily located. One night at supper, the story goes, Davidson heard the cowbell making quite a ruckus and charged outside without his rifle to see what was the matter.
He was shot and killed by a Cherokee hunting party. His wife, baby and servant managed to return to Davidson’s Fort without being pursued by the Indians. There, Samuel’s twin brother William mounted a search party, returned to the cabin, found Samuel’s body and buried it. They also found the Indians and killed them.
In less than a year, William Davidson and his wife, Rachel Alexander Davidson, along with their families and several friends crossed the Blue Ridge from the Catawba settlements to take up grants of land where Bee Tree Creek enters the Swannanoa River, forming the Bee Tree Community.
Many of the early pioneer roads were little more than footpaths or primitive wagon trails that followed the “traces” or pathways carved through the mountain wilderness by animals and early human inhabitants. Rugged and poorly maintained, these roads made for rough passage into the Swannanoa Valley.
The Swannanoa Gap trail was doubtless the first road into Buncombe from the east. It led from Old Fort to the head of the Swannanoa River and Bee Tree Creek, where the earliest settlers built a community about 1782. This road did not cross as is often believed at the place where the Swannanoa railroad tunnel is today. Rather it crossed a half mile further south, going over the Catawba River headwaters before descending into the Swannanoa Valley.
As more settlers crossed the Blue Ridge and headed west, the fledgling Buncombe County government signed agreements with private road builders to construct better thoroughfares throughout the region. Among these was the Buncombe Turnpike, completed in 1827, running north-south from Greeneville, Tennessee, to Greenville, South Carolina, both towns named for the same Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Nathaniel Greene.
The Western Turnpike, much of it following along the Rutherford Trace, ran east-west from Salisbury, North Carolina, through Buncombe County to points west. It was well underway by the 1820s and completed by 1850.
These two roads, like the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers that partially shaped them, intersected at Asheville. Until the coming of the railroad in 1879, stagecoaches traveling the Western Turnpike brought travelers to and through the Swannanoa Valley.
(Information partially taken from “The Roads of Madison County,” by Sam Gray, page 293, May We All Remember Well, Vol. II.)
The Coming of the Railroad
With picks, shovels, black powder and nitroglycerin, convict labor with strong backs, ox and mule teams, imagination, vision, determination and sheer luck, builders of the Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCRR) pierced through the Blue Ridge in 1874, at a cost of $2 million and 125 lives.
Bringing the railroad over and through the Blue Ridge was costly and difficult, and yet the coming of the railroad brought a new prosperity to the mountain people, along with a dramatic change in their culture.
Before the railroad, transportation into and out of the mountains was difficult at best, sometimes treacherous. Although outsiders did come by horseback and stagecoach, most mountaineers remained isolated from the larger society of North Carolina.
With the railroad came passengers from the lower elevations who discovered the delightful climate and beautiful scenery of the mountains. Many came only for the summer and were dubbed “the summer people.” But others bought land, started businesses, and created the religious retreats and conference centers that became Montreat, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly and Ridgecrest, among others.
Mountain farmers were able to move their produce and livestock by rail to the markets in the Piedmont and further east. The tiny hamlet that had been known as “Gray Eagle,” (sometimes spelled Grey Eagle) grew and incorporated in 1893, changing its name to Black Mountain, after the name of the station built by the WNCRR.
Passenger rail service ceased in the 1960s, although the rails and tunnels built long ago still serve to move freight.
By the end of the 19th century, the automobile began to replace horse drawn wagons as the primary means of transportation in the mountains. Earlier muddy and rutted roads began to be replaced with paved highways.
In 1911, the North Carolina legislature authorized the construction of NC 10, the “Central Highway” that would connect Beaufort to Murphy.
In 1934 the designation of the road was changed to US 70 to represent its growing importance as a major highway crossing the United States. Also referred to as the “Broadway of America,” US 70 connected Beaufort, North Carolina, to Los Angeles, California.
After World War II and the creation of the interstate highway system, the section of US 70 between Old Fort and Black Mountain was relocated and upgraded to where Interstate 40 runs today. Construction of the section of I-40 that eventually replaced US70 as the main thoroughfare through the Swannanoa Valley was started in 1952 and completed in the early 60s.
Pathways to Tomorrow
The face of the Swannanoa Valley is rapidly changing, just as it did with the coming of the railroad and paved roads.
Newcomers arrive by car today for the same reasons they came a century ago—to enjoy the mild climate, beautiful scenery, and natural attractions of the mountains of Western North Carolina.
There is much concern among conservationists, land use planners, and tourism professionals that the region’s natural assets be preserved and protected. Tourism is one of the region’s strongest economic drivers, and yet, some fear that over-development and overuse of natural resources might destroy what tourists come to enjoy.