By the 1830s, tourists, known locally as “summer people,” began to arrive in Swannanoa to escape the sweltering summer heat and insects of towns to the east and south. During this time, they arrived by stagecoach, wagon or horseback at the many inns and boarding houses that opened to accommodate them.
Even with the burgeoning tourist industry in Swannanoa, the area remained primarily a rural, farming community until the late 1870s. When the railroad was finally completed in 1879, after being stalled by the Civil War and by the difficulty of laying track up the steep grade from Old Fort to Black Mountain, it connected the western part of North Carolina with the eastern part, and new businesses began to spring up near the railroad station. Many of these businesses will be featured on the museum tour.
During the first 16 years of its existence, the Swannanoa train station was known as Cooper’s Station, the name of the old stagecoach stop at the Alexander Inn. On Feb. 6, 1895, a petition filed by the residents of Swannanoa requested a name change so that the station and the town would have the same name.
Swannanoa really began to grow and prosper when, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Charles D. Owen II, the son of a blanket manufacturer from Massachusetts, saw a 160-acre farm beside Swannanoa’s railroad tracks that was well suited for a new southern branch of the Beacon Blankets Manufacturing Co. Between 1924 and 1933, the entire New Bedford, Massachusetts plant was moved via freight train to Swannanoa. Once the plant began operations, the Owen family provided housing in mill villages, paved roadways, laid water lines, created sanitation services and offered fire and police protection to employees. Beacon also more fully developed the downtown Swannanoa business district – during the early years of the mill, a grocery and general merchandise store, a drugstore, clothing stores, a movie theater and a bank opened.
By the 1970s, the textile industry in Swannanoa began to decline, and Beacon laid off workers. With improved transportation, more people began shopping at chain stores in Asheville rather than at Swannanoa’s independent businesses. At the same time, the Owen family sold all of its stock in Beacon to a company called National Distillery. The company changed hands again the 1980s and the 1990s. Changes in ownership brought more layoffs, as more of the business was moved offshore.
By 2000, Beacon employed only a couple hundred people, far less than the 2,200 employed there in the 1940s. After years of losses, the Beacon plant closed its doors for good in the spring of 2002.
On September 4, 2003, an arsonist set the vacant Beacon Manufacturing Co. plant on fire, and it burned to the ground. The blaze, which made national headlines, brought out more than 500 firefighters from 32 different fire departments. Today, the lot that was once home to America’s largest blanket manufacturer – and in many ways the lifeblood of Swannanoa – lies vacant.
As Wade Martin, a former Beacon employee, said in a 2002 interview after the plant closed, “My name for Beacon was ‘the big red heart of Swannanoa,’ and when that heart was beating good, the community thrived, and when there were times when it was suffering a little, some people didn’t do so well.”
Still, the Swannanoa community carries on. A number of new businesses have opened in Swannanoa since the plant closed. According to Bill Alexander, old and new residents alike continue to be active forces in Swannanoa, daily working “to rebuild the economic base of our community, and explore avenues for the growth and rebirth of the town.”