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The History of Asheville

Asheville: Land of the Sky

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the land where Asheville now exists was within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. In 1540, the expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the area.

After the American Revolution, with a land grant from the State of North Carolina, Colonel Samuel Davidson and his family journeyed west into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their initial attempt to settle in the Swannanoa Valley in 1784 was unsuccessful. He was soon followed by his brother Major William Davidson and a number of relatives. In 1785 they permanently settled the land near the mouth of Bee Tree Creek on the Swannanoa River, thus, laying the foundation for the future town of Asheville. By 1790 the United States Census counted 1,000 residents in the area, excluding the native Cherokee.

Buncombe County was officially organized on April 16, 1792. The county seat was named “Morristown” in 1793. In 1797, Morristown was incorporated and renamed “Asheville” after North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.

Transportation in early Asheville consisted of a few paths cut through dense forests and travel by river. This began to change in 1828 with the completion of the Buncombe Turnpike. The thoroughfare connected Greenville, Tennessee, to the South Carolina state line. Local farmers could drive livestock and sell their produce to markets south and east while new visitors gained access to the small city.

Asheville, with a population of approximately 2,500 by 1861, remained relatively untouched by the Civil War. After the war its reputation as a summer resort slowly grew. When William Oliver Wolfe arrived in 1880 the city still only contained a little over 2,600 permanent residents.

The Western North Carolina Railroad, which had begun in Salisbury, N.C. in 1875, crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and the first train pulled into Asheville on October 2, 1880. People from the coast could easily get away to the mountains. In 1886, the first telephone service began, and three years later, Asheville’s electric car line became operational. By 1890, Asheville’s population had increased to over 10,000.

Soon to be one of the biggest attractions in Asheville, George W. Vanderbilt began construction of his Biltmore Estate in 1895 on 8,000 acres south of the city. The construction lasted five years, requiring the additional erection of Biltmore Village to house the hundreds of workers employed on the project.

To accommodate increasing numbers of visitors and transient workers the boardinghouse business grew with the rise of the tourism industry. In 1906, when Julia purchased the “Old Kentucky Home”, she was competing with over 100 similar boardinghouses, growing to 137 in 1910. Adding to the luxury hotel business, the Grove Park Inn opened on July 12, 1913, with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan delivering the keynote address. Asheville became the third largest city in the state, behind Charlotte and Wilmington.

In 1920, Asheville’s population soared to over 28,000, and the city attracted over 200,000 annual visitors who enjoyed the city’s mild climate, natural attractions, architecture, night life and a look at the Appalachian way of life.

As Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel hit the streets in 1929, so did The Great Depression. On November 20, 1930 eight local banks failed. Asheville and Buncombe County were saddled with over $56 million in bonded debt. The money had been used to pay for a wide range of recent municipal and infrastructure improvements, including the courthouse, City Hall and Beaucatcher Tunnel. They paid their debt over a period of fifty years, slowing the future expansion of Asheville.

However, the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, built with the aide of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, continued the area’s place in history as a resort city. Today an estimated 2 million travelers continue to come to Asheville for many of the same reasons people visited 100 years ago.