Museum hike takes in grave of unknown Civil War soldier

Melanie English
The Black Mountain News

Trickling between Old Fort and Ridgecrest, Swannanoa Creek is a natural passageway into the Swannanoa Valley. Over the centuries, the storied tributary has led Cherokee traders, armies and stagecoaches into Western North Carolina.

The Swannanoa Valley Museum will lead a moderate, mostly downhill, four-mile hike down this storied path on Saturday, Nov. 7, shedding light on the natural, social, and cultural history of this once major artery into the Blue Ridge and crossroads for tourism, commerce and calamity.

Swannanoa Creek is located less than six miles from Black Mountain in McDowell County. In the centuries before European settlement, Native Americans formed a trade route along the rivulet. During the American Revolution, Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s force of 2,400 men penetrated WNC along the route, burning Cherokee settlements in their wake. In 1784, Samuel Davidson, the first white man to attempt a permanent settlement in the Swannanoa Valley (at Christian Creek), followed the tributary over the Swannanoa Gap, where the museum’s hike begins.

At the close of the Civil War, the thoroughfare played a critical role in the defense of the region during Stoneman’s Raid. On April 20, 1865, Confederate troops under Gen. James G. Martin felled trees to block the road leading to Swannanoa and Lakey Gap at Royal Gorge and divert the path of Gen. Alvan C. Gillem’s Union army to Asheville through Rutherfordton, Polk and Henderson counties.

Near the road lie two mysterious graves related to the skirmish. The graves’ occupants are unknown. Confederate veterans told two conflicting versions of the story. In one version, the grave is said to mark the burial of a Union scout. Another version claims that the grave holds a Union deserter who, en route from Asheville to Morganton, accidently fired on a guard while resting at the Swannanoa Gap spring. Some speculate that the deserter was shot, too, and the site holds the graves of both casualties. The graves, marked soberly, “U.S. Soldier” and “Unknown Soldier,” are visible alongside the creek, marked with Confederate flags and Old Glory.

Despite the solemnity and mystery enveloping the creek side, during much of the 18th Century, the Swannanoa Creek formed the backbone of the burgeoning Western Turnpike, the main pathway into WNC. Starting in 1820, commercial ventures like the Edwin T. Clemmons Stagecoach Line ran from Morganton to Old Fort, and then up the mountain to Black Mountain along the stream.

The museum hike will follow the old kudzu-covered stagecoach road eastward. Writer Christian Reid described the stagecoach ride up the Swannanoa Creek to “The Land of the Sky” in her 1876 book of the same title. The name has hence been appropriated as a regional tourism slogan. During the height of stagecoach travel, residences and lodging facilities sprung up along the roadbed. The ruins of several decrepit home sites remain along the historic path, including the remnants of the chimney of the early 19th century Allison cabin, visible during the museum’s hike.

Clemmons purchased his largest coach, the “Hattie Butner,” named after his wife in 1872, but by the decade’s close the coach was displaced by the railroad, after new-fangled nitroglycerines blasted through the Swannanoa Tunnel, uniting the eastern and western portions of the state.

On March 11, 1879, the railroad construction superintendent telegraphed Governor Zebulon Vance, “Daylight entered Buncombe County today through the Swannanoa Tunnel.”

At over 1,800 foot, the tunnel was the longest of the seven railroad tunnels leading west from Old Fort. The technological feat was only achieved through convict labor. Free laborers were a rarity on the railroad, and African Americans comprised the majority of convicts.

Harsh labor conditions ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of workers. Even during the celebration of the opening of the Swannanoa Tunnel, a portion collapsed, killing 21 men.

Although passenger trains ceased in the mid-20th Century, cargo trains continue to run east and west along the creek several times a day. From Old U.S. 70, the museum’s hike will descend a steep, long bank to the railroad tracks to come out east of the Swannanoa Tunnel.

Crossing the tracks, the hike will go down another embankment to the Swannanoa Creek. Here the waterway is alternately known as Davidson Creek and Allison Creek, named for the area’s legendary earliest settlers.

The hike will continue along the stagecoach road and old railroad bed, crossing the creek again several times to conclude at Point Lookout Greenway Trail. Since the old roadway is dilapidated from disuse, hikers are advised to wear sturdy hiking boots and bring hiking poles for added stability over the rocky road. Hikers should also dress for the weather and bring lunch and plenty of water.

The hike meets at the museum at 223 W. State St., Black Mountain at 9 a.m. Hike leaders will carpool hikers to the trailhead. The hike, a fundraiser for the nonprofit museum, costs $30 for museum members and $50 for nonmembers. Advanced registration is required. Sign up at swannanoavalley

museum.org/november, email info@swannanoavalleymuseum.org, or call 669-9566.