Museum tour explores once thriving community in Asheville Watershed

Special to The Black Mountain News

On Saturday, Nov. 10, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will host a driving tour inside the closed City of Asheville Watershed to explore part of the once thriving North Fork Valley community.

This driving tour will highlight several historic sites on the watershed’s west side and allow participants to walk amidst the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community’s earliest settlers will share stories about the North Fork Valley.

In 1800, Frederick Thomas Burnett Sr., his wife, “Granny Else”, and their children stopped under the shadow of the great Black and Craggy mountain ranges and declared they would go no further west than the uninhabited forests on the North Fork of the Swannanoa River.

The Gombroon Estate, which once stood on the west side of the Asehville Watershed, was the property of Zebulon Vance, the governor of North Carolina during the Civil War. The site of the building will be one of the stops on a Nov. 10 tour offered by the Swannanoa Valley Museum tour.

Though the land was rocky, the game was abundant and the family soon built the first log cabin in the valley very near the spot where over 100 years later City of Asheville workers would bulldoze and shape the land into a 1309-foot earthen dam.

Many other families migrated to the North Fork Valley over the next century—Pattons, Tysons, Powers, Presleys, Bartlets, Lydas, Morrises, Hendersons, Cordells, Allisons, Hambys, Walkers, McAfees, Stepps, Connallys, and (perhaps most famously) North Carolina’s Civil War Governor Zebulon B. Vance—but the Burnetts remained a central force in the development of the North Fork Valley from an unexplored wilderness to a community that at its beginning had a population competing with the City of Asheville.

F. Bascombe Burnette memorialized his time in the valley in the December 30, 1954, Black Mountain News:

“I was born under the shadows of Craggy Garden in January, 1882, many happy hours have I spent under azure blue of … its turbulent trout streams and eternal hills…. The many jars of cream, butter and eggs in stone jars sunken in the huge poplar log … it being the only refrigeration to us at the period with the temperature around 40 the year round. We holed up potatoes and turnips, cabbage and carrots in mother earth. The Honorable Zeb Vance and Col. J.K. Conley [sic] were about our only sources of cash income, 80 cents per day from sun up to sun down…. It surely grieves me to look up old North Fork at the works of man, it’s all gashed up by modern civilization…. Such is life. There is nothing we can do about it.”

Joe Tyson talks to a group touring the west side of the Asheville Watershed in 2016.

And, it seems, he was right. The original North Fork Church and Schoolhouse are now under water and most other structures were abandoned when the land was condemned.

Tour participants will have the rare opportunity to view the remnants of stone fireplaces and foundations dotting the landscape on the west side of the 22,000-acre public-use restricted watershed. (In April 2019, a separate tour will focus on the east side of the watershed.)

The trip on the west side of the watershed will begin at the Jesse Stepp Place, which has an impressive double-sided chimney that still stands. Beginning in the 19th century, tourists would travel to western North Carolina specifically to take a trip from Black Mountain to the top of Mount Mitchell.

To begin the journey, many tourists stayed with Jesse Stepp and his family. Stepp, a local farmer with a good deal of land, built cabins in the 1850s on his property at the upper end of the North Fork valley to accommodate the many tourists to the area.  At Stepp’s visitors acquired guides and horses to make the strenuous trek up the mountain.

From here, the caravan will stop for participants to view the entrance to Gombroon as well as the Gombroon wall. Vance employed locals to build the impressive, miles-long, stone wall offering them fair pay for steady work during a time when paid jobs were scarce.

Following that, the tour will pass the Left Hand Fork Intake and head to the Dan Burnett Place then proceed to the ruins of Gombroon. Guests will be able to view the foundation, heart-shaped pool, the spring house, and the McGinnis Cabin. The Gombroon estate was built as a summer retreat for Vance and his second wife, Florence Steele Martin of Kentucky, after they were married in 1880. The home boasted all of the most modern amenities of the time and impressive craftsmanship. Unfortunately, in 1936 the home burned; apparently struck by lightning. 

The tour will conclude with a stop beside the reservoir where a key scene in the popular movie “The Hunger Games” was shot and will include several funny anecdotes from the watershed’s wardens about their interactions with the movie’s stars.

While primarily a driving trip, the tour includes some moderate walking on rough terrain, so wear hiking boots and dress for the weather. More details about the trip, including departure location, will be provided by registering at

For more information, email or call 669-9566.