Swannanoa Valley Museum offers Swannanoa Tunnel hike

Anne Chesky Smith
Special to Black Mountain News
A hike hosted by the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center on March 2, will take participants to a significant passage in the area's history.

The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will lead a difficult/strenuous, four-mile hike down the path that led many travelers up into western North Carolina on Saturday, March 2.

The hike’s leaders will shed light on the natural, social, and cultural history of this once major artery along the Swannnaoa Creek into the Blue Ridge – a crossroads for tourism, commerce, and calamity.

Originally an animal path used by Native Americans as they made their way up the steep grade from what is now Old Fort to the crest of the Blue Ridge, the thoroughfare later played a critical role in the defense of the region during Stoneman’s Raid at the close of the Civil War.

Using an ingenious and surprisingly simple diversion, Confederate troops were able to prevent the Union army from using the route to make their way into Asheville. Participants will hear the full tale as they walk the same route used by the troops over 150 years earlier.

Near the old route lies a mysterious gravestone related to the skirmish. The grave’s occupant is unknown and Confederate veterans have told two conflicting versions of the story, which Museum historians will share when hikers reach the site. The gravestone, marked soberly, “U.S. Soldier” is visible alongside the creek, sometimes 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 in WNC. Starting in 1820, a stagecoach line ran along the road 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, or down the mountain. 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.

She wrote, “It is my settled conviction that no one knows what stones really are until he or she has traveled from Old Fort to the top of the Blue Ridge. The road is covered with them, of every size, shape, and variety, and the constant rolling, jolting, and pitching of the coach baffle description…. We settle ourselves grimly to our fate; endeavor to keep ourselves steady by straps or anything else that is convenient; gasp a brief ‘Excuse me!’ when we are hurled against each other; and, in the intervals of being tossed about the coach, lean out the window to admire the wild beauty which surrounds us.”

During the height of stagecoach travel, residences and lodging facilities sprung up along the roadbed. The ruins of several 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.

By the end of the 1870s, the stagecoach was displaced by the railroad, after new-fangled nitroglycerines blasted through the mountain to create seven tunnels, including the 1,800-foot Swannanoa Tunnel, which united the eastern and western portions of the state. The railroad was a feat to construct, taking many lives in the process, including hundreds of African-American convicts forced into labor. Hikers will hear the entire treacherous tale as they view the railroad tracks passing through the Swannanoa Tunnel.

Although passenger trains ceased in 1975, cargo trains continue to run east and west along the creek several times a day, and hikers will typically view at least one during the trek.

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 expect to climb over and under fallen logs and be prepared for several stream crossings and at least one steep and muddy ascent up a bank. Hikers should also dress for the weather and bring lunch and plenty of water.

The hike meets at the Museum at 223 W. State Street, Black Mountain at 9:30 a.m. Hike leaders will carpool hikers to the trailhead.

The hike, a fundraiser for the nonprofit museum, costs $25 for museum members and $35 for nonmembers. Advanced registration is required.

Sign up at, email, or call 669-9566.