Watershed tour offers glimpse of once thriving community

Special to Black Mountain News
A March 30 tour, hosted by the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, offers an opportunity to access the Asheville Watershed and see what remains of the thriving community that used to exist within it.

The North Fork Valley was once a thriving community in the northern Swannanoa Valley, about 15 miles east of Asheville, beginning around the turn of the 19th century.

In an effort to preserve the valley’s long history, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will lead a historic tour on the east side of the watershed on Saturday, March 30, with special permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina.

Besides numerous homeplaces, the small valley under the shadow of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States, contained churches, schoolhouses, boarding houses, a law school, the summer home of Governor Vance, and the main route to the top of Mount Mitchell.

However, much of the history of the community was lost when the valley’s long-term residents were forced out of their homes and off their land by eminent domain in preparation for the City of Asheville’s new reservoir beginning in 1903.

The land was closed to the public and the valley flooded. Today, the restricted watershed property encompasses 22,000 acres.

Though some structures are now under water, in many places stone chimneys and foundations still dot the landscape surrounding the reservoir.

The driving tour will highlight several historic sites on the watershed's east side and allow participants to walk amidst the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. In the fall, on Saturday, Nov. 9, a second tour will focus on the sites on the west side of the reservoir.

The archaeological remains found in the valley offer clues about daily life in a 19th and early 20th century Appalachian community. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community's earliest settlers will share stories about the North Fork valley at each stop on the tour.

One stop will be at Will and Bart Burnett's homestead.

The Burnett brothers were selected as the first wardens to patrol the municipal watershed. As wardens for four decades, the Burnett brothers guarded the land their great-grandfather Frederick Burnett helped settle in the 1790s. 

A chimney from the lodge of Col. John Kerr Connally, is one of many structures that remain from the time the Asheville Watershed was a thriving community in the North Fork Valley. A museum-led tour on March 30, will take participants to the east side of the restricted area.

The tour will also stop at Sunnalee Lodge, once home to William Henry "Champ" Burnett.

A cousin of the first wardens, Champ was a sawmill operator, schoolmaster, justice of the peace, and Sunday school superintendent for the North Fork. Champ built his sprawling lodge in the 1880s.

The lodge was a well-known community-gathering place and in the summers hosted boarders - including several nationally known writers and artists. The home was condemned by the City of Asheville for the watershed in 1927. Participants in the tour will be able to walk through the remnants of the lodge's now moss-covered massive stone walls.

The most impressive ruins on the tour are those found at Colonel John Connally's home site. Connally, the Commanding Officer of the fifty-fifth regiment, was the Confederacy's youngest colonel and lost an arm leading forces at Gettysburg.

Tour-goers will see the extensive ruins of his home’s double chimney as well as a smokehouse and swimming pool. Conally's main residence in Asheville, overlooking the French Broad River, was an equally impressive brick Italianate home. "Fernihurst," named after a Scottish castle, is now part of the A-B Tech campus.

After a short break for lunch at the Connally site, the caravan will visit a cemetery that is the final resting place for several of the North Fork’s enslaved residents. Though many of the occupants are still unknown, the graves have now been marked and persevered for future research.

The tour will finish on the banks of the lake for dramatic views of the mountains across the water – as well as several humorous tales from the current wardens about their interactions with Hollywood folks during the filming of the popular movie The Hunger Games.

The museum tour begins at 9 a.m. Advanced registration is required and space is limited to 30 participants. The cost is $50 for museum members, $75 for non-members, and $25 for children under 12.

The tour includes some walking on rough terrain. Participants are advised to wear sturdy hiking boots and dress for the weather.

The tour will last several hours and participants should pack water, snacks, and lunch. The tours will depart from Swannanoa Valley Museum at 223 West State Street.

Preregistration is required. To register, visit the museum's website, email, or call 669-9566.

Want to go on a tour of the Asheville Watershed?

Event: Historic North Fork Valley Tour of the Asheville Watershed – East Side

Date: Saturday, March 30, 9 a.m.

Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, 223 West State St., Black Mountain

Difficulty: Easy/Moderate; primarily a driving tour with some walking on rough terrain

Price: $50 members/$75 nonmembers

Register: Email, call 669-9566, or