Beneath a giant cross, a hike rises above Ridgecrest

Staff reports

The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will host a moderate, 2.5-mile hike in Ridgecrest, the easternmost community in the Swannanoa Valley on Saturday, Sept. 10.

The railroad up from Old Fort opened Ridgecrest to tourists, trade and lots of Baptists.

The sixth hike in the museum’s popular Valley History Explorer Series will meet at 9:45 a.m. at the museum. Hikers will then carpool to the trailhead to follow the Kitsuma Trail to a viewpoint with sweeping vistas of the Swannanoa Valley, including a breathtaking view of Mount Mitchell, visible on clear days.

Today, Ridgecrest is best known as the home of the Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center. The center is marked by a large white cross visible to drivers on Interestate 40 on their way to and from Old Fort. The conference center was first founded as the Southern Baptist Assembly by Bernard Washington Spilman in 1907.

In the decades before Ridgecrest became home to Baptists, the area hosted a toll booth that collected fees from those traveling west on the stagecoach road. In the 1880s, the coming of the railroad up the steep grade from Old Fort brought more tourists and residents. Springing up soon thereafter was a small telegraph office named Terrell after William Pitt Terrell. Terrell was the first engineer to bring a train through the seven, newly-constructed tunnels between Old Fort and Ridgecrest.

Spilman, field secretary for the Sunday School Board of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, attended a training conference in 1902 in Montreat. Admiring the Christian Conference Center, he decided the Baptists ought to have something similar to Montreat. Over the next five years, he would search for the perfect site.

In August 1906, Spilman met Asheville attorney James A. Tucker at Terrell station to inspect 940 acres of undeveloped land above Swannanoa Gap. Less than a year later, the Southern Baptist Assembly was incorporated; with a mayor and a tax collector, it was called Blue Mont. One hundred and forty of the 500 available lots on the property were sold for $100 each - primarily to Baptists.

At its creation Blue Mont, as Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly was once called, offered 140 residential lots for $100 each.

In 1907, the name of the railway station and the small village forming around it was changed to Blue Mont in reference to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name was changed again in 1912 either because there was a railroad station with the same name in a nearby county or because the telegraph designation, BL MT, was the same as that for Black Mountain. The powers that be almost settled on Skymont, but ultimately decided on Ridgecrest, as the community was located on the “Crest of the Blue Ridge.”

More about the history of Ridgecrest and all the Swannanoa Valley communities can be found in "Swannanoa Valley: Postcard History Series" by local historians Mary and Joe Standaert, who will be leading the Kitsuma hike on Sept. 10 with Bill Alexander, a direct descendant of Samuel Davidson, the first settler to cross the Swannanoa Gap.

Hikers in last year's Ridgecrest Kitsuma hike learned lots about Buncombe County's easternmost community

The museum’s Valley History Explorer series consists of seven hikes, each about three miles long, that revisit the past of the unique, small communities that comprise the Swannanoa Valley, including Riceville, Bee Tree, Swannanoa, North Fork, Montreat, Ridgecrest and Black Mountain.

The hikes, led by knowledgeable historians, natives with deep family ties and experienced hike leaders, take hikers on half-day journeys of discovery. The hikes reveal undisclosed secrets of Valley history, while enabling participants to forge new friendships and galvanize community bonds.

The final hike in the series, on Oct. 8, will explore trails through the Grove Stone quarry in the North Fork community and will include a dramatic view of the Asheville Watershed. Preregistration is required for all hikes.

Happy hikers in last year's museum hike through Ridgecrest celebrate their camaraderie during the hike.

Valley History Explorer Hike #6 

Hike:  Ridgecrest (Kitsuma)

When: 9:45 a.m., Saturday Sept. 10

Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St., Black Mountain

Difficulty: Moderate, 2.5 miles

Cost: $20 museum members, $30 nonmembers

Register:, 669-9566