Hike highlights unknown soldier, stagecoach route
Trickling between Old Fort and Ridgecrest, Swannanoa Creek is a natural passageway into the Swannanoa Valley. Over the centuries, the storied tributary has led many travelers into Western North Carolina.
The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will lead a moderate-to-difficult, mostly downhill, four-mile hike down this path on Saturday, Jan. 28, 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.
During Stoneman’s Raid at the close of the Civil War, the thoroughfare played a critical role in the defense of the region. Using an ingenious and surprisingly simple diversion, Confederate troops were able to prevent the Union Army from using the route to make its way to Asheville. Participants will hear the full tale as they walk the same route used by the troops more than 150 years earlier.
Near the road lies a mysterious gravestone related to the skirmish. The grave’s occupant is unknown, and Confederate veterans 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 creekside, 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. 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 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 1,800-foot Swannanoa Tunnel, uniting the eastern and western portions of the state. The railroad was a feat to construct, taking many lives in the process, including hundreds 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 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 to the Swannanoa Creek down below the Swannanoa Gap. 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, 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 $25 for museum members and $35 for nonmembers. Advanced registration is required. Sign up at swannanoavalleymuseum.org/calendar, email email@example.com, or call 669-9566.
Swannanoa Valley Museum Hike
Hike: Swannanoa Tunnel and Creek
When: 9 a.m. Jan. 28
Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St.
Difficulty: Moderate, 4 miles
Cost: $25 museum members, $35 nonmembers
Register: swannanoavalleymuseum.org, 669-9566