Museum offers exclusive tour of Asheville Watershed

Staff reports

On a balmy March day in 1903, the North Fork Reservoir’s newly-appointed warden, Will Burnett, turned a cast iron valve to emit the first trickle of drinking water for Asheville, located more than 20 miles away. This water - some of the purest in America - would soon flood the school, church, graveyard, and homesteads built by Burnett's family and neighbors during the last centuries.

Hikers take in the Burnett Reservoir from the old Rod and Gun Club in North Fork.

Will Burnett and his brother Bart, sons of Confederate veteran Marcus Lafayette "Fate" Burnett, were selected as the first wardens to patrol the newly established municipal watershed, after the city of Asheville condemned and purchased roughly 5,000 acres in the North Fork Valley. As wardens for four decades, the Burnett brothers guarded the land their great-grandfather Frederick Burnett helped settle in the 1790s from trespassers, including other fellow North Fork Valley natives and members of their own family.

Much of the history of the North Fork Valley was lost when the residents were forced out by eminent domain and Asheville flooded the valley. The Swannanoa Valley Museum aims to preserve the history of the North Fork Valley community and, with special permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, will lead two exclusive tours through the city of Asheville watershed on Saturday, April 29. These driving tours will highlight several historic sites on the watershed's east side and allow participants to walk amid the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. Much like the Cades Cove, one of the most popular attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the archaeological remains of the isolated North Fork Valley offer clues about daily life in a 19th and early 20th century close-knit Appalachian community. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community's earliest settlers will share stories about the North Fork Valley.

Today, the public-use restricted watershed encompasses 22,000 acres. The museum's April 29 tours will focus on the history of the east side of the reservoir. Then, on Nov. 11, two additional tours will focus on the west side of the reservoir.

The April tours will stop at Will and Bart Burnett's homesteads, as well as Sunnalee Lodge, once home to William Henry "Champ" Burnett. A cousin of the first wardens, Champ was a sawmill operator, justice of the peace and schoolmaster of the one-room schoolhouse that stood at the confluence of Sugar Fork and North Fork. He also served as Sunday school superintendent for nearly 50 years.

Champ was short in stature and wiry, with fiery red hair and a full red mustache. While soaking wet he might have weighed 150 pounds; he was all dynamite, and earned his nickname by fighting - not in the boxing ring, but by wrangling bears. Champ built his sprawling lodge in the 1880s in the upper east end of the present-day watershed, situated in the lower Chestnut Cove. 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 tours will also highlight the ruins of Col. John Connally's home site. Connally, the commanding officer of the 55th Regiment, was the Confederacy's youngest colonel and lost an arm leading forces under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet against the Union at Gettysburg. Connally built a summer retreat - it might have been the largest structure in the upper North Fork Valley - on the western slope of Walkertown Ridge at the foot of Greybeard Mountain. Tour-goers will see the extensive ruins of the main house's chimney, a second house, a smokehouse and a swimming pool. Conally's main residence in Asheville, overlooking the French Broad River, was an equally impressive brick Italianate home. "Fernihurst," named after Kerr Castle in Scotland, is now part of the A-B Tech campus.

The massive chimney is about all that's left of Col. John Kerr Connally's lodge

After a short break for lunch at the Connally site, the caravan will stop at the home sites of Will and Bart Burnett and visit a slave cemetery. The tour is a rare chance for the public to walk amid the ruins of one of the earliest Swannanoa Valley settlements.

The museum will offer two tours at 7:30 am and 1:30 pm. Advanced registration is required and space is limited to 25 participants per tour. The tour includes some walking on rough terrain. Participants are advised to wear sturdy hiking boots and dress for the weather. Each tour will last several hours and participants should pack water, snacks, and lunch.

Hike: Asheville Watershed, east side

When:7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. April 29

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

Difficulty: Moderate

Cost: $50 museum members, $75 nonmembers, $25 children under 12

Register:, 669-9566