Black Mountain history told in new book by Swannanoa Valley Museum director
The year was 1893. Residents in a growing township known as “Grey Eagle,” “Dark Mountain” or “Black Mountain” (depending on who you asked) decided they ought to settle on a name.
Black Mountain, a reference to the dark, almost black color the balsam trees gave the surrounding peaks (the Black Mountain range), was the ultimate decision as the train depot was already using the moniker. With the new name came incorporation, and the town charter was ratified on March 4, 1893 - just over 125 years ago.
In honor of the town’s 125th anniversary, a new book authored by Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center director, Anne Chesky Smith, celebrates both the past and present of Black Mountain. Published June 18, "Then and Now: Black Mountain," compares historic photographs of the town with present-day images in an effort to help readers understand Black Mountain’s history and how it has impacted the town’s present-day culture,” Chesky Smith said. Signed copies of the book are available for purchase at the museum. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit museum.
By the 1890s, more than a decade had passed since Gov. Zebulon Vance received a telegram stating “daylight entered Buncombe County this morning” as the last layers of rock blocking the east end of the 1,800-foot-long Swannanoa Tunnel from the west end were blasted away. The tunnel, along with six others, allowed the Western North Carolina Railroad’s trains to make their way up the steep, winding terrain from Old Fort over the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into what would become Black Mountain.
The railroad brought huge increases in both tourists and residents to the “Land of the Sky.” The area was fast becoming a premier vacationland for those seeking cool mountain air and treatment for respiratory diseases. By 1890, the county’s population had skyrocketed by a whopping 62 percent from just 10 years prior, and many formerly sleepy villages around Western North Carolina were making things official in order to govern the influx of people.
Black Mountain’s original charter named Thomas Kimbrell (T.K.) Brown (1843-1911), a Baptist minister and local businessman, the town’s first mayor. Brown served until Aug. 11, when he submitted his resignation. According to the town ledger, Silas F. Dougherty was that evening promoted to mayor, but the appointment of C.P. Kerlee to alderman to serve in Dougherty’s just-vacated position caused Dougherty to immediately resign. In doing so, Kerlee was then promoted to mayor and Dougherty resumed his alderman seat. In one evening the town was governed by three mayors - perhaps putting present-day town governance into some historical perspective.
Though Brown served for only six months, he would become mayor again in 1903. Many of Brown’s (and Kerlee and Dougherty’s) descendants still call Black Mountain home. Brown’s son Laurence, for example, served as Buncombe County sheriff for more than 30 years.
Black Mountain had originally been centered around the town’s main stagecoach stop at the present-day location of Town Square, but with the arrival of the railroad the center of town shifted to the train depot. With incorporation in 1893, the town limits were officially set as circling one mile north, south, east, and west of the railroad depot. Though passenger train service ceased in 1975, the depot (rebuilt in 1909) still stands at the original center of town.
New development also circled the train station, and residents opened a variety of businesses to cater to a continual influx of visitors - particularly summer visitors. Some opened their homes to boarders. Others built large hotels, inns, restaurants, and stores. After a devastating fire in 1912 that destroyed many buildings near the depot, new structures began to appear further north of the station heading up Cherry Street.
As the automobile became a more popular option for travelers, development in Black Mountain shifted back to the original stagecoach route - State Street, which was paved (Black Mountain was the first municipality in the county to vote to begin paving roads). It became the main thoroughfare for travelers heading east-west.
Over the last century and a quarter, the town of Black Mountain has seen much change, but still has been able to maintain its historic charm partly by designating downtown a historic district through the National Park Service. Most of the town’s historic brick-front buildings still stand, and though the businesses within their walls are different, these structures continue to contribute to Black Mountain’s small-town feel, which attracts visitors year around.
One such structure is located on Black Mountain Avenue, originally known as both South Main Street and Stepp Street, just south of the depot.
“One of the oldest buildings still standing in Black Mountain’s historic downtown was built around 1890 by J.W. McKoy as a grocery store…," Chesky Smith writes in her book. "The building replaced an earlier wooden store owned by his father. In 1905, Black Mountain rented the building’s basement as the first town hall. In 1918, the building was used as a hospital to care for the large number of people affected by the influenza epidemic. By the 1930s, it housed Hipp’s dry good store, followed by storage for the nearby Black Mountain Hosiery Mill. The second floor was a boarding house. The building is now home to Que Sera restaurant….”
To learn more about the 125-year history of the town of Black Mountain, visit the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center at 223 W. State St. in the town’s 1921 fire house Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.