Tour tells the history of Old Town Swannanoa

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Bill Alexander leads a tour of Old Town Swannanoa for the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center on Sept. 28.

Walking along the quiet streets of downtown Swannanoa, it’s hard to imagine that a constant buzz once echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings. People who drive along Whitson Avenue, Railroad Street, Alexander Place and the other streets in the heart of the community often don’t realize the district was once a thriving center of commerce. 

A Sept. 28 tour of “Old Town Swannanoa,” presented by the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, brought the past back to life. 

Few know the history of Swannanoa like Bill Alexander, longtime board member of the museum and leader of the Old Town Swannanoa tour. Alexander was assisted on the tour by his daughter Leigh Ames, museum board chair Sam Shirey and museum assistant director Saro Lynch-Thomason. 

“It’s where I grew up,” said Alexander, who led around 30 people on the two-and-a-half hour walking tour. “That’s where my family grew up.”

While downtown Black Mountain is widely recognized for the charm of its historical buildings, its neighbor to the west was once a destination for many. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that Black Mountain is 108 years younger than Swannanoa,” Alexander said. “That’s a big difference. The first Swannanoa settlement was founded in 1785 and there was a Grey Eagle community in Black Mountain, but it didn’t become Black Mountain until 1893.”

One thing both communities have in common is the role the railroad played in their respective developments. 

“The majority of the retail establishments early on in Swannanoa were on Railroad Street, right across from the railroad,” Alexander said. “That’s because, when the railroad finally came through with the Swannanoa Tunnel, there was a stop (in Swannanoa) called Cooper Station.”

The former site of the depot, which was named after the superintendent of the railroad line from Salisbury to Asheville at the time, was among the locations Alexander discussed on the tour. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, the station was renamed Swannanoa. 

“There was a big write-up in the ‘Southern Railroad Journal’ about how nice that station looked, compared to all of the others,” Alexander said. “The article talks about the flowers that were planted around the depot and how well it was maintained.”

Merchants, like Dexter Watson Harrison, opened businesses to meet the growing demands. 

“There was one store that D.W. Harrison, one of the wealthiest guys in the community, operated on Railroad Street,” Alexander said. “It was a combination of three retail establishments. One side was a haberdashery, another side was a furniture store and upstairs was a mortuary. All it said was ‘Harrison’s’ on the door, and on the left side you could get men’s clothing, the right side had beds and dressers. If you needed a casket, you could just walk upstairs.”

The downtown district grew with the arrival of Beacon Manufacturing in the 1920s. 

“The plant itself was 42 acres,” Alexander said. “Charles D. Owen II bought the property, 72 acres in all, in 1923 from a gentleman who owned a big farm, by the name of Whitson. That’s where the name Whitson Avenue comes from.”

Owen had the materials shipped from New Bedford, Massachusetts by railroad and the massive factory was opened in Swannanoa in 1925. The needs of Beacon spurred growth in the downtown district. 

“You have 600 employees at the start, and many of those people had never had jobs; most of them were farmers from Yancey County, McDowell County and the hinterlands of Buncombe,” Alexander said. “They built the first village for employees in 1925.”

A community store and a restaurant known as the Town Grill also emerged to serve the needs of Beacon and its employees. There was also a need for a bank. 

“All of the big shots in the community got together in the Town Grill and discussed who they would get to run it,” Alexander said. “They decided to hire a young man who graduated from the University of North Carolina with degrees in finance and economics. His name was Roy Alexander, and he was my uncle. He ran that bank for 46 years and the only reason he didn’t run it longer was because he died of a heart attack at his desk.”

Today the building that used to house the old bank, which sits just across from where scores of Beacon employees would exit the mill after their shifts, sits empty. It’s one of the favorites on the tour. 

“People are often surprised to learn that there was once a bank here in town,” Alexander said. “Swannanoa, like Black Mountain, also had a movie theater at that time.”

However, when Beacon closed its doors in 2002, the district struggled to survive. 

“Things had already started to slow down in downtown by that time,” Alexander said. “But it’s safe to say that when the mill closed, the town closed with it.”

Alexander leads several tours for the museum and has hosted Old Town Swannanoa tours for over a decade. 

“It’s a big part of our history,” he said. “Swannanoa is the oldest community in eastern Buncombe County and it has such a tremendous amount of history. That needs to be told, and re-told.”