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Explore North Fork Valley, learn about the Asheville Watershed and 'Hunger Games' sites

Courtesy of Swannanoa Valley Museum
Special to Black Mountain News

On a balmy March day in 1903, the North Fork Reservoir’s freshly-appointed warden, Will Burnett, turned a brand-new cast iron valve to emit the first trickle of drinking water for Asheville, located over 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 over the last centuries.

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 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. 

Col. John Kerr Connally's lodge

Much of the history of the North Fork Valley was lost when the residents were forced out by eminent domain and the city of 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 an exclusive tour through the city of Asheville watershed March 28.

This driving tour 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 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 March 28 tour will focus on the history of the east side of the reservoir. Then, on Nov. 7, an additional tour will focus on the west side of the reservoir.

The March tour will begin with a stop at the moss-covered massive stone walls of Sunnalee Lodge, the historic home of William Henry "Champ" Burnett. A cousin of the first wardens, Champ was a sawmill operator, schoolmaster of the one-room schoolhouse that stood at the confluence of Sugar Fork and North Fork, justice of the peace, and 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.

The tour will include a stop at Col. John Connally’s homesite that has extensive ruins including two standing chimneys. The caravan will also make a stop to include a short walk from the vehicles to the homesites of Will and Bart Burnett and a slave cemetery dating from about the 1840s-1860s. Guides will also discuss the watershed’s unique use as a filming location for the iconic "Hunger Games" series, the 21st-highest-grossing film franchise of all time.

Advanced registration is required, and space is limited to 35 participants. The cost is $50 for museum members and $75 for nonmembers.

This event is of moderate difficulty. There will be some walking on rough terrain. Participants should wear sturdy shoes, dress for the weather and bring their own lunch. The museum will provide transportation, but participants who wish to drive their own vehicles can inquire about the possibility by contacting the museum.

To register, visit the museum's website at https://www.history.swannanoavalleymuseum.org/events/, email svmvolunteer@gmail.com, or call 828-669-9566.

If you go

Event: North Fork Valley Tour of the Asheville Watershed – East Side: Appalachian History, the North Fork Community, and the Hunger Games

When: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. March 28

Difficulty: Moderate; though primarily a driving tour there is some walking on rough terrain.

Price: $50 members/$75 nonmembers

Register: Register online at www.swannanoavalleymuseum.org/events, email svmvolunteer@gmail.com, or call 828-669-9566