Museum offers exclusive tour of Asheville Watershed

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

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

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 their ancestral homeland from trespassers, including other fellow North Fork Valley natives and members of their own family.

With permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, the Swannanoa Valley Museum will lead A tour through the Asheville watershed on Saturday, Nov. 14. The driving tour will highlight several historic sites on the watershed’s east side and allow participants to walk amidst the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement that once rivaled Asheville in population. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community’s earliest settlers will share stories about the legendary North Fork Valley.

The tour will be offered at 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The cost is $75 for museum members and $100 for nonmembers.

Will Burnett was a fitting choice for warden of the land his great-grandfather Frederick Burnett had helped settle in the 1790s. Though gentle in spirit, “there was something about him which gave every stranger the feeling that no matter how big you were, he could be just a little bit bigger if necessary, and few men ever crossed him,” his brother, author Fred M. Burnett, later recalled. When Will passed away in 1946, Fred wrote, “It seemed to all of us that we had lost our last link with the past and our last pioneer.”

The museum’s tour willstop 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.

Wiry and short in stature, with fiery red hair and a full red mustache, Champ may have weighed 150 pounds soaking wet. He 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. Participants in the tour will be able to walk through the remnants of the lodge’s massive, now moss-covered stone walls.

The tour 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 Longstreet against the Union at Gettysburg. Connally built a summer retreaton 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 smoke house and swimming pool. Connally’s main residence was an equally impressive brick Italianate home, named “Fernihurst” after Kerr Castle in Scotland, located on a knoll overlooking the French Broad River in Asheville, now part of the A-B Tech campus.

The tour will conclude with a stop at a slave cemetery. Many small rough-hewn gravestones are visible, but the memory of those entombed is now forgotten.

While primarily a driving trip, the tour includes some moderate walking on rough terrain, so wear hiking boots and dress for the weather. Pack water and snacks. More details about the trip, including departure location, will be provided by registering at For more, email or call 669-9566.