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 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 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.

With special permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, the Swannanoa Valley Museum will lead two exclusive tours through the Asheville watershed on Saturday, April 30. These driving tours will highlight several historic sites on the watershed’s east side and allow participants to walk amidst the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community’s earliest settlers will share stories about the North Fork Valley.

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 from trespassers (including other fellow North Fork Valley natives and members of their own family) that their great-grandfather Frederick Burnett helped settle in the 1790s.

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.

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.

Today, the public-use restricted watershed encompasses 22,000 acres. The museum’s April 30 tours will focus on the history of the east side of the reservoir (on Nov. 12, two additional tours will focus on the west side of the reservoir).

The April tours will stop at Will Burnett’s homestead, as well as the moss-covered massive stone walls of Sunnalee Lodge and William Henry “Champ” Burnett’s home. A cousin of the first wardens, Champ was a sawmill operator and the schoolmaster of the one-room schoolhouse that stood at the confluence of Sugar Fork and North Fork. He was a 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 tours will also highlight the ruins of Col. John Connally’s home site. Connally, the commanding officer of the 55th Regiment and the Confederacy’s youngest colonel, lost an arm leading forces under Longstreet against the Union at Gettysburg. Connally built a summer retreat, possibly 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 swimming pool. Connally’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.

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

The museum will offer two tours, at 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Advanced registration is required, and space is limited to 25 participants per tour.

The cost is $50 for museum members, $75 for nonmembers and $25 for children under 12.

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, so participants should pack water, snacks and lunch. The tours will depart from Black Mountain Savings Bank at 200 E. State St. in Black Mountain.

Preregister at or 669-9566.