Museum offers tour of Asheville Watershed

From Staff Reports
Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK


Exquisite stonework is just about all that remains of Sunalalee Lodge.

Around the turn of the 19th century, the North Fork Valley was a thriving community in the northern Swannanoa Valley.  Besides numerous home places, the small valley under the shadow of Mount Mitchell contained churches, schoolhouses and boarding houses. There was even a law school there.

Much of the North Fork Valley's history was lost, however, when the city of Asheville exercised eminent domain to take the valley for its watershed and reservoir. Long-term residents were forced out of their homes, the land was closed and the valley flooded.

Col. John Kerr Connally's lodge once surrounded this massive chimney.

Today, the public-use restricted watershed encompasses 22,000 acres. Though some structures are now under water, in many places stone chimneys and foundations dot the land around the reservoir.

To preserve the valley’s long history, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, with special permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, will lead a tour on the east side of the watershed on Saturday, April 28.

This driving tour will highlight several historic sites and allow participants to walk among the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. A second tour in the fall (Saturday, Nov. 10) will focus on the west side of the reservoir.

Hike participants will walk through the remains of Sunalalee Lodge during the Asheville Watershed tour.


The April tour will make several stops at historic sites so that visitors can explore the ruins and hear presentations about the history of each site (the North Fork Valley's archaeological remains offer clues about life in a 19th and early 20th century Appalachian community; historic interpreters and descendants of the community's earliest settlers will share stories at each tour stop).

One stop will be at Will and Bart Burnett's homestead. Will Burnett and his brother Bart were selected as the first wardens to patrol the municipal watershed. As wardens for four decades, the Burnett brothers guarded the land their great-grandfather Frederick Burnett helped settle in the 1790s. 

The tour will also stop at Sunnalee Lodge, once home to William Henry "Champ" Burnett. A cousin of the first wardens, Champ was a sawmill operator and 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 built his sprawling lodge in the 1880s. 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 in 1927 for the watershed. Participants in the tour will be able to walk through the remnants of the lodge's now moss-covered massive stone walls.

The most impressive ruins on the tour are those found at Colonel John Connally's home site. Connally, the commanding officer of the 55th Regiment and the Confederacy's youngest colonel, lost an arm leading forces against the Union at Gettysburg.

Connally built a large summer retreat 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 tour caravan will visit a slave cemetery. Though many of the occupants are unknown, the graves have been marked and presevred for future research.

The tour will finish on the banks of the reservoir to take in dramatic views of the mountains across the water and to listen to funny tales from the current wardens about their interactions with Hollywood folks during the filming of the popular movie "The Hunger Games." 

The tour includes some walking on rough terrain. Participants are advised to wear sturdy hiking boots and dress for the weather. The tour will last several hours, so participants should pack water, snacks and lunch. The tours will depart from Swannanoa Valley Museum at 223 West State Street.

To register, visit the museum's website swannanoavalleymuseum.org, email info@swannanoavalleymuseum.org, or call (828) 669-9566.

Event: Asheville Watershed tour, east aide
When: 9 a.m., Saturday, April 28
Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, Black Mountain
Difficulty: Easy/moderate 
Cost: $50 members/$75 nonmembers/$25 under 12
Register: 669-9566, swannanoavalleymuseum.org