CAROLINA MOUNTAIN HISTORY
From ancient times, people have sought refuge, shelter, and strength from the hills and mountains around them. The Carolina mountains – the Great Smoky, the Blue Ridge, and the Black Mountains – drew first the Native Americans and then Spanish conquistadors, and finally many other Europeans to visit, worship and settle there. In the antebellum era between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Carolina planters began seeking refuge in the Carolina mountains from the fevers and unhealthy atmosphere of the Carolina low country.
Spaniards may have been the first Europeans to see the Blue Ridge. In 1540, Hernando de Soto, Spanish conquistador, traversed western North Carolina while exploring the interior. Traditionally, de Soto’s route through Henderson County followed either the Green River or went through Hickory Nut Gap.
Refugees found several havens in Buncombe and Henderson Counties, North Carolina – Flat Rock, Hoopers Creek (Fletcher), Asheville and Cashiers. Around 1830, Charles S. Baring began promoting the virtues of the Flat Rock area. He and his wife Susan built The Lodge and St. Johns-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal Church.
Mitchell King, a Charleston attorney, and Christopher Gustavus Memminger, member of the committee to draft the Constitution of the Confederate States and Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States of America, also built summer homes in the area. So many Charlestonians favored a summer retreat in Flat Rock that the area was known as “Little Charleston.” Poet and Pulitzer-prize winner Carl Sandburg bought the Memminger property and renamed it Connemara. Now a National Historic Landmark, visitors can tour the house and view the goat farm begun by Sandburg’s wife, Lilian “Paula” Steichen.
From Flat Rock, the 19th-century traveler may have visited Hendersonville, county seat of the 1838 county of Henderson, en route to Fletcher (at one time, Hoopers Creek). Fletcher was the summer retreat of such low-country families as the Blakes, Heywards and Rutledges. Combahee River rice planter Daniel Blake had built a house there by 1833.
From Fletcher, summer visitors could go on to Asheville, founded in 1794. Asheville’s location on major trade arteries made her a summer destination earlier than much of western North Carolina. The completion of the Buncombe Turnpike in 1828 improved the traveler’s access to Asheville. By 1827 one visitor – Juliana Margaret Connor – described Asheville as a “picturesque spot” with “twenty houses.” The more daring visitors could travel to Black Mountain and climb Mt. Mitchell.
September 2, 1952, was the day Gov. William B. Umstead and his daughter Merle crossed the Mile High Swinging Bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina,making history for the highest peak on the Blue Ridge. The bridge was rebuilt in 1999 for $300,000. The original cost? $15,000.
Travelers followed the South Carolina State Road/Buncombe Turnpike through the Saluda Gap to reach their summer destination. Saluda Gap State Park in South Carolina honors this historic crossing. The first toll gate on the North Carolina section of the road opened in 1828. Many rode the train from Charleston to Greenville, South Carolina, and then caught the stage up the mountain to their destination. In 1839, James Silk Buckingham traveled from Greenville to Flat Rock by stage. Traversing the thirty-six miles from Greenville to Flat Rock was a day’s journey. Buckingham described the winding road over the mountain. He also reported that the toll booth at the state line on the crest of the mountain sported a magnificent view and charged $1.50 for the stage to pass.
Visitors required meals and beds, and entrepreneurs opened hotels and inns to meet the need. Asheville, Flat Rock, Fletcher, Table Rock, Caesars Head, Paris Mountain, Cedar Mountain, and other mountain destinations offered accommodations for the weary traveler. The governors of both North and South Carolina attended the grand opening of a hotel at Table Rock in 1848. Accounts of the early inns vary. Some reported dirty bedding, poorly cooked food, unkempt servants and inhospitable accommodations. Other visitors commented on the hospitality of the innkeeper, the cool breezes and the excellent service. Climate and mountain views were the major attractions.
Col. Hagood operated Caesars Head hotel on the Jones Gap Road that ran from Greenville, South Carolina to Asheville, North Carolina. Eight miles from Caesars Head on the North Carolina side was Cedar Mountain. The hotel there was near a mineral spring and boasted an observation tower. Hunting and fishing also lured the antebellum tourist. Beyond Cedar Mountain lay Cashiers Valley near the French Broad River. General Wade Hampton, II (1791-1858), who owned Millwood Plantation in Richland County, South Carolina, owned 2200 acres in the valley and operated a hotel there.
“At dawn my mountains hear me pray, at noon I turn to them for rest.I laugh when I see them at close of day, humped like elephants against the West.”
~ ELIA W. PEATTIE OF TRYON, NC (PUBLISHED IN SALUDA MAGAZINE, 1936-37)
Recognizing the value of these early “tourists,” the Carolinas chartered other turnpikes in the 1840s and 1850s to improve access to these mountain retreats. For example, South Carolina chartered the Keowee Turnpike Company in 1848 for a road through Pickens District (now Pickens and Oconee Counties) and in 1851 the White Water Falls Turnpike Company to construct a road from the Jocassee Valley to the North Carolina line. In 1857, the South Carolina General Assembly also incorporated the Cashiers Valley Turnpike Company.
The Civil War interrupted these transportation plans and sent more refugees fleeing to the mountains. The dark unrest of those turbulent times followed. Bands of lawless men from both sides roamed the mountains intimidating the residents. The murder of planter Andrew Johnson at his Flat Rock home was the nadir of this lawlessness for the mountain refugees. Deserters killed Johnson at his dinner table.
The Carolinas recovered from the ravages of war and the mystic allure of the mountains drew visitors and new residents. The crisp mountain air and the cloud-wreathed mountains continue to lift spirits and lure others to find refuge in the land of the sky.
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