Recently named one of the best places to visit in 2015 by Frommer Guides,
Asheville, North Carolina has always retained a certain charm and appeal.
Its history is rich and layered, a unique blend of old and new; mountain
rustic and citified glory; a multi-colored rainbow of variation in a part of
the state that is often seen as steeped in tradition.
Nestled in a shallow, bowl-shaped valley within the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city, population 85,000, began as a tiny mountain hamlet in 1784. First called Morristown, Asheville was named after North Carolina governor Colonel Samuel Ashe.
Not incorporated until March, 1883, it served for decades as the hub for rural western North Carolina, until the railroad opened up the area to an influx of outsiders who sought the clean mountain air and the healing waters of natural hot springs outside the city. A writer using the pen name Christian Reid captured Asheville’s raw beauty in a book titled “Land of the Sky,” that remains a classic in the region today.
When the fictional physician “Pearl Stern” (Pearl, MD) arrived in Asheville in 1883, there were nine physicians and six dentists, half a dozen hotels, 50 boarding houses and an undertaker’s business with the preposterous name of “X Brand & Company.” There were also six bars, livery stables, blacksmiths, cabinet makers, saddle makers, bakers, butchers, photographers, real estate and insurance agents, druggists, hardware stores, dealers in jewelry and silver, plus a shop near the main square that specialized in “Florida curiosities.”
The Public Square was the commercial heartbeat then and now, renamed after a new brick courthouse went up but still surrounded by unpaved streets. (Public Square would later become what is today called Pack Place). The 1880s population stood at about 3900 with another 21,000 residents living in the surrounding mountains, about half a day’s wagon ride from
Its climate, described in 1888 as “bright, cloudless days” soon led to the area becoming a health Mecca. By the 1890s, thousands of people suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) were flocking to Asheville for the nation’s first established sanitarium. One physician remarked that “pulmonary infection doesn’t stand a chance against the bracing mountain air.” While that wasn’t technically true, Asheville did land on the map as “progressive,” “with finest climate,” and “the healthiest city in the world.”
Baseball was catching on nationwide and the city had an organized team by 1909. A large sycamore tree next to an open field served as the bleachers.
The 1880s and 1890s were a period of phenomenal growth for Asheville, ushered in by some of the wealthiest, most prominent people in the nation coming to visit. President McKinley brought his young bride here in 1887, an event that drew more than 15,000 onlookers. Grover Cleveland came, among other presidents, and Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and a man named George Vanderbilt who would bring an entire village to fruition when he completed his mansion – known today as the Biltmore House, the world’s largest private home.
Vanderbilt’s legacy extended into Asheville as his colleagues and contractors from around the world came, stayed and left their mark on building designs and gardens, hotels and a grand resort called the Grove Park Inn that soon called itself “the finest resort in the world.” Guests had their coins washed and paper money laundered daily and returned to them, along with their freshly polished shoes set outside their room door.
By early 1900, Asheville’s population had grown to more than 14,600 and the city’s sophistication level grew with it. Large, Victorian homes dotted the landscape while massive hotels made the night sky come alive. A new hospital had opened in 1885 and an updated facility was completed on what is now the corner of Charlotte and Woodfin Streets.
Asheville even had its own Grand Opera House, a four-story building with a balcony and gallery. Steam heat, gas and electric lights had arrived, along with trolley cars powered by electricity. You could make a long distance phone call all the way to Hendersonville, a small town about 20 miles from Asheville, if you didn’t mind the circuitous, operator-assisted route.
As the city entered the Roaring Twenties, followed by the Great Depression, the local economy slowed to a crawl and nose-dived. Many thought the glory days of Asheville were long Fast forward to 2015: Asheville was recently named “one of the 15 must-see travel destinations in the world” by Frommer’s travel guides.
Among those who love the contemporary “Land of the Sky,” is President Obama and First Lady Michelle, who have vacationed here on more than one occasion and never miss a chance to eat their favorite Smoky Bones ribs.
There are still plenty of historic sites to see, magnificent historic homes and downtown architecture, lots of places to dine (Asheville has an active craft brewery industry) with world-class cuisine, outdoor adventures, the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Biltmore House and Village, the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, moderate climate and a vibrant mountain
beauty that has changed little since “Dr. Pearl Stern” arrived in 1883.
Its metropolitan area is much larger than in Pearl’s day, with advanced manufacturing, a first-class hospital and thriving medical industry, art galleries and street musicians, walk able sites downtown, museums, diverse shopping outlets, eclectic cuisines from around the world, a health-conscious vibe and a strong, “green” environmental spirit.
More than nine million visitors come here each year to see what the “little mountain town” has become and why it continues to draw people from all walks of life. But don’t take “Pearl’s” word for it. Come see for yourself.
By Marie Bartlett
For more information on Asheville, contact the
Chamber of Commerce or Visitor Center at
www.ashevillechamber.org for a free Visitor Guide or call 828.258.6101.
Asheville is located in western North Carolina about 60 miles from Greenville, South Carolina and 200 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia. The Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) is a full service airport 10 miles from downtown. Visit their website at www.flyavl.com.