Old Fort History
Old Fort’s place in Western North Carolina history is unique because of its geographic location at the foot of the Blue Ridge, near the head of the Catawba River and close to the Continental Divide. At least 8,000 years of human habitation existed in this area prior to the recorded period, but most of our information is about the immediate past.
Just over the railroad tracks in Old Fort, stands the town square, defined by a 30-foot tall arrowhead hand chiseled in granite. The landmark was unveiled to a crowd of more than 6,000 people in the 1930s as a symbol of the peace achieved in the previous century between pioneers and Native Americans. Travelers may go to this town expecting to see remnants of an old fort. The name suggests a fort once stood here at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a place where some of the earliest settlers and pioneers took refuge.
There is evidence that in 1566, Juan Pardo, a Spanish adventurer accompanied by thirty men, came to what is now Western North Carolina. He traveled from the South Carolina coast and his purpose was supposedly to acquire territory for Spain but in reality, he hoped to find precious metals. When he reached the headwaters of the Catawba River, he had his men build a log blockhouse. No doubt, he was intimidated by the formidable range of the Blue Ridge and hesitated before venturing into the home of the Cherokee Nation. The next year, however, he took about half of his men and went west as far as to what is now Franklin, NC. From there, he started back to the South Carolina coast and was never heard of again. No one knows what became of his men or what happened to the tiny fort itself.
Another hundred years passed before anything was again heard of this region. In 1690 James Moore, who was Secretary of the Colony of South Carolina, explored these hills and wrote that Indians told him that a few Spaniards were mining about twenty miles away.
By the mid 1700’s, more settlers came up the Catawba Valley. In 1763, the British and the Cherokee nation made a treaty agreeing that the British would settle no farther west than the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains. Around 1770 Samuel Davidson purchased a boundary of land, which included the present site of Old Fort, consisting of 640 acres or on square mile. A stockade was raised upon a portion of this land, but by whom and for what specific purpose is still debated by historians. Some say Davidson built it for the use of the white settlers; others report that Captain Hugh Waddell constructed it with Colonial Militia left “to guard and range the country while General Rutherford led with an expedition against the Cherokee.” For 20 years from 1756 to 1776, the settlement around the stockade was the westernmost outpost of Colonial Civilization. The State of North Carolina then extended to the Mississippi River. When war was declared between the Colonials and the British, the Cherokee sided with the latter forcing the Colonials to fight enemies on two fronts. In the spring of 1784, Samuel Davidson had decided to move across the Blue Ridge and build a cabin near what is now Azalea, Indians took a bell from his grazing horse and used it to lure him to his death. His wife, baby, and servant girl fled back across the Continental Divide, down the mountain to Davidson’s Fort and safety. In 1776, General Griffin Rutherford led a band of 5,000 militiamen in a campaign against the Cherokee, bivouacking at Davidson’s tiny Fort before crossing the Blue Ridge and into what is now Swain County. Thirty Indian towns, along with crops and stored food was attacked and destroyed by Rutherford and his men. The Cherokee never fully recovered from the devastation. Most of the tribal members fled prior to the attack, so few lives were lost on either side. In his western drive against the Cherokee Nation, Rutherford is credited with the first “scorched earth” warfare in the Americas, so tellingly employed later by General Sherman in the Civil War. He and his men burned a great number of villages and crops as they drove the Indians farther west.
In 1871 the 2,200-acre plantation of G.S.F. Davidson was sold for thirty thousand dollars to the Catawba Vale Land Association, two years after the Western North Carolina railroad had reached Old Fort. “The Town of Catawba Vale was quite large on paper, but small on the ground,” wrote one of the speculators in the letter to a friend up north. The Western Carolina Railway had reached Old Fort in 1860. The circuitous route of the track through the western hills to the top of the mountains at Ridgecrest was made necessary because of the lack of earthmoving machinery and by the need to keep the grade easy enough for a steam engine to pull a train of heavy cars. In March 1879, the Swannanoa Tunnel was completed and the road reached Asheville in 1880. Seven hand-dug tunnels, nine miles of track, and eleven years later, the new railroad reached Asheville. Three hundred lives were lost building the Western Carolina Railroad; nonetheless, the coming of the railroad meant economic, intellectual, and industrial opportunity from the mountain people.
The Town was chartered in 1872 by the General Assembly. The dream of a fast growing village was shattered, however, when the work on the railroad ceased because the money was embezzled. The sale of land stopped; no new settlers arrived; and the railroad shops were located in Spencer instead of “Catawba Vale” The name of “Old Fort” was given to the town by the legislature in 1873, and speculators who were to have held office left town. From 1876 to 1879, Henry’s Station, three miles west of Old Fort, was the terminal from which passengers were transported by stagecoach, and freight by wagon, to and from Asheville.
In 1875 work continued on the railroad to extend it to Asheville, and in March 1879 the rail entered Buncombe County through the Swannanoa Tunnel. The busy little town of Old Fort became the home of a resort hotel and a geyser, a manmade tourist attraction powered by a nearby spring. The hotel, built in 1879 a little too close to the railroad, burned in 1903. A few years later in 1911, a wealthy New Yorker rescued the geyser; he bought the land around it, moved it across the creek, redesigned it and named it in honor of Col. A.B. Andrews, an engineer and the first president of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Today, the geyser is in the middle of a five-sided concrete pool and belongs to the town. The large green space around it offers shade and tables for picnicking.
Folks from Wilmington, NC came to escape the coastal hot weather and some stayed to established permanent residence. The Westermans were one of these families, and the Salisburys were another. There is an avenue named for the Salisburys.
Men from the Old Fort area fought in all wars in which our country was engaged starting with the Revolutionary War “at Kings Mountain” and ending with the Desert Storm Campaign. Captain Thomas Young Lytle, who lived on Crooked Creek, was credited with having fired the first shot of the War Between the States.
The Union Tanning Company built a tanning and extract plant in Old Fort in 1904; and for many years, the huge industry dominated the economy of Old Fort. Men not actually employed in the processing of leather made a living cutting and hauling “acid-wood and tan bark” A flume filled with rapidly running water floated wood from the headwaters of Curtis Creek to the tannery wood yard. A narrow gauge railroad ran from the Catawba Falls area to the wood yard also. Southern Railway cars loaded with South American raw hides “with flesh still on them” came to the sidings. The smell of the hides and the stench of the processing leather fouled the air in every direction for several miles. Travelers vowed they could tell when they were nearing Old Fort, but the citizens were grateful for the steady payroll even though the working hours were from six to six. The wooden building of the United Leather Company was struck by lightning during a summer storm in 1930. It burned and was never rebuilt. Old Fort Finishing Plant now stands on the site.
The Flood of 1916
The lines of Southern Railway ' Company suffered unprecedented damage from floods during the months of July and August 1916. On July 5th and 6th a tropical cyclone swept over the Gulf Coast of Alabama, accompanied by high winds, reaching a maximum of 107 miles per hour at Mobile on the fifth, and followed by torrential rains over a large part of the State, with somewhat lighter rains in eastern Tennessee and, the Carolinas, greatly damaging Southern Railway waterfront property at Mobile and interrupting traffic on the Company's lines in Alabama south and west of Birmingham, by washing out trestles and fills. A second tropical cyclone passed over Charleston, S. C., during the morning of July 14th, causing some local damage, and, moving northwestward, expended its full force on the watersheds in western North Carolina where the rain from the first storm had already saturated the soil and filled the streams bank full. All previous 24-hour records of rainfall in the United States were exceeded. The run off from the saturated soil was very rapid, streams rose high above all previous flood records; resulting in the death of about eighty persons and in property damage estimated by the United States Weather Bureau at about twenty two million dollars. The greatest single loss of property was that of Southern Railway Company, as, without taking into account the loss of traffic and the cost of detouring trains, the total loss to the Company on account of storm damage during the month of July is estimated at approximately $1,250,000.
Transportation thru Old Fort
The first trail up the mountain from Old Fort to what is now Ridgecrest followed the Catawba River. It was called the 'Suwali' trail. It may have been in use by the Cherokee thousands of years before the Spanish explorers in 1550. The gap traversed by the trail was known as "Suwali-Nunnaki". The first road followed this trail. In the early 1800s, the route between Old Fort and Ridgecrest was changed. The stagecoach traveled beside Mill Creek to the mouth of the Little Swannanoa River by the Old Fort Picnic Grounds, and followed it to the Swannanoa Gap. The Western Turnpike occupied the same roadbed.
When the Western Carolina Railroad was built a new stage road followed the railroad through the Gap. It later became NC 10. Next came US 70, which curved around the North side of the hills and ran past Point Lookout, which in turn, overlooked the Royal Gorge.
In 1962, a section of I-40 was started, running straight up the slope from Old Fort along the ridge between the two waterways, south of the Kitasuma Peak, and through the gap to Ridgecrest, a new "Suwali-Nunnaki"