Ask visitors, and most will agree — Asheville just feels different. Maybe it’s the magnificent mountains; maybe the altitude. Perhaps it’s something in the air itself. Drive through the nearly
Ask visitors, and most will agree — Asheville just feels different. Maybe it’s the magnificent mountains; maybe the altitude. Perhaps it’s something in the air itself. Drive through the nearly century-old Beaucatcher Tunnel, and the city spreads out before you — its distinctive skyline featuring the red-tiled dome of the First Baptist Church, the Art Deco-style City Hall, and modern hotels with rooftop views of the surrounding mountain ranges. You know you’ve arrived in Asheville when you find your spirits mysteriously lifted.
In The Land of the Sky and Beyond, a pamphlet published around 1895 by Southern Railway, the writer Frank Presbrey pinpointed Asheville as “the spot where human health and human happiness are in sweet accord.” One statesman traveling through the city confided in Presbrey, “Why, I feel as if I was breathing champagne.”
Two decades earlier, that intoxicating air had also overwhelmed the characters in a novel by the Salisbury-born writer Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan as they toured the state’s remote mountains by stagecoach. “Shall I ever forget that first sight of its majestic beauty?” Tiernan’s protagonist recalls. “Its splendid peaks were outlined with massive distinctness, and its dark-blue sides were purpling in the light of a luminous sunset.”
Tiernan published “The Land of the Sky;” or, Adventures in Mountain By-Ways in 1876 under the pen name Christian Reid. And though her novel has been long forgotten, its title has become inextricably linked to western North Carolina’s lush landscapes of rolling mountains, cascading waterfalls, and Christmas tree-scented forests.
• • •
For more than a century, Asheville has promoted its invigorating atmosphere in a variety of ways — as a healthful destination, a playground for the elite, a family-friendly vacation spot, and a foodie mecca. “There had been tourism in western North Carolina, but nothing really stuck before the slogan ‘Land of the Sky,’” says Dr. Richard Starnes, provost of Western Carolina University, NC historian, and author of Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina.
As it turns out, Tiernan’s father was an executive with Southern Railway, which took up her slogan to promote train travel, marketing the Land of the Sky as a destination for better health. By 1884, rail lines intersected Asheville, bringing more visitors to the once-sleepy mountain village that was by then booming with hotels and boardinghouses. Many would soon book rooms at the Battery Park Hotel, a sprawling Victorian structure built by former Confederate Col. Frank Coxe as the city’s first true resort. It sat atop a resplendent hill, where a Confederate cannon once guarded the city.
From his balcony at the hotel, Gilded Age millionaire George Vanderbilt eyed the rugged vistas toward Mount Pisgah and picked the perfect spot for his dream home. On Christmas Eve of 1895, Vanderbilt opened the even more expansive Biltmore House, a French-style château and America’s largest private home, to his family and friends. The mansion was destined to later become a can’t-miss Asheville attraction.
Another wealthy resident, pharmacist E.W. Grove, had struck it rich by creating a flavorless quinine tonic that, in 1890, some claim, outsold a new soft drink called Coca-Cola. Grove had come to the city for his own health reasons — lifelong breathing issues — and stayed to build the Grove Park Inn using native rock quarried from Sunset Mountain. He opened his elegant resort in 1913.
By 1924, Asheville leaders had bought into the idea of recreation in this health-conscious, high-altitude city. That spring, the Asheville Skylanders baseball team hosted Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers at the newly opened McCormick Field, and they beat the Tigers 18 to 14 in a hard-won slugfest. Under the left-field grandstand, a banner proudly proclaimed, “Asheville — The Playground of America.” Later, the city-owned team resurrected an earlier name, the Asheville Tourists, a tip of their caps to the growing importance of tourism to city’s economy.
And Asheville just kept on booming. Grove bought the old Battery Park Hotel and tore it down, leveling the historic Confederate hill. He raised a 14-story brick hotel in the Neoclassical and Spanish-romantic style, along with a new shopping mall called Grove Arcade. The progress didn’t sit well with some natives. Writer Thomas Wolfe mourned the loss of the Asheville of his childhood, which he’d portrayed in Look Homeward, Angel. In his short story “Return of the Prodigal,” Wolfe fictionalized a trip back to his hometown, the protagonist finding that his father’s stonemasonry shop on Pack Square had been replaced by the city’s first skyscraper, the 13-story Jackson Building. “If we hope to bring tourists here and make this a tourist town,” one character tells the protagonist, “we have to give them some amusements.”
In a letter to his mother, Julia, Wolfe wrote that Asheville would be ruined by “cheap Board of Trade boosters and blatant pamphleteers.” It’s no small irony that Julia Wolfe’s Old Kentucky Home, which boarded summer visitors, would be preserved as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, catering to a new century of tourists.
• • •
Drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mount Pisgah, and you’re following alongside the old Shut-In Trail that Vanderbilt had carved up to his Buck Springs hunting lodge. Keep going down through the last cool, dark tunnel at Grassy Knob, and, rounding a leafy curve, you suddenly catch a glimpse of Vanderbilt’s dream castle in the distance. Asheville offers a surprise around almost every corner, a catch to the breath, a welcome boost to the spirits. By mid-century, travel had become more democratized. More motorists were driving to the mountains, drawn by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Motor courts popped up along U.S. Highway 25 into Asheville.
But the Great Depression lingered on. While other cities defaulted on loans, Asheville opted to pay off its debts, not burning that note until 1976. By 1980, Starnes, an Asheville native, remembers a “city preserved in amber.” Downtown businesses had been siphoned off to the new mall on the other side of the tunnel. Raccoons were living in the top floors of the deserted Bon Marche department store on Haywood Street. Storefronts were empty, filled with dust. After dark, the lawyers and accountants and bankers all went home. But some saw promise in the bones of the old Art Deco buildings, and local citizens led a fight to save them.
In 1983, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority launched a new advertising campaign across the Southeast with logo taglines promoting the city as “Cool, Green Asheville” and “Asheville Is Calling,” playing on the same theme as the original “Land of the Sky” slogan. “The messaging changes,” says Marla Tambellini, vice president of marketing for Explore Asheville, “but the siren song of the mountains, the inspiration of this beautiful backdrop, the foundation that has shaped and nurtured our community and culture has stayed the same.”
• • •
Walk the hilly streets of downtown Asheville now, and the area, once busy and later deserted, has bloomed again. On any given day, travelers crowd the more than 35 breweries around the city. More and more hotels dot the skyline, rivaling the 1920s heyday of swanky inns and resorts. Pack Square still fills on summer Saturdays as bluegrass bands and clogging teams take the stage during the venerable Shindig on the Green.
For a different kind of energy, on Fridays, people gather at Pritchard Park for the infectious beat of the Asheville Drum Circle. The French Broad River area, once a forgotten stretch of warehouses and failing factories, has been renovated into the River Arts District, furnished with greenways, bike lanes, art galleries, and restaurants.
Frank Presbrey, Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan, and Thomas Wolfe all attempted to express in words the ineffable appeal of this enduring mountain destination. Frank Coxe, George Vanderbilt, and E.W. Grove all sensed it, too: Asheville is good for the heart, soul, and body. Presbrey once attributed the fact that people seem to “brace up” the moment they arrive in the city to “the influence of altitude on vitality.” Whatever it is, Asheville always has been — and always will be — intoxicating for those who seek to drink in its healthful fresh air, its refreshingly cool waters, and its majestic mountains that form one of nature’s most alluring skylines.