Evolutionary routes through our mountains
The travel circumstances of yesteryear would seem downright brutal to modern commuters accustomed to navigation apps as they leisurely navigate the freeways in air-conditioned or heated comfort. Yet in the brief span of 150 years, travel routes have shifted from animal migration routes, Indian trails, and bridle paths to hard-surfaced roads crisscrossed with bridges. Soon after, multi-lane highways cordoned off with interchanges – and unlimited skyways above – shortened West Carolina’s routes to hours, days, and even weeks.
According to statistics from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, more than 52 million tourists travel the state’s roads each year, with more than 15 million visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway. National transportation statistics rank the road network maintained by the state of North Carolina as the largest in the country.
As recently as the turn of the twentieth century, a round trip between Limestone (Fletcher) and Flat Rock â about 15 miles â used up most of a day. Because of this inconvenience, Fletcher’s Calvary Church (1859) was born, after which Episcopalians in the northern county no longer needed to travel to Flat Rock for Sunday services. At that time, an expedition from the coast of South Carolina to Asheville could last anywhere from 10 to 14 days. On horseback a traveler could cover up to 20 miles a day, and in a cart barely five miles on average. Currently, approximately four hours, by vehicle, separate the aforementioned destinations. Meanwhile, 18-wheeler convoys effortlessly scale the passes of western North Carolina and hundreds of Harleys roar along its back roads, while dozens of vapor trails fill its atmosphere every day.
Wild beasts, then pigs and cattle paved the way through our highlands, opening up the land to agriculture, tourism and resorts, booming towns, textile factories and retirement communities. .
Bison have followed the logical contours of the topography in their quest for grazing and reproduction. Other creatures, including deer, elk and bears – and prehistoric beasts before them – opened the first passages through the Carolinas. In search of food and water and instinctively plotting the less demanding routes and gentler slopes, the animals have followed grazing and migration corridors through the most navigable gaps, along waterways and directly to through rivers and streams, surveying shallower depths later used as fords and lateral fords by humans. Singling out this easier and more plausible route, the Native Americans traced the same paths, even further beating their paths of gathering and trade, which would one day set the course for roadways and toll highways. Likewise, the Indians exploited such routes to hunt game and wage war.
The right of discovery
Well-traveled trails paved the way for Euro-American pioneers, herdsmen and military troops. Visionaries widened these conduits to use them as migratory wagon routes to accommodate settlers and miners. In turn, these lanes evolved into commercial arteries for commerce and eventually evolved into today’s paved roads and highways – many of which follow ancient crossings of herds of animals and indigenous people.
In the space of two centuries, rails in cast iron and then steel and vulcanized rubber replaced wooden clogs, moccasins and wheels. Settlers of European origin wiped out the entire American bison population that once inhabited western North Carolina. The same people, at the beginning of the 19th century, began to hunt Indians en masse.
In colonial times, discovery often involved a title to land – the right of discovery. This mindset led to the displacement and dispossession of Native Americans in an attempt to expand the territory of Euro-American settlers, who introduced diseases that decimated Indigenous peoples. Smallpox has proven to be a main destroyer, with additional European contagions also contributing to the depopulation of Indians.
The cattle routes
Situated between prosperous South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina has been described as a “valley of humility between two mountains of vanity.” Additionally, due to its isolation, western North Carolina was known as “Land Beyond.” Before rail service and without navigable rivers by ships, goods and livestock would travel to and through the Old North State on foot or on wagons or oxcarts. Unlike other southern states during the pre-war era, North Carolina had the most substandard transportation system of any state – before the introduction of the train in the late 19th century. In contrast, North Carolina would later become one of the leading southern states for transportation.
The most direct and passable route from northeastern Tennessee and Kentucky to South Carolina and Georgia was through Buncombe counties and what would become Madison, Rutherford, Henderson and Polk. With open expanses of rich pastures and a growing interest in animal husbandry, ranchers in northeastern Tennessee and the southeastern and central Kentucky foothills coveted markets for their hogs, poultry, equines, sheep, and cattle. . For transporting most goods to market, rivers proved to be the most profitable method, but livestock were not. By the turn of the 18th century, the major meat markets in Tennessee and Kentucky included the Carolinas and Georgia, and the most prudent way to transport cattle and hogs to these consumers was to drive the animals over two hundred to three hundred miles from producer to consumer in mountainous terrain.
What became known as Drovers Road or “Old Stock Road” included a Tennessee wagon trail rising above Blue Ridge to Hickory Nut Gap and descending through the Fairview Valley to Asheville and pointing south. The most strenuous part of the trip included the rugged terrain dividing Tennessee and Asheville. Before workers built the Buncombe Turnpike, herdsmen ventured along the banks of the French Broad River on their journeys south, as this course was the least resistant route.
From the north, toll roads led to the Old Drovers Road – the southern “toll road” – essentially a footpath and a temporary wagon route. Rivers of hogs and their herdsmen and drivers sank almost non-stop from mid-October to mid-December from the stockyards of Tennessee through Warm Springs, Marshall, Woodfin, Asheville, Flat Rock and Pace’s Gap (Saluda ), North Carolina, and made their way to Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and the market delta of Greenville and Spartanburg, where cattle were slaughtered and processed and therefore transported to Augusta and the seaports of Savannah and Charleston .
River routes made it easier to travel, and livestock would lose less mass as they passed through flatter lands. Along the trail, when the cliffs hindered traffic, the trip sometimes involved crossing streams. Some local men provided ferry service, charging a toll.
A constant stream of herdsmen and their herds created the need for âstallsâ along the way to serve as stopping points for rest and sustenance. Because of their short legs, pigs could only walk six to ten miles a day. As a result, stalls or taverns developed along Drovers Road to serve pigs and other animals as well as their drivers. The stalls, located at five to ten mile intervals, provided not only meals and shelter for the herdsmen, but also pens, fenced yards, and fodder for the cattle.
Toll records suggest that 150,000 to 200,000 pigs traveled the highway each year in droves of 300 to 3,000 head each. David Vance (1792-1844) of the Vance Inn said he fed 110,000 pigs in a particularly busy month. Innkeeper Hezekiah Alexander Carr Barnard (1780-1882) made a similar claim.
The number of crowds along this route peaked between 1830 and 1840. The state added gravel pavement in the 1920s and the federal government paved it in 1931. Eventually, the railroads would provide more means. faster and more profitable to transport livestock, with rail systems expanding rapidly after the Civil War. At the end of the eighteenth century, most of the settlements were either falling into disrepair or reverting to farms or tourist inns. Others have been demolished or left to rot.
Terry Ruscin is the author of several books on local and regional history, including âA History of Transportation in Western North Carolina.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS
The author thanks all those who share their photos with the monthly column Beyond the Banks. Photos included in this package include:
- A stagecoach jostling along a mountain pass. [Terry Ruscin collection]
- Alexander’s Inn, a cattle stand next to the Buncombe toll motorway. [Terry Ruscin collection]
- Pig drivers. [Terry Ruscin collection]
- Bronze Pigs and Turkeys – an installation titled “Crossroads” by Margery Torre-Godwin in Asheville’s Pack Square – adorning a position of the city’s Urban Pathway project. [Terry Ruscin photo]
- Mountainside Park Road in Laurel Park, an unpaved track typical of western North Carolina roads in the early 20th century. [C.H. Oak Collection; courtesy of the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society]
- Poinsett Bridge, South Carolina. [Terry Ruscin photo]
- Ox-drawn wagon on the plank road in Henderson County. [Baker photo (Jody Barber P065); courtesy of D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNC Asheville]