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Asheville’s Urban Trail, an entertaining, informative, and artistic walk through Asheville history, is 1.7-miles of architecture and memories from earlier times in this engaging mountain city.
Started in 1991 by a group of dedicated volunteers who were determined to put downtown Asheville’s best foot forward, the Urban Trail has evolved into a fairly complete walking tour of Asheville’s historic and present day world. Although the complete trail is not particularly long, time constraints and weather can make a shorter walk more enjoyable. It can be made as short and easy as .2-mile by simply covering just part of the trail, which is divided into different time periods, instead of the entire trail. But the Urban Trail is so interesting, most walkers will be inspired to follow the it from beginning to end.
The Trail begins in front of the Asheville Art Museum, which is located on Pack Square. Here, Trail participants listen to the story of Asheville’s earliest days as a backcountry settlement, which, from descriptions from the period, was almost as hard to get into or out of as Antarctica. During this frontier period of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, just over 1,000 people lived in this small, remote village, which was originally named Morristown. However, after a petition to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1792 to form their own county, the town was renamed Asheville in honor of North Carolina’s popular governor Samuel Ashe. The county was named Buncombe, after Revolutionary War hero Edward Buncombe.
These early citizens had the important task of deciding on the location of the county seat. The original courthouse, merely a log cabin, was built very close to the same location in which the present courthouse sits today. That location was chosen because it stood on a hill situated along the old Indian foot trail from the French Broad River to the Swannanoa River and, subsequently, out of the mountains. Anyone who came through town could see it at quite some distance, so it was easy to find. Standing in the middle of Pack Square today, the Urban Trail marks the location of that original Indian trail, right through the middle of town, with a concrete path of human footprints, bronze sculptures of two turkeys, a pig and piglet, and enclosed on each side by rails, suggesting the importance of the railroad and the trolley.
But Asheville’s old, muddy, seasonally-unusable dirt paths slowly gave way to the rough-planked Buncombe Turnpike which, in turn, gave way to rail travel by the 1880’s. With the coming of the railroad, Asheville started to experience tremendous growth and development. Within a decade, Asheville’s population quadrupled. In 1883, Asheville became a city. The first streetlights went up in 1888, and the first electric streetcars came in 1889, making Asheville the second city in the US to have electric streetcars (the first city was Richmond, Virginia, by the way). Other points along the Urban Trail make note of the Buncombe Turnpike’s significance as well as the railroad’s importance to the commerce and development of this community in the mountains.
From the 1880’s through the 1930’s, Asheville’s climate was considered ideal for the treatment of many illnesses, particularly tuberculosis, and many a wealthy Easterner found his and her way to this lovely mountain city. Many of these same people built some of the most beautiful buildings the city has to offer, and the Urban Trail is probably the easiest way to see most of them at close range and at a leisurely pace. The City Building (1928), the S&W Building (1929), and First Baptist Church, all staggeringly beautiful examples of Art Deco master architect Douglas Ellington, are on the Trail. Grove Arcade, the vision of E. W. Grove and the first indoor mall in America, is located just south of the Battery Park Hotel (now devoted to housing for seniors). A tribute to the downtown contributions of Englishman Richard Sharp Smith, the supervising architect of the Biltmore House who fell in love with Asheville and made it his home for many years following its completion, can be found on Broadway.
No Urban Trail of Asheville would be complete without a good bit of attention paid to Thomas Wolfe, one of Asheville’s favorite sons and author of Look Homeward, Angel. Mr. Wolfe spent all of his early years walking these same city streets that people walk today, making many a trek across the Square to the Public Library, where the Asheville Art Museum is located today. A bronze replica of his size 13 shoes stands in front of his mother’s famous boarding house, “Old Kentucky Home,” immortalized as “Dixieland” in “the book.” A plaque in the parking lot of the YMCA on Woodfin Street marks the actual location of the house built by W. O. Wolfe in which his son Thomas was born.
One of the most popular stops along the Trail is entitled “Wolfe’s Neighborhood,” and is located near the corner of Woodfin Street and North Market Street. The beautiful artwork at this stop depicts Asheville as it would have been seen by Thomas Wolfe during the time he lived.
Eagle Street, known as “The Block” and currently undergoing significant restoration, is honored with a bronze wall sculpture as the historic center of the African-American community. This work was based on the collective memories of former residents who recall the days when Eagle Street was a place to live, shop, or meet friends after school.
The bronze sculptures all along the Urban Trail are worth spending some time on – many are whimsical glimpses into the past. A bronze top hat, cane, and gloves resting on a bench reminds us of the Grand Opera House that once stood in downtown Asheville; a group of five life-size dancers and musicians grace the front of the Civic Center and gently lead us toward our Appalachian heritage; and the little girl at the “Past and Promise” stop on the corner of Pack Square, takes many a visitor back to their own earlier days and some sense of timeless connection with the past.
The Urban Trail is owned by the City of Asheville and maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. All tours and educational activities are managed by the Asheville Area Arts Council.
For more information or to schedule a tour, please visit www.ashevillearts.com.
(Images provided by Asheville Parks and Recreation Department)