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One of Asheville’s most charming traits is the “walkability” of downtown. Even with the hills and winding streets taken into consideration, the city’s easy pace and (usually) favorable weather make it a pleasure to meander through, be it for a window-shopping outing or a more purposeful trip. So the tremendous popularity of Asheville’s Urban Trail – a walking tour of downtown Asheville and its public art as well as its buildings, architecture, cultural history and lore – should probably not come as a surprise.
An ideal and very entertaining way to spend some time downtown, the Urban Trail was started twelve years ago by a group of dedicated volunteers who were determined to put downtown Asheville’s best foot forward. Very well trained and enthusiastic guides lead tours each Saturday afternoon at 3 PM each April through November. Self-guided tours, including cassette tapes that can be checked out from the Asheville Art Museum at Pack Place, are an option for those of a more independent mind (or, for those who didn’t call far enough in advance for a reservation with one of the guided tours!).
Asheville’s Urban Trail is not to be missed. The Urban Trail has evolved into as complete a walking tour of Asheville’s historic past and its present as there is available. The complete trail is 1.7 miles long, but can be made as short and easy as .2-mile; simply cover just part of the trail, which is divided into different time periods, instead of the walking the entire trail. Generally, people find the Urban Trail so interesting that most walkers are inspired to follow the it from beginning to end. Also, the guides offer many funny and/or eye-opening anecdotes about the people, places, and things in Asheville’s history that, in turn, bring the entire tour to life.
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, by present day description, 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, rough 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.
Then, 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, turkey, pig, and sheep hooves, and enclosed on each side by rails, suggesting the importance of the railroad and the trolley. By late summer or early fall of this year, additional sculptures of a pig, piglet, and two turkeys will be added at this point to further note the significance of the old Indian trail and the tradesmen, farmers and drovers who traversed it.
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 mammoth 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. In fact, Asheville was the second city in the US to have electric streetcars (Who gets “first” honors for electric streetcars, you ask? Richmond, Virginia. Good to remember if you’re ever on “Jeopardy”). 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.
Eagle Street, once known as “The Block,” 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 shop, go to the doctor, 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 girl – oh, the bronze statue of the little girl with the pigtails, the summer dress, and the skinny legs, getting a drink of water from the horse-head fountain on the corner of Pack Square – as you return to Pack Square on the final leg of your walk through downtown Asheville’s past and present, she may take you back to your own earlier days and some sense of timeless connection with the past.
To make reservations for a guided tour, please call the Asheville Area Arts Council at 828-258-0710 (fax is 828-252-2787). Special arrangements can be made for groups as well. There is a $5 charge per person; the entire tour is 1.7 miles and takes approximately 2 hours. Audio cassettes with headsets are available for rent at the Art Museum Shop in Pack Place. The script was written by historian Rob Neufeld. There is a $5 charge for rental. Tapes can also be purchased for $9.95 at the Art Museum, Malaprops, Kress Emporium, and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
(Images provided by Asheville Parks and Recreation Department)