Chapter 32: The Iron Horse

Can you remember life without a cell phone? Yes. It was wonderful. The internet? Yes, but it’s growing on me. Television? Yes, and I can remember fewer ads. But what would I do without my car? What did the last generation do? Actually they were the first ones to ride in the cars their parents invented. The one before them. Way back. Horse and buggy days.

Comin' Around the Mountain behind a steam engine courtesy of pixaby

Comin’ Around the Mountain behind a steam engine
courtesy of pixaby

Before the days of coal, transportation involved the Western North Carolina trains pulled by steam engines that burned wood. They required a stop every twenty to thirty miles. (You’ve seen the pictures of Jesse James robbing the train. They didn’t go very fast either.) I can’t imagine getting excited about a noisy, smelly train chugging past my house.  Back then they were a reason for excitement. What a great service the iron horses provided for the transportation of goods. Like bringing cattle off the western plains to Chicago to feed the Northeast. In 1861, the North had 22,000 miles of track to transport men and weapons and crucial goods in comparison to the 9,000 miles of track in the larger area of the Southern states. (From The American Civil War, a textbook by Professor Gary W. Gallagher of UVA)

In 1875 the railroad stopped in the foothills of McDowell County, NC, three miles west of Old Fort at Henry Station where they had an office and a supervisor’s headquarters. Passengers had to transfer to stagecoach to get on up the mountain. Of course there was an entrepreneur who filled a need at that point by building a large hotel in the 1870’s. Round Knob Hotel accommodated about a hundred tourists who had time to travel and money to enjoy the scenic wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mountain Railroads Were Man Made at a High Price

Mountain Railroads Were Man Made at a High Price

Investors saw the need to extend the railway, and in 1882 the connection was made to Asheville largely due to the work of convicts. There was a stockade east of Swannanoa Tunnel to house the workers. From 1876 to 1878, inmate numbers varied from 252 to 766. In that period 207 were discharged, 36 pardoned, 64 died, 36 killed, and 66 escaped. Records show in the same period a disproportion in race, 35 white males, 501 African American males, and 22 African American females who did the cooking and washing. (This was information included in Images of America, McDowell County, NC, 1843-1943, by James Lawton Haney and the McDowell Co Historic Preservation Commission. I bought it for the terrific photos.)

Sawmill Tools of an Early Era courtesy of pixaby

Sawmill Tools of an Early Era
courtesy of pixaby

Now we can see the forest because there are fewer trees

Now we can see the forest because there are fewer trees

In 1905, Southern Railway Railroad ran (can you say this fast?) between Marion, NC, and Blacksburg, South Carolina. The stretch going through the county by Hiway 226 was called the “Pea Vine,” and it carried passengers until 1954. The folks in this area took advantage of this new system, and sawmills were put in close proximity of the Southern Railway in 1890 and later on the Carolina, Clinchfifeld and Ohio in the early 1900’s. The CC&O, now just Clinchfield, linked the coal mines of KY and VA to the south. Bostic Brickyard was built between the railroad and Second Broad River with its convenient supply of clay. Eventually the sawmills united into one company named Union Lumber Company, according to Nannie Newsome in “The History of Union Mills” in Rutherford County. Formerly Crab Apple Gap. The future looked bright for development.

My current blog series investigates the attraction of a small area in southern McDowell County that has nurtured the loyalty of residents for generations. I have included the northern part of Rutherford County with Whitehouse because the earliest settlers like the Ledbetter family nestled there first and spread up to Montford Cove in McDowell. I am mainly telling the story of the Nanney family with its roots back to Wales. They are now predominantly settled on the county line of McDowell and Rutherford. Wade lives on Brackett Town Road which was my first series. His cousin Mary Glenn tells her version of family history from Morgan Township in Rutherford County five miles or so west of Nanney Town.

For the most part I have ignored the western part of Rutherford County because there has to be a topic boundary somewhere. An exception was made in Chapter 12 when I spotlighted Guilford Nanney who was responsible for the trail to Chimney Rock.

However at this point, I call attention to the dramatic differences between the western and eastern sections of this county. The population grew faster in the east because of the railroads. Southwest of Whitehouse in 1843, a post office was established in Chimney Rock, but for most of the 19th century, this was a gorgeous wilderness of majestic mountains through which the Rocky Broad River meandered.

The Esmeralda Inn Today

The Esmeralda Inn Today

“Rome” Freeman owned four hundred acres of this wilderness and wanted to share the view from the top of Chimney Rock. In 1885 he opened it to the public. Dr. Lucious Morse moved to the area seeking respite from tuberculosis and expanded the venture. Starting in 1892, the area came alive with the Esmeralda Inn, built at an old stopping place of the Pony Express and stagecoach routes over the mountains through Hickory Nut Gorge. The secret was discovered by celebrities like Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and Douglas Fairbanks. Writer Lew Wallace finished his script for Ben Hur in Room #9. The original burned in 1917 and was rebuilt.

By 1926, Chimney Rock was a tourist destination and several more hotels like the Mountain View Inn and Cliff Dweller’s Inn opened. Still no railroad connection, just rough roads. Construction began on Lake Lure by damming up the Rocky Broad, and a little town flourished in the summer months. President FDR found a way to bring a motorcade through in September of 1936 travelling from Asheville to Charlotte. He probably had lunch at Lake Lure Inn. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Emily Post were also visitors. In 1940, the United States Army leased the Inn for R&R for air corpsmen returning from duty.

On Location at Chimney Rock for The Last of the Mohicans

On Location at Chimney Rock for The Last of the Mohicans

Three major motion pictures were made here. The 1958 classic Thunder Road used the Log Shop Restaurant for scenes, The Chimney Rock Camp for Boys was one of the settings used in Dirty Dancing in 1987 and The Last of the Mohicans showcased the cliffs in 1992.

All of that background posted here was to point out that change is not always permanent progress.

In the 19th century, the eastern part of Rutherford County got the railroads but it never got the recognition that the western part of the county has enjoyed in the 20th century without the railroads. Ironic.

Just an observation by a country girl.



Copyright 2015 Georgia Wilson


This entry was posted in Nanney Saga, Setting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chapter 32: The Iron Horse

  1. Ron says:

    Great post country girl!

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