Asheville is a city in and the county seat of Buncombe County, North Carolina, United States. It is the largest city in Western North Carolina, and the 11th largest city in North Carolina. The city's population was 83,393 according to the 2010 United States census. It is the principal city in the four-county Asheville metropolitan area, with a population 424,858 in 2010. Asheville is home to the United States National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the world's largest active archive of weather data.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the land where Asheville now exists lay within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto came to the area, bringing the first European visitors in addition to European diseases which seriously depleted the native population. The area was used as an open hunting ground until the middle of the 19th century.
The history of Asheville, as a town, begins in 1784. In that year, Colonel Samuel Davidson and his family settled in the Swannanoa Valley, redeeming a soldier's land grant from the state of North Carolina. Soon after building a log cabin at the bank of Christian Creek, Davidson was lured into the woods by a band of Cherokee hunters and killed. Davidson's wife, child and female slave fled on foot overnight to Davidson's Fort (named after Davidson's father General John Davidson) 16 miles away.
In response to the killing, Davidson's twin brother Major William Davidson and brother-in-law Colonel Daniel Smith formed an expedition to retrieve Samuel Davidson's body and avenge his murder. Months after the expedition, Major Davidson and other members of his extended family returned to the area and settled at the mouth of Bee Tree Creek.
The United States Census of 1790 counted 1,000 residents of the area, excluding the Cherokee Native Americans. Buncombe County was officially formed in 1792. The county seat, named “Morristown” in 1793, was established on a plateau where two old Indian trails crossed. In 1797, Morristown was incorporated and renamed “Asheville” after North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.
The Civil War
Asheville, with a population of approximately 2,500 by 1861, remained relatively untouched by the Civil War, but contributed a number of companies to the Confederate States Army, and a substantially smaller number of soldiers to the Union. For a time, an Enfield rifle manufacturing facility was located in the town. The war came to Asheville as an afterthought, when the "Battle of Asheville" was fought in early April 1865 at the present-day site of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, with Union forces withdrawing to Tennessee after encountering resistance from a small group of Confederate senior and junior reserves and recuperating Confederate soldiers in prepared trench lines across the Buncombe Turnpike; orders had been given to the Union force to take Asheville only if this could be accomplished without significant losses.
An engagement was also fought later that month at Swannanoa Gap as part of the larger Stoneman's Raid, with Union forces retreating in the face of resistance from Brig. Gen. Martin, commander of Confederate troops in western North Carolina, but returning to the area via Howard's Gap and Henderson County. In late April 1865 troops under the overall command of Union Gen. Stoneman captured Asheville. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, p. 362 (Blair, 2010) After a negotiated departure, the troops nevertheless subsequently returned and plundered and burned a number of Confederate supporters' homes in Asheville. The years following the war were a time of economic and social hardship in Buncombe County, as throughout most of the defeated South.
On October 2, 1880, the Western North Carolina Railroad completed its line from Salisbury to Asheville, the first rail line to reach the city. Almost immediately it was sold and resold to the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company, becoming part of the Southern Railway in 1894. With the completion of the first railway, Asheville experienced a slow but steady growth as industrial plants increased in number and size, and new residents built homes. Textile mills were established and plants were set up for the manufacture of wood and mica products, foodstuffs, and other commodities.
The 21-mile distance between Hendersonville and Asheville of the former Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad was completed in 1886. By that point, the line was operated as part of the Richmond and Danville Railroad until 1894 and controlled by the Southern Railway afterward. (Asheville's final passenger train, a coach-only remnant of the Southern Railway's "Carolina Special", last ran on December 5, 1968.)
Asheville had the first electric street railway lines in the state of North Carolina, the first of which opened in 1889. These would be replaced by buses in 1934.
1900s to present
Asheville prospered in the decades of the 1910s and 1920s and at one point was the third largest city in the state, behind Charlotte and Wilmington. The Great Depression, the period of Asheville's history made world-famous by the novel Look Homeward, Angel, hit Asheville quite hard. On November 20, 1930, eight local banks failed. Only Wachovia remained open with infusions of cash from Winston-Salem. Because of the explosive growth of the previous decades, the per capita debt owed by the city (through municipal bonds) was the highest in the nation. By 1929, both the city and Buncombe County had incurred over $56 million in bonded debt to pay for a wide range of municipal and infrastructure improvements, including the courthouse and City Hall, paved streets, Beaucatcher Tunnel, school buildings and municipal parks. Rather than default, the city paid those debts over a period of fifty years. From the start of the depression through the 1980s, economic growth in Asheville was slow. During this time of financial stagnation, most of the buildings in the downtown district remained unaltered. Therefore, Asheville has one of the most impressive, comprehensive collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States.
On July 15–16, 1916, the Asheville area was subject to severe flooding from the remnants of a tropical storm which caused more than $3 million in damage. In September 2004, remnants of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan caused major flooding in Asheville, particularly at Biltmore Village.