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From Jonesborough to Asheville: Professor discusses early frontier road

Hog drovers would drive herds of pigs to the appropriate destination in Asheville.


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Today, via Interstate 26, it takes less than two hours to drive to Asheville, North Carolina from Jonesborough, Tennessee. An internet search puts the driving time for the 61-mile journey at one hour and nine minutes. Beginning on Sept. 24, 1857, it took a party, including the Rev. C. P. Jones, three days to make the trip.

Professor Tom Lee discussed the historical and geographical connection between the two towns before an audience of 40 people gathered for History Happy Hour held at the International Storytelling Center on Thursday, Aug. 15. Dr. Lee, a member of the History Department at East Tennessee State University, outlined his efforts to locate the “old road” that was the beginning of commerce and communication between the towns located in two states and kept apart by mountains. 

Below, Asheville pays tribute to traveling swine.

The process of finding the location of this elusive yet important link initially directed the professor to a study of “Autobiography: the story of an old man’s life, with reminiscences of seventy-five years” by Nathaniel Edwin Harris.  He was born in Jonesboro in 1846 and moved to Georgia during the Civil War to escape Union troops.

While living in Jonesborough Harris remembered the “public road” in his autobiography. “As my father was engaged in the practice of medicine, he was very little at home and this threw me, in my earlier years, into the closest possible companionship of my mother. She did most of the punishing in those early times, using the rod according to the Scriptures. On one occasion I crept under the house to get away from her, but she followed me and my effort to avoid the punishment did not succeed. I then tried running away from her, and once went down the red lane, in the public road which ran by the house. My mother ran after me and near the foot of the hill both of us fell flat in the roadway. She was the first to rise and I did not escape the thrashing for some disobedience.”

Harris traveled the “Embreeville Road” when he “rode a horse, and left the horse at his uncle’s mill, which was on the road to the school house.” The school boy further commented, “The old homestead is directly on the road leading from Asheville in Buncombe County and Burnsville in Yancy County to Jonesboro.”

The “public road” where Harris got a “thrashing” Professor Lee believes constituted part of the Jonesborough to Asheville road. Harris served in the Confederate Army and after the war returned to his family’s home in Tennessee. Moving to Bartow County, Georgia, he attended the University of Georgia graduating in 1870.  After graduation he studied law and became Macon’s city attorney.  He got into politics serving in both the state’s House of Representatives and Senate. He then served as judge of the Superior Court from 1912 until 1915 when he resigned to run for governor. Harris served as Governor of Georgia from 1915 until 1917. In his “Autobiography” written in 1925, he said, “The founding of the Georgia School of Technology I regard as the most important event of a public nature, that occurred in my life.”

Harris was the first cousin of Alfred Alexander Taylor and Robert Love Taylor, both of whom were United States congressmen and governors of Tennessee. Harris died at his summer home in Hampton, Tennessee and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia.

During Harris’ youth before the Civil War, the road gained economic importance. Large numbers of swine were fattened in eastern Tennessee, a fertile farming region with many pigs and few people. A couple of hundred miles away lay the plantations of the South, which didn’t raise much food. Planters preferred to grow cotton, sell it for cash, and buy pork to feed their slaves (or, after the Civil War, their sharecroppers and tenant farmers). The hog supply was in Tennessee, the demand in South Carolina and Georgia, and in between lay the Appalachian Mountains. No navigable rivers or railroads connected the two, so there was only one way to move the hogs: on foot. The route followed the Valley of French Broad River through the Smoky Mountains, and passed through Asheville, North Carolina.

Dr. Lee illustrated this commerce by showing the “hog statues” at Pack Square Park in Asheville and with artists’ drawings of drovers driving the hogs to market. The road also became important with the arrival in 1858 of railroad transportation in Jonesborough. Once people traveled from Asheville to Jonesborough, they could board a passenger train and travel to New York City and other metropolitan areas in Northeastern United States. It was not until March 1879 before the railroads finally crossed the Eastern Continental Divide across the area’s Appalachian Mountains and entered Buncombe County where Asheville is located.

Returning to Rev. Jones three-day trip in 1857, his description of the journey began when he was invited to ride with Robert Brank Vance. His host, born April 24, 1828 – died November 28, 1899, was the nephew of the earlier Congressman Robert B. Vance (1793–1827) and brother of  Zebulon B. Vance.  The Democratic politician served as a member of the U.S. House of Representative for six terms: 1873–1885.  Vance was born in 1828, near present-day Weaverville, in the old homestead on Reems Creek, in Buncombe County. Vance died near Asheville at his farm.

The Vance Party’s journey on Day One began on a road that meandered along the French Broad River.  Then, the party made “a right turn onto [the] main road to Burnsville.” They would “pass in sight [of] Reems Creek Campground.  On Day Two they reached the “residence of Col. McElroy.”

By Day Three, the narrative gets more detailed.  According to Rev. Jones’ account, the party “set out at 7 o’clock am, arriving at Jonesborough approximately after dark.” According to Professor’s Lee’s calculations, this would have been a distance of 34 miles.

There had been recent, hard rains.  The account noted that the “road runs through the most broken, wild country perhaps that any road traverses in North Carolina or Tennessee.” On this day the party hired a “Mr. Hunter,” who was stated to be “an old stager well acquainted with the road.”

Professor Lee believes that observations to the right or left of the group at this point can become confusing.  However, the description as stated by the travelers is preserved in this account. With Hunter as their guide, the party “wound [their] way along the right bank of the Toe River.”  Eventually Road Mountain “loomed up on our right.”

The next landmark was “one of the tributaries, Big Rock Creek” flowing from Roan Mountain after which at length  the group “cross(ed) the Barney River [Cane River]

just at its mouth.”  Then, they followed the “Chucky [Nolichucky] for 20 miles” on occasion diverging when the mountainous terrain would “drive” them away from the river.

The Vance Party crossed Iron Mountain on the left side of the river at Indian Grave Gap. The gap was so-named because it was believed by early settlers that Indians often buried their dead at gaps in the mountains. For three miles the party climbed “higher and higher” until they reached an altitude of approximately 4,000 feet.     

On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee there was a hut. Traveling toward Jonesborough the group “wound around rock-ribbed sides of mountains; around deep gulches and ravines.”  Their descent placed them at Greasy Cove and then they passed the “Emory Iron Works” – corrected in the lecture to the “Embree Iron Works.”

Next stop was Jonesborough.

Later, both Tennessee and North Carolina would authorize the construction of “turnpikes” to improve the roads between the two communities. One such legislation specified a 16-foot road.

Lee’s presentation was funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Tennessee Historical Commission.

The next History Happy Hour will take place on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 6:30 p.m. at the International Storytelling Center. The topic of the lecture by Dr. Tim Holder from Walters State will be “Circuit Rider Francis Asbury.”

Further information about the History Happy Hours can be obtained from the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia by calling their office at (423) 753-9580 or by telephoning the Chester Inn Museum at (423) 753-4580.