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Hogging the Buncombe Turnpike

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On the Buncombe Turnpike,
the road hogs were real swine.

Into the first decades of the 19th century, there were few roads in the North Carolina mountains. And more often than not, what passed for a road was a single-track Native American footpath. Many such paths had been in use for centuries, but were passable by nothing more than a single horse and rider. Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, traveling through the region in the late 1700s, described travel on mountain roads:

One of the descents is like the roof of a house, for nearly a mile … I rode, I walked, I sweated, I tumbled, and my old knees failed. Here are gullies, and rocks and precipices, … bad is the best.

These primitive roads inhibited mobility and consigned inhabitants of the western counties to lives of social isolation and subsistence farming. There was simply no sense in producing beyond what the family could consume, because there was no way to transport the surplus to a market where it could be turned into cash.

In Buncombe County, progressive citizens proposed a remedy: The Buncombe Turnpike.

In the early years of the 19th century, Buncombe County was a sprawling territory that included twelve current mountain counties. In a nod to its size, it was often called The State of Buncombe. The county’s largest population center and its commercial hub was the city of Asheville. Passing near the city, the “Drover’s Road” took advantage of relatively flat land along the French Broad River to offer a route over which livestock could be driven to markets in South Carolina. But even on this well traveled road, such commerce was rendered difficult by rugged topography, rocky roadbeds, and a scarcity of points at which it was possible to cross the river.

In 1824, recognizing the commercial potential that an improved market road would hold, several prominent Buncombe citizens incorporated the Buncombe Turnpike Company. They petitioned for and received a state charter to improve the road as a revenue-producing toll road. As was the custom of the era, the project would be accomplished entirely with private investment.

The Buncombe Turnpike not only jump-started the economy, it transformed the region in ways few had foreseen.

The Buncombe Turnpike along the French Broad River
Along the French Broad River

When the Buncombe Turnpike was completed in 1828, it ran seventy-five miles from the NC/SC border near Greenville SC to near Warm Springs (now Hot Springs) NC, where it joined the Tennessee Road. The turnpike was arguably one of the best roads in the state, and it quickly had a positive impact on the region. Livestock production increased as access to outside markets became easier. Along the turnpike, a service industry grew up to cater to the needs of the drovers and their animals. Merchants in the region could now import goods for local sale. Regular mail service became possible. And stage coaches began bringing tourists up from the flatlands, the birth of what would become a vital industry for mountain counties.

Sheep on the Buncombe Turnpike
Sheep on the Buncombe Turnpike

With horses, mules, hogs, sheep, ducks, turkeys and geese being driven down the road to market, inns catering to them blossomed along the road about a mile apart. An inn with a stock-stand might accommodate several drovers and 20,000 animals. At these facilities, the drovers could rest overnight, see their animals fed (a service that stimulated corn production all along the route), and pay the tab by leaving some number of animals with the proprietor.

An inn on the Buncombe Turnpike
An Inn on the Buncombe Turnpike

A number of these individually owned inns evolved into places we recognize today: James Mitchell Alexander’s inn became Alexander, NC; Hezekial Barnard’s inn became the community of Barnard; Samuel Chunn’s inn gave his name to Chunn’s Cove; and Zachariah Candler’s inn became the town of Candler. Many of the entrepreneurs who established inns along the Buncombe Turnpike became wealthy, leading citizens of the region. One of the wealthiest was James Smith, who operated an inn and stock-stand just west of downtown Asheville. At that site, Smith also owned and operated a main ferry across the French Broad River. Smith replaced the ferry with a wooden toll bridge in 1834, and the wooden bridge later gave way to one of steel. A working bridge stands at the site today, just south of the twin-span Interstate 26 bridge.

In Asheville, Zebulon Vance sniffed the air and frowned.

Not surprisingly, given the huge number of barnyard animals oinking, bleating and clucking down it, the Buncombe Turnpike didn’t always smell of roses. Each year between October and December, with as many as one hundred seventy five thousand hogs parading down the main street of Asheville on their way to market in South Carolina, the sweet smell of prosperity had a pungent side too.

Zebulon Vance, 1862
Zebulon Baird Vance, 1862

In Asheville, a young lawyer named Zebulon Baird Vance – who would later serve as North Carolina’s Civil War governor – looked down his nose and sniffed:

The rain continues to fall, and our streets are almost impassible with the mud, and thousands upon thousands of hogs moving through the town adds to the general filthyness of everything around.

But to most people, the hogs simply smelled like a financial opportunity they were happy to wallow in. Any fragrance was simply the aromatic by-product of the Buncombe Turnpike energizing the economy and transforming the region.

Turnpike images courtesy of Pack Memorial Library, Asheville NC

Vance photo courtesy of NC Archives & History Digital Collection [N_2002_3_7]

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Gordon Clark

    I seem to remember reading about one drover inn operated by a Black family. Don’t think it was actually along the French Broad; more likely along a tributary north of the river in Madison County. Seems that the family worked the inn for a White man, then bought it from him. Does that sound familiar?

    1. Michael

      Thanks for your feedback, Gordon. I did not come across any references to black ownership of a drovers’ inn, but that certainly doesn’t mean it did not exist. Your question sent me online to do some searching, and the most relevant document I turned up was a University of North Carolina doctoral dissertation of 2012 by Darin J. Waters: Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900.( Waters makes no mention of black ownership, but again that is not proof that the story is not true. If you want to pursue the trail further, you might start by contacting the Pack Memorial Library in Asheville. The staff there was very helpful back when I was researching the blog post. Thanks for taking the time to ask a great question. Michael

  2. Liz Kirchner

    Hi, I am wondering whether Buncombe Turnpike is recognized to run along what was once called Catawba Trail, a Cherokee trade route. Like Buncombe Turnpike, Catawba Trail is described as coming up from Saluda Gap, too, through Buncombe Co. along the river to Hot Springs to, I think, Cumberland Gap. I realize paths become trails become roads, but I wonder I people/historians actually say, “Yes, the Cherokee Catawba Trail, became Buncombe Turnpike.”
    Thanks a lot. I very much enjoy the blog too.
    Liz, Barnardsville, NC (far from the river)

    1. Michael

      Hi, Liz, and thanks for a great question. The short answer is that I don’t know. It makes sense that at least part of the turnpike was an upgrade of the Catawba Trail because of their shared geography (mountain gaps and the flat river valley) and because people back then didn’t just cut new roads through mountain forest. They improved on what was there. I have passed on your question to Michael Hill, a historian at NC Archives and History who is very familiar with the Buncombe Turnpike. If he can help, I will pass on his comments to you. Thanks again for posing the question. Michael

  3. Bob Lee

    Minor clarification I think. About 4 miles
    Downstream from Chunn’s was Barnard’s Inn. That was about 4 miles upstream from Stackhouse that was about 4 miles upstream from warm springs.
    Barnard is the section 9 Put In for the commercial whitewater rafting.
    Barnardsville is nowhere near the river. It’s up 197 toward spruce Pine, East of Mars Hill and North of Weaverville. I worked as a raft guide about 40 years ago and we have a place on the river just upstream of Chunn’s across the river and
    Just downstream of Redmon. There was once a Ferry there.
    I very much enjoy the blog.

    1. Michael

      Great feedback, Bob. Thanks. I double-checked my source (, and what I wrote in the blog is exactly what it said. But looking at the map, I believe you are right. Hezekiah Barnard’s inn (or stand) on the turnpike became the unincorporated community of Barnard, also known at one time as “Barnetts.” The town of Barnardsville had no connection to the inn on the turnpike, although according to the town’s web site, it was also established by Hezekiah Barnard. It wouldn’t be unusual for an influential man in a region like Buncombe to have planted the seeds for multiple towns. Thanks again for the heads-up. I have updated the blog post to reflect your information.

  4. Michael

    Many thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog.

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