Standing on one corner of Asheville is an excellent place to learn about the ever-changing face of our town. Do you recognize this corner and are you familiar with its curious history?
James McConnell Smith was born in 1787. According to historical accounts he was the first white child born west of the Blue Ridge. As a young man (circa 1812) he clerked at the Eagle Hotel—first located on Eagle Street—owned by James W. Patton. Smith married Polly Patton (the daughter of Col. John Patton and not related to his employer, James W. Patton) in June of 1814.
According to the Asheville Weekly Citizen in January of 1875, Smith made some money doing survey work in 1815 and bought some lots from a butcher named Corn and “ceiled his log cabin, with plank, and to this kept the building for thirty years.” This was home for Smith and his new wife Polly, on the corner of what was then North Main Street and College Street. It once stood on what was then the outer edge of downtown: a hot spot that drovers traveling from Tennessee would first reach as they moved cattle, hogs, and other goods to South Carolina.
Smith opened the doors of his home to create his own hotel—“The Buck Hotel”—on North Main Street. As was common in those days, proprietors lived in the building they worked in until they could afford a separate home. In early newspapers from 1844-1856 the hotel was advertised as J.M. Smith’s Hotel, but was also referred to as The Buck Hotel.
The building was added to over the years to accommodate the demand for rooms in a growing town. You can see in the only surviving photograph (above) how the hotel was enlarged toward the north in two additions, each requiring a new chimney. The original south end is on the right. In addition to visitors, the Buck was used by a variety of entrepreneurs as their temporary offices. As you can see in this advertisement, the hotel was also commonly known as Mr. Smith’s Hotel.
In addition to his duties as innkeeper, Smith ran a store on the opposite side of North Main, maintained a “tanyard “on the south side of town, purchased and managed the first bridge across the French Broad River which was known as “Smith’s Bridge.” He was a landowner in Buncombe County as well Georgia according to Sondley’s A History of Buncombe County North Carolina.
Smith’s wife Polly, the mother of 9 surviving children died in 1853. When Smith died in 1856, he was considered a wealthy man and entailed his various properties to his numerous heirs. His son-in-law J. H. Gudger (married Elizabeth the eldest daughter) likely leased the hotel and ran it for several years. During the war years, the hotel also served as the Confederacy’s official post office.
Over many years the hotel was leased to different managers who operated it under different names: The Rail Road Hotel, Trout Hotel, Central House, and others.
As the years passed, hotels such as the Battery Park and Swannanoa with their modern amenities lured fashionable travelers. By the late 1800’s the corner of N. Main and College Street was not the first choice for visitors coming to Asheville. Traveling salesmen did use the premises, along with other sorts of assorted characters.
By the early 1900’s Smith’s heirs agreed to have another hotel built on the site, but 5 years of infighting among the heirs delayed completion of the sale. Meanwhile, the Buck Hotel at 16 1/2 North Main Street was torn down bit-by-bit starting in 1896.
As the hotel deteriorated, the final hurrah was the following headline. Apparently it was a scene to behold.
This story from the March 6, 1906 edition of the Asheville Citizen Times recounts “silver spoils of a counterfeiter’s den was discovered yesterday morning when a portion of the old Buck Hotel was hurled down by crowbars.” About 50 counterfeit (silver) dollars were taken from a wall behind a chimney. A Mr. William McDowell found them. Each coin was wrapped in tissue and then bundled in cloth. The bundle was thought to be old rags, but their weight caused investigation. Many people went to “the old shack” looking for more. The coins were dated 1896.
You can see the skeleton of a new hotel on the same corner around 1908 in this photo. The unfinished building stood until it was bought by two local business men. I’ll write about the next chapter of this corner in a future post.
Post by Terry Taylor, Friends of the North Carolina Room Board Member.