From Bat Cave, North Carolina, get yourself a jug of apple cider from a roadside stand and sip it all along NC-9 North and Bat Cave Road. Follow it right into Old Fort.
Old Fort is a tiny town of less than 1,000 residents located halfway between Black Mountain and Marion, and halfway between Bat Cave and Little Switzerland. Highway 70 and I-40 run through it, with Old Fort’s Main Street in the center.
Old Fort Road becomes Catawba Avenue once you are in town, and intersects with Main Street.
Old Fort’s historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places and you will find most of its cool sites nearby.
We passed through Old Fort for the first time on our way to visit Spruce Pine and Little Switzerland. You can not miss the 14-feet tall granite arrowhead monument standing by the street.
It was constructed in 1930 and not only marks the town center, but a time when the Catawba, Cherokee, and white settlers first reached a peaceful living agreement in the area.
Old Fort actually refers to Davidson’s Fort, built to safeguard early white settlers from Native American counterattacks.
This land originally belonged to the Catawba and Cherokee tribes, among others, who were enemies long before the Catawba sided with the British, briefly, during the French and Indian War.
The Catawba ruled the Piedmont region and spoke a language called Siouan. British settlers ultimately betrayed them after dedicated service in battle, but their legacy is still honoured through the naming of the Catawba River, Catawba Falls, and Catawba County.
Seven Wonders Mural Trail
At the time of our visit, we were not aware that several of the murals we came across were part of an officially organized art walk called the Seven Wonders Mural Trail, so we missed a couple that were further away from the town center.
1. Catawba Falls
Old Fort is surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest and is close to Catawba Falls, as depicted in the first stop on the Seven Wonders Mural Trail. Follow Catawba River Road just 3.5 miles west of downtown to reach Catawba Falls.
2. Mountain Gateway Museum
The Mountain Gateway Museum is fascinating in its own right, but also marks the center of town. The 1930s-era building is a North Carolina State Museum and belongs to the NC Department of Cultural Resources.
A mural depicting the museum is the second stop of the Seven Wonders Mural Trail.
Inside the actual museum on Main Street, visitors can take a self-guided tour of long and short-term exhibits that include Living the Cabin Life, Remedies From the Past, Spirit of the Mountains, and The Price of Progress.
These exhibits cover everything from log cabin life, folk medicine, moonshine and its effect on mountain culture, and the role of African Americans on the infrastructure and railroad industry of the area.
The Morgan Cabin and Stepp Cabin onsite were built in the 1880s and 1870s, respectively, and are also open for visiting.
3. Old Fort Train Depot/ Railroad Museum
The third stop on the trail is the Old Fort Train Depot and Railroad Museum. While I did not come across this landmark’s mural, the real deal was even better.
When the Western North Carolina Railroad laid its tracks in the area, back in 1858, it was still another decade before they reached Old Fort.
It would still be yet another decade, backed by convict labour, before the rails were fully functional and the 1,800-feet long Swannanoa Tunnel was complete.
This station was built in 1880 and passenger trains ran until 1975. Skip ahead to 2005 when the old depot had been renovated and reintroduced to the public as the Railroad Museum and Visitors Center.
It holds a large collection of exhibits, relics, and artifacts from trains, photographs, and info about railroad companies in the area.
It had signs advertising it as the Old Fort Mercantile when we visited, but appears to only be open for special events now. At the very least it is a cool monument to the town’s railroad past.
4. Davidson’s Fort
In the 1750s, a man named Samuel Davidson built a fort on one square mile and named it after himself. Then, it was the most western outpost of Colonial settlements. A century later, railroad development led to a hotel, store, and depot being built to support the fort and its troops.
It has been called Old Fort since 1873, but history will also know it as Davidson’s Fort. Currently, the fort is being renovated by the non-profit Davidson’s Fort Historic Park.
This photo below is shared from the non-profit’s Facebook page:
5 Wolfe Angel Mural marks the fifth stop on the Seven Wonders Mural Trail, but we were unable to find the mural, or the monument itself.
I was unable to find anything specific about either, or their locations, on the internet except for a mention that it is an angel sculpture by Silas Walker and that the mural was painted by Chuck Aldridge.
6 Andrews Geyser
There is an 80-feet high manmade geyser just a few miles outside of town, surrounded by a turtle-shaped concrete wading pool in the middle of a public park.
Legend has it that wary travelers sought this spot since the 17th century, as a resting spot before traversing the steep climb toward Asheville. Local children love to play in Andrews Geyser during hot weather months.
The photo below is shared from TownofOldFort.org:
Below, the mural depicts the lookout, a popular meeting spot for locals and visitors alike.
Other murals around town that are not part of the Seven Wonders Mural Trail continue to tell Old Fort’s history.
The North Carolina Gold Trail tells the history of the North Carolina Gold Rush, long before the California Gold Rush, and significant events in American History. North Carolina was the leader in gold production until 1848 when hopeful miners headed out west.
In fact, the first gold nugget documented was discovered in Charlotte by a little boy named Conrad Reed in 1799.
Later, the first one-dollar gold coin was minted in 1832 by a man named Christopher Bechtler in Rutherfordton, a town close to Old Fort. His home, the Bechtler House, is one of Rutherford’s main attractions, and a stop on the trail itself.
This took place almost two decades before the United States began minting these. Nearby, the Reed Gold Mine (after the Reed family) and Historic Gold Hill are two additional historic sites.
This historical collage mural depicts various layers of Old Fort and North Carolina history, as it ties into American history as a whole.
The mural below was commissioned in 2020 by a Black-led community group called People on the Move for Old Fort, and it tells about two major events.
First, the 1950 protest where Black children marched along Main Street against the closing of their designated school, the Catawba View Grammar School, and secondly, of the 1955 Brown vs. Board of Education case and subsequent attempts to desegregate McDowell County school.
And then there are some murals and street art around Old Fort that I just found lovely.
Old Fort is one of seventeen North Carolina Mountain Heritage Trout Water Cities. Anyone interested in joining the program can purchase a fishing permit and access all locations.
Old Fort is surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest and loaded with hiking and biking trails like the Old Fort Gateway Trail, Kitsuma Peak/Young’s Ridge, Snooks Nose, Point Lookout Trail, Jarrett Creek and Heartbreak Ridge, Catawba Falls Trail, Newberry Creek Trail, Huskins Branch Trail, Point Lookout Trail, and Lead Mine Gap, and the Grandfather Ranger district.
In 2022, the Old Fort Gateway Trail System expanded six additional miles of new trails, mostly in the Curtis Creek recreational area of Pisgah.
After mural hunting or getting your bike/hike on, stop by Hillman Beer.
I really love the aesthetic and spaciousness of Hillman, and being able to sit creekside on the far end.
Then of course there is this fancy car with its skeleton driver.
On the other side of this large building, stop by the Kitsbow and Old Fort Ride House, a rad hub for cyclists and outdoor lovers to pick up coffee, beer, snacks, apparel and gear.
You can also eat at Whistle Stop Pizza & Subs (no website) or Mustard’s Last Stand.
Ideal times to visit Old Fort would be during one of the town’s many festivals like Pioneer Day in April, the North Carolina Gold Festival in June, Oktoberfest, or the Mountain Thunder Car Show and Bazaar.
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