From the 18th century, Asheville has been known as a place of healing. Even further back, there is evidence that the Native Americans used particular places around the Asheville area to cure the sick. Weather was considered ideal here, especially for those suffering from ills such as tuberculosis, which were often exacerbated in the low country.
Indeed, from about 1880 to 1930, Asheville exploded in popularity for those suffering from tuberculosis to come and recuperate. There were boarding houses in Asheville set up entirely for this particular condition. These convalescent homes, such as the Brexton Boarding House, were initially built to house tourists, but later converted for ill patients.
Places like Brexton were often run by women, and in fact, the Sisters of Mercy ran the Brexton in 1906 as a tuberculosis recovery center. Asheville’s clean air and beautiful mountain sunshine were believed to help aid in the recovery of tuberculosis.
Eventually, with the coming of the railroad in the 1880’s, Asheville soon became renowned as a tourist mecca. By 1883, there were connections with Knoxville, which helped create a railway network where Asheville was within a day’s travel of many major East Coast cities
such as Charleston, and easily accessible from the hot and humid climates of the lower elevations in the South. Both those seeking health cures and those seeking vistas came by the droves to Asheville, causing a boom in hotel, boarding house, and even sanitarium development.
Asheville became promoted by business people of all types. In a pamphlet entitled Asheville, Nature’s Sanitarium Asheville was known as the “mecca of the Southron [sic] as he flees from the mosquito, heat and malaria of the Southern Summer, and the Northerner as he shivers from the blizzards of the North and West.” One of the most prominent businessmen from the Northeast to come to Asheville would be George Vanderbilt, who fell in love with Asheville and would go on to build the expansive Biltmore Estate . Edwin W. Grove would also visit the area and eventually create both the Grove Park Inn, as well as the Grove Arcade.
By 1930, Asheville had 20 tuberculosis physicians and 25 sanitaria with 900 beds. The hospital at Oteen, which is now the Charles George VA Medical Center had a 1,000 bed sanitarium. By the 1940’s, with the advent of antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis, the sanitaria and boarding houses devoted to tuberculosis in Asheville had mostly closed. The Oteen sanitarium was converted into a pulmonary and cardiac center in 1959.
Despite the closures, Asheville remained a health center and is very much a living tourist destination of the 20th century for it attracted many people who ended up staying and contributing to its architecture, civic arena and its sense of place. This year, Lonely Planet has named Asheville as the #1 Best in the United States Travel Destination for 2017 and they have teamed with Explore Asheville and the Biltmore to offer a chance to win a trip to enjoy all of Asheville’s finest as a tourist destination. To enter, visit the contest page here. Good luck and we hope to see you here in our beautiful mountain city soon!
Thanks to our contributor Ashley McGhee for this post! Ashley is a WNC native, an LPN, and she holds a B.A in History from UNC Asheville and is currently pursuing her M.A in History from Western Carolina University. You can follow her adventures and check out her amazing photography skills on her Instagram @wncwaterchild. Look out for more content from her in the future.