Pisgah National Forest

Written By North Carolina History Project

Established in 1915, Pisgah National Forest remains the oldest national forest in North Carolina. The Vanderbilts sold the federal government 86,700 acres of forest land to help establish the approximately 500,000 acre forest. Today, Pisgah National Forest continues to attract tourists to the western mountains of North Carolina in Buncombe County.

The Reverend James Hall is attributed as the first person to call the region “Pisgah.” During General Griffith Rutherford’s march to eradicate the Cherokee in 1776, Reverend Hall remarked about the mountains of Buncombe County. In reference to the Biblical peak where Moses viewed the promised land, Hall called the place Mount Pisgah, and the area retained the name ever since.

When George Vanderbilt constructed his iconic Biltmore home in the 1890s, he sought to create a forest reserve as part of the estate. Vanderbilt enlisted Carl A. Schenck and Gifford Pinchot to foster the reserve at the Biltmore. Despite efforts to establish a forestry school, Schenck’s Biltmore Forest School, founded in 1898, failed to survive past the 1910s.

On March 1, 1911, the United States Congress authorized the Weeks Act, allowing the National Park Service to buy up land on the eastern seaboard for conservation and public use. By the mid-1910s, George Vanderbilt had passed away and upkeep of the Biltmore Estate fell in the hands of his widowed wife. Four years after the Weeks Act, Mrs. Vanderbilt sold about 86,700 acres of land to the federal government. Mrs. Vanderbilt could have sold the land at a much higher price but according to William S. Powell, she “realized that only the federal government could preserve the forest, which became the Pisgah National Forest and remains roughly the same size” (p. 889).

At 500,000 acres, Pisgah forest encompasses 15 North Carolina counties, and due to its large size, the park is divided into three separate districts: the Grandfather District, the Appalachian District, and the Pisgah District.