Transylania County (1861)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Derived from the Latin words, trans- which means “across” and sylva- meaning “woods”, Transylvania County was established by the North Carolina General Assembly in the year 1861.  A southern, mountain county, Transylvania borders South Carolina and the counties of Haywood, Jackson, and Henderson.  In the 1860s, the N.C. Legislature ordered B. C. Langford to hold court at his property, and a council was soon commissioned to build public municipal buildings near W. P. Poor’s store.  Furthermore, several months after the county was established, the council soon selected Brevard as the county seat in 1861.

The Cherokee were the early residents of present Transylvania County and used a major transportation route known as the Estatoe Path.  One of the first of its kind, the Estatoe Path, connected Native Americans to the Estatoe village in South Carolina, extended throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In addition to its trade importance, the Cherokee used the route during the hunting season, and at the height of the tribe’s influence, the path stretched across the mountains, across the Davidson River, through present-day Brevard, across the French Broad River, and into South Carolina to Charleston.

In 1804, present-day Transylvania County was involved in a minor border skirmish between North Carolina and Georgia. Known as the “Walton War”, the dispute was finally resolved in 1807.

Through the 1800s, Transylvania remained sparsely populated, but the American Industrial Revolution and the railroad opened the area to economic growth and expansion in the later part of the century.  The Henderson and Brevard Railroad was completed in 1895 and it connected Transylvania (the town of Brevard) to Hendersonville.  Tourists and nature enthusiasts invigorated the region’s economy.  Lake Toxaway, a small luxury resort town, provided an escape from nineteenth-century life.  However, in 1916 a large flood destroyed many farms and houses throughout Transylvania County, and Lake Toxaway was not immune to damages.  The town had to be closed because repairs proved too difficult and costly. To this day, broken timber and forest debris can still be found in Transylvania.

Despite the detrimental damage, several outlying communities recovered and continued through Transylvania.  In addition, some natural attractions, most notably the numerous waterfalls found in the county, beckon annual tourists to the region.  Penrose, Sapphire, Cherryfield, Little River, Cedar Mountain, and Pisgah Forest are townships within the region.  Despite these various towns, over half of the land area in Transylvania remains covered by three forest parks, and they include the DuPont State Forest, the Gorges State Park (established on land donated by the Duke Energy Corporation), and Pisgah National Forest.  Within these forest are over 250 waterfalls, earning Transylvania the nickname, “Land of Waterfalls.”  Some notable falls include the Sliding Rock Falls, the Looking Glass Falls, and the 411-feet tall Whitewater Falls.  Whitewater Falls is recognized as the highest water cascade east of the Rocky Mountains.


An important institution within Transylvania County, the Biltmore Forest School was the first forestry school in the nation.  Dr. Carl Schenck, a German forester commissioned by George Vanderbilt, became the forest manager of the Biltmore properties.  After several years of preparation work, Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School within the large Biltmore forest conservation.  However, Vanderbilt and Schenck disputed with each other, and Schenck moved the school to Germany in 1909.  Several years after the school closed, the United States Forest Service bought 80,000 acres of the Biltmore conservation; the tract of forest became the Pisgah National Forest.  As environmentalism soared in the 1960s, Orville Freeman, the Secretary of Agriculture, toured Pisgah, and while on his tour, Freeman realized how vital the Biltmore Forest School had been to conservation in the United States.  Consequently, the Cradle of Forestry was established in 1968, and the 6,500 acre forest remains in Transylvania County to commemorate the first attempt at forest conservation within the nation.


Another important academic establishment, Brevard College, is located in Transylvania.  Brevard College was once three distinct institutions: Rutherford College in Burke County and Weaver College in Buncombe and Brevard Institute.  The Great Depression prompted school presidents in 1934 to consolidate and create one university: Brevard College.  Originally, Brevard College had a little less than 400 students, with only 24 faculty members.  The main purpose of the school was to teach and train mountain residents who would have otherwise received no higher education.  Presently, Brevard enrolls approximately 650 students who seek 4-year degrees.  A cultural institution closely aligned with Brevard College is the Brevard Music Center.  Established in 1946 and known as the “Summer Music Capital of the South”, the center hosts a seven week concert sessions, in which musicians play annual operas, chorus recitals, musicals, and symphonies in a 1,600 seat concert hall.  Festivals have featured the likes of Isaac Stern, Carlos Montoya, and Eileen Farrell. 


Transylvania County was the birthplace of U.S. Senator and Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Augustus S. Merrimon.  Born on September 15, 1830, Merrimon studied at the Asheville Male Academy, read law with fellow classmate Zebulon B. Vance, and was accepted by the state bar in 1852.  After the Civil War, Merrimon opened a practice in Raleigh, and he was deeply involved in the impeachment trial of Governor William W. Holden.  Merrimon served for six years in the U.S. Senate and soon retired, only to appointed to the state’s highest court in 1883.  Elected to the head of the Supreme Court, Merrimon served as Chief Justice until his death in 1892.