By Bruce Whitaker
The area we call Biltmore has had many names over the years. The township and mail delivery area goes from the soccer field at the old recreation park to the French Broad River, and south from Newton Academy Cemetery to Skyland. Most of the two- or three-square-mile area of what might be called downtown Biltmore was originally owned by the Forster/Foster family.
Buncombe County historian Dr. Foster Alexander Sondley wrote in his History of Buncombe County that William Forster Senior or 2nd (1748-1830) was the first resident of what is now Asheville. Forster’s home was located at the head of the present McDowell Street viaduct. He chose this higher location because both sides of the Swannanoa River were mostly swampland from the river’s head at North Fork to where it emptied into the French Broad River. The Forster property ran south from Mission Hospital to around Rock Hill Road. William Forster drained much of the swampland along the Swannanoa River, and most of it became very rich farmland, although in rainy years his crops suffered as a result of the high water table. William Forster was said to live in “frontier luxury.”
Captain Thomas “Tommy” Foster (1774-1858) (he dropped the r from his name) ended up owning the lion’s share of his father’s land and added more land to his holdings. Foster married Ora Sams (1778-1857), the daughter of Captain Edmund Sams, Buncombe County’s first coroner, and built his home on Sweeten’s Creek near the point where it empties in the Swannanoa River. Foster built the first bridge across the Swannanoa River; it was located a short distance east of the present Swannanoa River Bridge near where Sweeten’s Creek enters the Swannanoa. Tommy Foster not only farmed but also built a hotel, a gristmill, a sawmill and other enterprises on his property. He also built the road that is now called Biltmore Avenue, from the entrance to Kenilworth Road to the foot of the hill. The road then curved east to the bridge Foster had built over the Swannanoa River.
The Old Drover’s Road from Tennessee and Kentucky to the rich markets of South Carolina and Georgia passed through Foster’s property. Foster’s daughter Rachael Rebecca Foster (1820–ca.1902) met her future husband William Garner (1810-1873), a drover from Winchester, KY, as he passed through the area. Aunt Rachael moved to Winchester, where the Garner family was very prominent. Rachael’s son John Edwin Garner (1851-1941) was mayor of Winchester and a well-known businessman, as was his brother William H. Garner (1849-1937). John Garner was called “Kentucky Mayor” and was a popular dinner speaker at meetings all over the eastern United States.
Capt. Thomas Foster died in 1858. Joseph Reed bought 1250 acres of Foster’s land after his death, a purchase that included almost all of central Biltmore. Reed was born in Fairview in 1827, the son of John Reed (1802-1885) and Lavina McBrayer (1807-1875). Joseph Reed’s grandfather was Eldad Reed II (1768-1849), husband of Achsah Lanning. Joseph Reed tore Thomas Foster’s house down and built a new house for himself. Reed built several ponds in Biltmore, plus a sawmill, gristmill, carding mill, hotel, butcher shop, store, and brick railroad station.
On March 29, 1880,W.J. Best and Associates bought the state of North Carolina’s interest in the Western North Carolina Railroad Company. The railroad was under construction at the time and had not quite reached Biltmore yet, but it soon arrived at the place where Joseph Reed had built his brick railroad depot, a short distance east of the Swannanoa Bridge. The depot was called Asheville Station. A post office was built there and named the Best Post Office, but the people of Asheville refused to use that name and called the depot and area around it the Swannanoa Bridge.
William Henry Vanderbilt died in New York City in 1885. He was a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), who was worth $100 million when he died in 1877. That’s a lot of money even in today’s world, and in 1877 it was equal to billions of today’s dollars; it was more money than was in the United States Treasury. Cornelius Vanderbilt left all of his children well off, but he left at least 80 percent of his wealth to his son William Henry Vanderbilt. Cornelius believed that the hardest-working, most ambitious male in the family — his son in this instance — should get the bulk of the Vanderbilt fortune in each generation. He believed this would ensure that the family’s wealth would continue to grow and increase in value.
William Henry Vanderbilt proved his father correct. In the eight years after his father’s death, he increased the family fortune to around $400 million. However, William Henry did not follow his father’s advice; he divided his fortune more or less equally among all his children. The result was exactly what Cornelius Vanderbilt had feared — the fortune was for the most part squandered. William’s sons Cornelius and William Vanderbilt were hard workers and managed their money fairly well; their wives, however, made them build outrageously expensive mansions in New York City and Newport, RI, so they could break into Mrs. Astor’s New York “high society.”
George W. Vanderbilt, the younger son of William, brought his mother Maria Kissam Vanderbilt to Asheville on a visit. George like the area and decided this was the place to outdo all his brothers and sisters and build the grandest mansion of all. He began buying up land south and southwest of the Swannanoa River in 1888, eventually acquiring over 130,000 acres. But the land where he planned his village was so wet and swampy that he had to haul in over 40,000 cubic feet of dirt to make it buildable.
Best to Biltmore
The name of the town of Best was changed to Biltmore on March 20, 1890. Vanderbilt spared no expense on his Biltmore mansion, but he apparently never paid attention to his finances — one day he had to tell his builder that he had run out of money. This shocked the builder, who had thought the budget was limitless; he told Vanderbilt that if he had only known, there were many ways he could have saved money.
The house was not completed until many years after Vanderbilt’s death, but Cornelius Vanderbilt was surely already turning over in his grave over his grandchildren wasting his money. Or perhaps not, since if he had known what his worthless blatherskite (one of Cornelius’ favorite words) grandson George was doing, he might very well have come right up out of his Staten Island grave and killed him.
Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area. He can be reached at 628-1089 or firstname.lastname@example.org