One of the best places in Asheville to stroll through history is the Riverside Cemetery. Its 87 acres of rolling hills is filled with stories and beauty. One area overlooks the French Broad River. The cemetery dates back to 1885 and is the oldest cemetery in Asheville. The Asheville Cemetery Company established the area as a municipal cemetery to help the growing need for burial grounds. The company was also able to get an ordinance passed in 1910 to prohibit the burial of people on private or public property within the city limits. The city of Asheville took over the care of the area in 1952 and controls it to this day. The cemetery is home to over 13,000 graves, 9000 monuments, and 12 family mausoleums. A lot of the graves were relocated to Riverside from previous sites.
During the daytime, people are free to visit the cemetery, whether it’s to visit someone interred or to simply enjoy the park and take a stroll through the trees. While it is now closed after dusk, you can still peek through the gate and fence. From here, you can take pictures or record sound to hear what is going on inside of the cemetery.
Riverside is the final resting place for many famous people. Among those are Thomas Wolfs and William S. Porter who is better known by his pseudonym O. Henry. Several of the cities more prominent citizens are interred there, including Thomas Patton, TS Morrison, and Jeter C Pritchard. There is also a section that holds Confederate soldiers from the Civil War, and another that hold 18 German sailors from World War I. James Posey, Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, is buried there as well.
For several years the sounds of a military unit marching together can be heard around the cemetery. Many think it is the Confederate soldiers led by one of the many generals buried there. The residents who live nearby have heard what sounds like rifle fire. Imagine what it would be like to happen upon a group of Confederate soldiers marching through the cemetery.
Thomas Wolfe, a famous author, is buried here as well. He was born in Asheville on October 3, 1900, the youngest of eight children. While traveling to promote his writing, he fell ill with what doctors thought was pneumonia. When complications arose, they discovered he had miliary tuberculosis. This is a rare form of TB and can affect other organs than just the lungs. He was sent to John Hopkins on September 6, 1938. The TB was affecting his brain and was to be treated by a famous neurosurgeon, Walter Dandy. The surgery was not a success, and he never would wake up. He died on the 15th, 18 days before his 38th birthday. People have said they have seen Thomas wandering around the cemetery in the vicinity of his marker. He is buried with the rest of the Wolfe family.
There is a local legend that has stated that a group of teenagers decided they would be “cool” and sneak into the cemetery one dark and stormy night. Little did they know when they started their little adventure how “uncool” it was going to become before the night ended.
As they approached the wrought iron fence that surrounds the cemetery, they check to make sure that nobody was looking. One by one, they scaled the fence and jumped to the dew-drenched grass. Already feeling fear creep along their spines, they bravely continued their trek through the cemetery to see what they could fine. As the minutes passed and they hadn’t experienced anything out of the ordinary, their confidence started to grow.
Feeling invincible, as teenagers do, they started to scurry from headstone to headstone, mocking the dead, assured that spirits didn’t exist. Being a quite hilly area, the youths had entered at the highest elevation and by now, they had reached the lowest point. This is the area where the Civil War graves are located. The boys started to play soldiers and marched back and forth. One youth took command over the group and gave out orders, and the while marching through the tombstones of the real soldiers.
Suddenly, the crack of a rifle shot echoed through the cemetery, right behind the last boy in line. All the boys dropped to the ground, scream in fear. Not wanting to raise their heads for fear of getting shot, the laid there, motionless. Past them came a group of soldiers marching to the command of their deep-voiced leader. The boys felt the air turn cold as they heard the crunch of the grass under the soldiers’ feet. They all knew their fates were sealed and cried silently to themselves.
Finally, when they couldn’t hear the soldiers any longer, they slowly cracked open their eyes. Surveying the area around them, they saw nothing. They bravely raised their heads and looked around once more, and to their relief, discovered they were along once more. Faster than any of them had ever run before, they race out of the cemetery and scaled the fence, jumping to freedom. It’s safe to say that those boys probably never returned to that cemetery. Whether you get to experience anything spooky here or not, Riverside Cemetery is a beautiful place to visit, and it is full of history and legend.
Our next cemetery is not to beautiful. In fact, most people didn’t really know it existed. Nobody really knows how long the cemetery across the road from the Old County Home on Lee’s Creek Road had been there. It rest atop of a desolate hill beside the old Erwin High School, which is now Erwin Middle. Many think that the ancient bone yard use to be a family cemetery from the late 1700s, but the only marked grave in the entire field had the inscription:
In Memory of Charlotte K. Wife of JN Snelson. Born September 30th 1856. Died May 3rd, 1883.
At the time of discovery, the county officials had no idea how many bodies were buried there. Little did they realize that their original estimate of 200 would jump to move than 1000. Only around 73 deaths were actually recorded at time of the death. The main reason why most were unreported was because people just didn’t care.
The cemetery was made for the people in the community that they felt were best left forgotten. It was a simple pauper’s cemetery, owned by the county, which was used as the final resting place for the poor and underprivileged, forgotten elders, beggars, vagabonds, and criminals. Billy Pritchard wrote in an Asheville Citizen-Times article in 1973, and said:
“They were lonely, unwanted and forgotten souls alive, and no one shed any tears over their pauper’s graves when they left the world as all men do, with nothing. But they had nothing in life either, and when their souls were taken away, it must have been for them a better place. In most cases, there were no flowers, no songs of praise, no unreal procession, no last words of prayer over the cheap wooden coffin and no tombstone to mark their passing. They were no more thought of under the ground than they had been above it. Hidden away in rest homes, mental hospitals, and jails where they eventually died, these souls were wards of the state and county welfare department. If anyone love them at all, it was these institutions which kept them alive and afforded their burials at death.”
In most cases, the bodies of these melancholy souls were hurriedly buried. They were typically not embalmed and they normally didn’t have a funeral service. Most of the corpses were just wrapped in a sheet and shallowly buried to save time and money. They did not mark the body in most cases, and most of the time, the one assigned the job of burying the body would dig up another in the process. Due to this, there were many that were buried coffin-on-coffin, and other instances, there were mass graves.
The lonely hill was often called by the locals as “Potter’s Field,” but many others called it County Home Graveyard. The County Home had control over the graveyard, and while it is uncertain how long bodies had been buried there, they started to use the field as a pauper’s cemetery around 1905. For an overwhelming amount of time, the neglected souls had rested in the dismal earth undisturbed, but that would end in 1973.
That was when the Buncombe County School Board decided to build a new Erwin High School on the property of the cemetery. This decision was met immediately by opposition from county officials and citizens. R Curtis Ratcliff, a chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, was particularly concerned about the $64,000 of taxpayers’ money that would have to be invested. Roy Trantham stated that he would never vote for public funds to be used to move dead people. He said, “I think they ought to be left alone.”
Mrs. Lula Edens, a concerned citizen of Asheville, insisted that a marker be added to the ground to commemorate the dead. She would never get her wish, however, and school board decided to start excavation of the grounds.
Phillip Ellen Contractors if Southern Pines were hired to do this. The seven men team, using just shovels, mattocks, and bulldozer, which they could only use to cover up the graves, started working for a fee of $79 per grave. The only way they could locate the bodies was by plunging a steel rod into the dirt and feeling for soft spots. To get a little bit of extra help, they hired some of the students at Erwin High for a few dollars a body. After they had worked in the field for awhile, their estimate of 200 had quickly jumped to 400, then 800, and then to more than 1000.
The hill became a confusing mass of jumbled and nameless remains. Most of the corpses were severely decomposed and dumped into small wooden boxes to be moved. There were anonymous observers who stated that very little care was taken in the excavation and bodies were laid in rows in the open, despite the health hazards to those who visited the site.
There was one teacher who vividly remembers a disturbing site. Upon visiting the site, she remembered the opening of a coffin. Instead was the skeleton of what looked like a young woman. There were remnants of an ancient, worn gown on the pale bones, and long red hair. Cradled in her arms was the tiny remains of a baby. One may assume that they had died together during childbirth.
Ratcliff recalled a gruesome site that he witnessed while visiting. They had punched a hole into a coffin and then they reached in and pulled out a skull and tossed it on the ground. When it landed, false teeth fell out and the hair fell off.
There were some bones that they so carelessly threw around that there were many incidents where students would play practical jokes with the remains. There was one morning when residents awoke to find skulls placed on top of fence posts in the community.
Phillip Eden would pay his workers $3 an hour or $1 a grave for each one over four they found, excavated, and had approved with remains found inside. This was such a gruesome job that it would become the last job for many who were involved. One crew member, Steve Belcher, followed Ellen all over the country digging up graves, a job he said didn’t bother him, until this job. Belcher stated in an interview, “We were digging on the other side of the field and struck one that was still intact. I got sick. I mean, it really bothered me.”
They bodies they found were placed into pine boxes of three different sizes. The one they used the most often was 36 inches long, 8 inches wide, and a foot deep. Larger remains were placed in 5 feet by 6 feet boxes. The boxes were actually a better quality than those they had originally been buried in.
After a few weeks, they had completely excavated the site. The bodies would be reburied on a quiet hill behind what is now West Buncombe Elementary School. However, there was a Citizen-Times article that stated the superintendent at the time, Fred H. Martin, said that around 250 to 300 bodies would not be moved.
They built Erwin High School beside the small hill which held the biggest concentration of bodies. This a barrier between the school and football field. There are many that say unmarked graves of the cemetery are strewn all around the property, and there are some tales that said bones have worked their way up through the soil. Nobody knows if these claims are true or not.
It is very common to hear tales of strange phenomena surrounding the school. Janitors have stated they have heard eerie noises and footsteps in the vacant halls late at night. There have been some that said the dishonored spirits have cursed the football field and team. For good reason to, from 1991 to 1995 Erwin’s varsity team had 33 consecutive losses, earning a losing state record and creeping closer to a national one.
Obviously, nobody is ever going to say that Erwin High School is definitely haunted. Death is a very senstivie subject, and sometimes it is easier for people to just ignore the unknown than face it. Most people who have experienced things there are reluctant to say anything about them, for one reason or another. Considering it is at a school, if janitors and teachers started coming forward about experiences, it could cause bigger problems, and they wouldn’t want to lose their jobs.
All the school board would like to do is forget about the massive ocean of decaying corpses that once surrounded the grounds. Morbid memories like that are sometimes best left in recesses of one’s mind. It seems to me, though, if a place had reason to be haunted, the school certainly would. Whether or not students tread each day over the remains of bodies stays a mystery. No matter what the soil of Erwin holds, the essence of what was once there, lives on.