Balsam was once bustling railroad community
It’s always entertaining to get back off main-traveled roads and poke around in the little villages here in the mountains. Each such place has its own story. And Balsam — just off the four-lane between Waynesville and Sylva — is no exception. For such a pretty little place it has a pretty big story; indeed, it has a ghost story. More about that later.
Balsam’s principal claim to fame, of course, is that it’s situated at 3,315 feet above sea level, where the highest standard gauge railway east of the Rocky Mountains crosses the Balsam Mountain Range. The Asheville to Murphy branch of the Southern Railway was constructed through the Balsam Gap in the mid-1880s because it represented the lowest opening in the range.
For that very same reason, the gap had been an early Indian and pioneer trail long before the coming of the rail line. It was the route utilized by General Griffith Rutherford and his men in 1776 for their punitive raid on the Cherokee and, subsequently, by settlers moving west down Scott’s Creek into the Tuckasegee River valley.
A tunnel had been planned and started through the Balsam Mountains to avoid the steep grade but was abandoned. On into the 20th century steam locomotives lacked the power to pull a full load of boxcars over the grade and had to haul them up to the Balsam station several units at a time.
According to J.D. McRorie’s account in The History of Jackson County (1987), a post office was established at Balsam in 1873 for about seven months, then in 1885 — with the coming of the rail line — it was re-established. Across the street from the new post office is one of the village’s main attractions. This is a huge white oak tree that appears to me to be well over 100-feet tall and more than four feet in diameter. As white oaks are known to live to be 800 years old, this particular specimen might well have been standing when Columbus discovered America. At any rate, it’s a wonderful specimen and well worth a look. Of added interest is the fact that one of the town’s citizens — Joseph Key Kenney — had it dedicated to George Washington in a public ceremony in 1932 on the 200th anniversary our first president’s birth. Naturally it’s called “The George Washington Tree.”
Balsam once boasted four general stores, several churches, an Episcopal school and a depot called on by passenger trains six times a day. Today just a handful of buildings remain, including the old railroad hotel recently resurrected as the Balsam Mountain Inn.
With three stories, expansive wings, numerous rooms, and 100-foot double porches, all crowned with a mansard roof of embossed tin, the rambling Balsam Mountain Inn — built between 1906 and 1908 — represented the ideal of mountain tourism back at the turn of the century and on into recent times as well.
The establishment was originally known as the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel, named for the seven springs on the property. Guests filled their water bottles from a fountain in the lobby.
Passengers — often entire families — arrived via the rail line to spend the summer in “The Land of the Sky” so as to escape the heat of lower elevations and the dangers of malaria. They were met at the depot and driven up the hill to the inn in a horse-drawn surrey with a fringe on top. Dances, horseback rides, and guided excursions into the mountains were but part of the activities provided guests. They were catered to in an expansive dining room and made to feel at home in sitting areas outfitted with fine furnishings.
“Innkeeper/owner Merrily Teasley, a gregarious hiker and a globetrotter of no small experience, happened upon what was then a dilapidated and abandoned railroad hotel while hiking through these mountains with a friend who had stayed at Balsam,” travel writer Eddie Nickens has noted. “The property, she recalls, was a real mess. There were 125 broken windows. Every single toilet had frozen and broken into pieces. The porch beams were sagging and in need of repair, all wiring needed replacement and portions of wall that had rotted through had simply been covered up with maps and ignored. Teasley, who already had a reputation of turning crumbling buildings into stellar inns, bought the place and went to work, restoring the structure under U.S. Department of Interior guidelines for historic buildings.”
Now we get to the ghost story. By the way, I didn’t dig this part of the story up to coincide with Halloween later this month. I had already started on the Balsam story when I stumbled upon the ghostly part.
“It seems to be an exceptionally friendly ghost,” Teasley told me. “We don’t know anything about it except that it always shows up in room 205. One night back in the mid-1990s, it turned the doorknob in the middle of the night. Another night, the ghost raised the window.
“Those people knew nothing about the ghost, and so that was really strange. But each person that’s told us about it doesn’t feel threatened. They just come down to the lobby and comment on it.
The most recent ghost report was last fall. A man and his wife were staying in 205. During the night she felt a hand rubbing her back and naturally assumed that it was her husband. But she later discovered that he had been sound asleep and didn’t deserve any credit.
“The ghost’s identity remains a mystery,” Teasley observes. “Nobody that I know of has ever died here.”
If Room 205 at the Balsam Mountain Inn isn’t already reserved for this coming Halloween, you might want to research the matter more fully for yourself.
Editor’s note: George Ellison is on a medical sabbatical from writing for The Smoky Mountain News. This column first appeared in Oct. 2002.