Highlands North Carolina

HighlandsThe village of Highlands was founded in 1875 by two developers living in Kansas who, according to legend, took a map in hand and drew a line from New York to New Orleans. Then they passed another line between Chicago and Savannah. These lines, they predicted, would be the great trade routes of the future, and where they crossed would someday be a great population center. What evolved was a health and summer resort at more than 4,000 feet on the highest crest of the western North Carolina plateau in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

This paradisial settlement, the highest incorporated town east of the Rockies, provided common ground for both Northern and Southern pioneers a decade after their great Civil War. By 1883 nearly 300 immigrants from the Eastern states were calling Highlands home. In the early 1880s the town contained eight country stores specializing in groceries, hardware, and general merchandise; a post office, a hotel and boarding house for summer guests, a public library, four churches (the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, and Methodist), and a first-class school. Very little changed in the town until the late 1920s, when the Cullasaja River was dammed to form Lake Sequoyah, providing hydroelectric power. A spectacularly scenic road from Highlands toward Franklin was carved into the rock walls of the Cullasaja gorge, and the muddy roads in and out of town were reinforced with crushed stone. By the time the Chamber of Commerce was established in 1931, the town’s population had increased to 500 with 2,500–3,000 summer guests and 25 businesses. Again, very little changed from the 30s through the 60s. Highlands missed the Great Depression because most of its residents were accustomed to surviving hard times, growing their own meat and vegetables so that no one went hungry. Entertainment was homegrown, the most popular pastime being buck dancing, square dancing, and mountain clogging. For fifty years Helen’s Barn was the great equalizer, amalgamating winter and summer residents alike into a single class of foot-stomping revelers swinging to the twangs and whines of banjos and fiddles. Occasionally the circus climbed the mountain to Highlands, but always open were Anderson’s Five and Ten on 4th Street hill and Bill’s Soda Shop at 4th and Main, serving creamy milkshakes, sandwiches, cherry smashes, and ammonia cokes. The mid 1970s saw the sudden influx of multifamily homes and shopping centers that spawned land use plans and zoning laws intended to protect Highlands’ natural assets. For the most part the shops have remained individual. Chain stores have not yet robbed the village of its difference from the Xeroxed American town. The town’s population today stands at 958 year-round residents with 15,000–20,000 summer guests and 387 businesses. Since its creation in 1875, the demographic mixture of Highlands has been remarkably unique. Founded by hardy pioneers from all over the nation, sober industrious tradesmen from the North, Scotch-Irish laborers and craftsmen from the surrounding mountains and valleys, and wealthy aristocratic planters and professionals from the South, the town has served as a cultural center for well-known artists, musicians, actors, authors, photographers, scholars, and scientists who have thrived in its natural setting. The result is a town too cosmopolitan to be provincial, too broadly based to be singular in attitude and perspective, too enamored of its natural surroundings to be totally indifferent to them, and just isolated enough and small enough to be anxious about the benefits and setbacks of growth and development.


By Randolph P. Shaffner - Highlands Historical Society - For NC Mountain Guide