Asheville History 101: Riverside Cemetery–Fun Facts

Filed under: History


Mailbox inside the Cemetery:  Who Lives Here?
Example of the Park-like features of the Cemetery

It seems as if, whenever I get a good idea for a blog, what starts out as a simple project turns into something bigger!  The other day as I was finishing up my research for the piece on the people who lived on Cumberland Avenue I came across an article from the June 2008 issue of the Laurel of Asheville.  It was a short piece written by Sharon Fahrer about Riverside Cemetery, containing some interesting nuggets of information about a few of the locals who are buried there.  A little bit of research led me to her website and an i-phone app for a walking tour of the Cemetery itself.
So, it is that two days later, I know much more than I ever thought I would about the people buried in this lovely spot.
Riverside Cemetery has always been a favorite location of mine, with winding paths, beautiful trees and flowers, and lovely vistas of the mountains.  Now I know that this was all by design.  The Cemetery was founded in 1885 and is an example of a “Victorian Garden Cemetery”.  The Victorians were fascinated by death and evolved many rituals surrounding it.  Among these were the idea that cemeteries should be used as public parks as well as a resting place for the dead.  Riverside certainly keeps this tradition alive.  I often jog through the cemetery and I  see people resting under the trees, reading and studying, and having picnics.  As a matter of fact, I have often thought that, if I have to be buried, it would be nice to be somewhere like this, where people enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and happy voices can be heard.

Entrance to McCormick Field
Gravestone from the Spanish-American War

One of the first graves one comes upon inside the gates is that of Richard Sharpe Smith, designer of the house which became the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. This should not be surprising, except for the fact that somehow I always thought he returned to England.  I had no idea that he stayed in Asheville, North Carolina until his death in 1924. 

Just nearby is the grave of Dr. Lewis McCormick. Dr. McCormick was dedicated to improving the health of the citizens of Asheville and he spearheaded the National “Swat That Fly” movement here, dedicated to making Asheville a “flyless Eden”.  As a result of his efforts (and those of countless schoolchildren swatting flies), typhoid deaths dropped dramatically throughout the municipality.  I think it is rather nice that they named the local baseball field after him–home to a different type of “fly” altogether.

Many of you will know the O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi”.  But did you know the real author, William Sydney Porter, used a pen name because he was in prison when he wrote it?  Apparently he was accused of embezzling funds at a Texas bank where he worked.  He fled to Honduras (where he coined the term “Banana Republic”) but returned to visit his dying wife.  He is buried on the hilltop in Riverside.

Also in the cemetery is James Posey, bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln and  Allen Redwood, creator of the character “Johnny Reb ” of the Civil War. Architect William Lord is here.  He scandalized the town in 1900 by constructing his home with the kitchen in front so that his living room would benefit from the view of the mountains!  Ben Addison’s gravestone states that he was “killed by a desperado” .  In 1906, Will Harris escaped from prison and went on a shooting spree in Asheville, killing five men–Addison among them.

There are many military graves in the cemetery, from wars ranging from the Civil War through the Spanish American War, WWI and up to today.  Among them is that of Col.Stephen Lee.  A distant cousin of Robert E. Lee, Stephen Lee fought in the Civil War as did eight of his sons (four survived).  He returned to Asheville near the end of the War and trained a local unit which he called the “Silver Grays” (I assume it was made up of older citizens who had not left home).  These 300 men fought off a Union detail of over 1100 troops who were charged with burning down Asheville

Plaque at entrance of Riverside Cemetery

Asheville is most proud of hometown author, Thomas Wolfe, and you would be hard-pressed to visit the cemetery and not be aware that he is buried here.  But also here is his lesser known cousin, Annie Westall, town librarian.  She was unflatteringly portrayed in “Look Homeward, Angel” as having multiple chins.  In retribution, she kept Wolfe’s books off the shelves of the Asheville Public Library!

These are just a few of the many stories hidden beneath the stones and grass of Riverside Cemetery.


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