NORTH CAROLINA, the Tar Heel State

What to see

Asheville The Biltmore Estate
Winston-Salem Moravian village
Cape Hatteras Light Tower
Kitty Hawk the Wright Brothers
Raleigh Executive Mansion - Farmers Market - The Melting Pot
the Triangle Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill
Article Durham
Other pages other states | articles

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cover new england

This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: South Atlantic - Part 1

In the travel series View America, South Atlantic - part 1 covers Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 100 full-sized photos.

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NORTH CAROLINA is also called the Tar Heel State, probably because of the tar production by the slow burning of pine trees. However, this nickname could also stem from the civil war, as the North Carolina forces were so persistent in their positions during the battles against the Union, that apparently their heels were covered with tar... In 1789 North Carolina became the 12th state to join the US. The capital is Raleigh, and the largest city is Charlotte. It is one of the thirteen original colonies.

In 1629, this vast area was granted by King Charles I to Sir Robert Heath as Carolana, the Latin form of Charles. In 1663 the name was changed by his son Charles II to Carolina, and in 1729 the British split up the area into South Carolina and North Carolina.

The surface is approximately 136,000 km2, and 62% of the state is forested. A well-known river is the Cape Fear river. There are approximately eight million inhabitants, with a density of 65 per km2.

North Carolina is the largest tobacco producer in the US, and the second most important industrial state of the South, after Texas. In 1840, the state had the longest railroad in the world, with 259 kilometers between Wilmington and Raleigh.

In 1903, the Wright brothers made the first flight near Kitty Hawk. Touristic regions are the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Cape Hatteras with the highest lighthouse (63 m) in the US. The 1900 Biltmore Estate of George W. Vanderbilt in Asheville is an extraordinary mansion, and Winston-Salem presents an old 1766 Moravian village.

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Asheville : the Biltmore Estate

The landscape around Asheville is very striking and mountainous, as these are the Appalachian Mountains. At the entrance of the Biltmore Estate, a stately lion, sculptured out of a hedge, stands guard. The drive from the entrance to the actual Biltmore House is three miles long, and takes about twenty minutes! The Visitor Center presents an eleven-minute movie about the history of the estate.

The founder of the Biltmore Dynasty was Cornelius Biltmore, who earned a fortune in shipping, and increased it even further with the construction of railroads. His fortune in 1877 was estimated at one hundred million dollars. Afterwards, his son George managed the family business, and in 1885 he managed to double the family fortune to an amazing two hundred million dollars, which at today's prices would be equivalent to sixty-nine billion dollars!

In 1882 George Biltmore considered building "little mountain escape" in the beautiful region of the Smoky Mountains. As his project took on a more concrete form, it kept on being expanded and ended up a massive undertaking including a mansion, gardens, farms, and woodlands. The result is a genuine palace, on an estate of 125,000 acres (50,000 hectares). Imagine a stretch of land of almost fourteen by fourteen miles (23 by 23 km)!

It is the largest private residence in the USA, with 255 rooms and an interior surface of more than 172,000 square feet (16,000 m2). There are 100 bedrooms, of which more than 60 for the staff, 31 guest rooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. Three full time workers did nothing else but keep supplying all these fireplaces with wood! At present, 450 people take care of the daily maintenance.

The construction began in 1889 and took six years with some 1,000 workmen, and its story is one of epic proportions. A railroad was built especially to provide access for labor and the massive amounts of material and supplies. Some 150,000 cubic yards of earth were moved to create a level surface, and landscape architect Frederick Olmsted built two observation towers to determine the most adequate height of the Loggia and first floor windows to obtain the best views.

Even after six years, Biltmore House was not complete when George Vanderbilt opened it in 1895, and work would continue for years. The concept and the implementation of the estate, the countryside and the gardens are truly magnificent. Although the building is gargantuan, everything is so refined and so fully integrated in the landscape, that it simply appears stately and magnificent.

Everything was built in limestone and marble. The building was extremely modern for its time, and it was equipped with electricity, hot and cold running water, central heating with coal, and even electric elevators. The roof was made of steel instead of wood, as in those days many wooden buildings were destroyed by fire.

In an unending list of superlatives, we'll just mention the magnificent entrance hall in Indiana limestone, the conservatory, the impressive Banquet Hall with sixty-four seats and a full-sized organ, the three huge fireplaces of 7 by 7 feet (2 m by 2 m), the 68-feet-high ceiling (21 m), the informal dining room covered with Spanish hammered leather, the tremendous library, the swimming pool, the gymnasium with separate changing rooms, the bedrooms of the host and his wife, the many guest rooms, and so on.

As Biltmore's favorite color was red, this color is found in many private rooms, in the furniture and even in the china. All the guest rooms have a different name and have been decorated and furnished according to a theme. The sports section has many changing rooms, of course separate rooms for Ladies and for Gentlemen. Two service elevators constantly provided food and drink, one electric and the other manual.

George Biltmore was an avid collector, and everywhere there are exclusive collectibles. Such as a chessboard from Napoleon, tapestries of Cardinal Richelieu, 16th century Flemish tapestries, furniture from all over Europe, but some specifically from Antwerp, elaborate ceilings, Byzantine ceiling paintings, Louis XV and English Chippendale furniture, valuable paintings by Renoir and Van Dyck, a library with some 23,000 books, and so on.

The castle and its surroundings have been photographed countless times, and they also have been the background for several major movies, such as Forrest Gump and The Two Presidents. It is impossible not to stand in awe of so many beautiful, sophisticated and monumental things. The tour of the house takes more than three hours, and to merely cite all the beautiful and remarkable items would take a complete book by itself!

After George Biltmore's death his wife sold most of the land, and to date the property's surface consists of "only" 8,000 acres (3.200 hectares). The estate grows their own vegetables and fruits, have their own livestock, vineyards, restaurants and even a hotel.

The domain also includes the Biltmore Gardens and the Biltmore Winery. Until the fifties, the estate produced dairy products and supplied the region with Biltmore Dairy. The dairy has been abandoned, but since 1977 Biltmore also produces wine and this new company was established in the old dairy buildings. They even have a Biltmore Blanc de Blanc Brut, which is produced according to the "Methode Champenoise"!

More recently a hotel was built on the estate, called the Biltmore Inn. It is a very stylish hotel that radiates luxury, and it has been constructed in the same style as the rest of the estate. The ground floor is most imposing, with a large reception and lounge, a bar and large terraces. The furnishings and decoration are of the same high quality. A truly impressive visit!

Asheville : Biltmore Estate 1 Asheville : Biltmore Estate 2
Asheville : Biltmore Estate 3 Asheville : Biltmore Estate 4

Winston-Salem : Moravian settlement

The Moravian Church or Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine was founded in 1450 in Kunvald, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, after the teachings of Jan Hus. To escape persecution, the community moved in 1722 to Saxony in Germany. The Moravians zealously performed missionary work, and founded several communities in St Thomas and the British colonies.

In 1740, they founded another one in New York State, and still another in Savannah, Georgia. One year later, new colonies followed in Nazareth and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but eventually the community bought 100,000 acres in Piedmont, North Carolina, which they named Wachau, or in Latin, Wachovia. If this name sounds familiar it reminds us, not coincidentally, of a large American bank, which was founded in Winston-Salem in 1879.

In 1753, the Bethabara community was founded, followed in 1759 by Bethania. Salem was founded in 1766, and it became the nexus of several other villages. In 1849 the Salem congregation sold land to the newly created Forsyth County, to build its headquarters in Winston. In 1913, Winston merged with Salem to create Winston-Salem.

The original Moravian settlement contains some hundred authentic and restored buildings, dating from 1771. The whole is enlivened by costumed actors, occupied in various activities. It is nice to explore the quiet and pastoral surroundings and the various well-maintained buildings.

Winston-Salem 1

Winston-Salem 2

Winston-Salem 3 Winston-Salem 4

Cape Hatteras : lighthouse

There are three villages on Cape Hatteras : Hatteras, Buxton and Frisko. The entire island focuses almost exclusively on fishing. The rest of the logistics, such as shops and food markets, are more rudimentary and seem only of secondary importance. Though the overall impression of the gray buildings may seem somewhat gloomy, the beach is really lovely.

Cape Hatteras has the highest lighthouse in the US, with a height of two hundred and nine feet (63 m). The original lighthouse was built in 1803, in 1853 another 60 feet was added, and it was completely rebuilt in 1870. It is possible to climb all the way to the top, with a spectacular view, but the only downside is the two hundred and sixty-nine steps...

The lighthouse's museum presents an interesting movie about the tower's history. In 1999 it was moved about 2,900 feet (900 meters) further inland, due to erosion of the coastline. The move was made in typical American fashion, practically unheard of in Europe; they put the entire tower on rails, and simply drove it to its new location! The trip lasted about twenty days.

Cape Hatteras Cape Hatteras : lighthouse

Kitty Hawk : the Wright brothers

State Route 12 leads over the various islands to Kitty Hawk. The name may sound familiar, because it is the location where on December 17, 1902, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first autonomous flightwith a device that was heavier than air!

Flyer 1, the first "real" airplane, was made of two large wings in canvas, a mini-engine, and two large propellers. The brothers achieved an extended flight after four tries. The first try was only 120 feet (37 m) long, but the fourth flight was 852 feet (260 m)!

Kitty Hawk : the Wright brothers 1 Kitty Hawk : the Wright brothers 2


Executive Mansion

Raleigh's Executive Mansion is the residence of the state's governors. Blount Avenue, located in the middle of the city, is dotted with old and picturesque mansions. These stately homes are on or adjacent to the top of a hill, and at present, they are completely surrounded by large modern buildings. But it is easy to imagine what it must have looked like, two hundred years ago.

The governor's mansion was obviously built on top of the hill, and it was surrounded by the houses of the lesser in rank. Green everywhere, quiet rural roads, and any transport was done by horse, wagon and cart. The Executive Mansion was built between 1883 and 1891. It is a very large building, well designed, well built, and beautifully maintained to the smallest details. An interesting anecdote; it was entirely built by prisoners!

Along Blount Avenue many other homes can be admired, some of which have been very artfully restored.

Raleigh : Executive Mansion 1 Raleigh : Executive Mansion 2
Raleigh : Blount Avenue 1 Raleigh : Blount Avenue 2


The Research Triangle park

The Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill Triangle refers to the three participating university cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. At the end of the 1950's, North Carolina started a special project to increase employment. Between the three universities, NC State University in Raleigh, Duke University in Durham, and the NC University at Chapel Hill, a surface of 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) of forest was reserved for research centers and laboratories of major industries. The three universities would continuously provide highly skilled employees.

This large project, called the Research Triangle Park in Durham, knew a somewhat slow start, but after IBM established its research center, its example was soon followed by other major companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Nortel, Cisco, BASF, Bayer, Sony Ericsson and Bekaert. There are now approximately one hundred and thirty companies, that provide jobs for 38,500 employees, with an additional 7,000 jobs for services. The Park's Visitors Center provides documentation and a map for a Self Guided Tour.

Durham used to be the seat of North Carolina's tobacco industry. Although it has since relocated to other states, some of the initial immense tobacco fortunes are still located here. Such as the one that was generated by the Duke family, who founded a financial empire with tobacco and electricity. Many of the old and abandoned brick warehouses have been converted to shopping, dining and lodging.


University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill is the location where the first university was built. Its buildings are spread out over a large surface, interspaced with ample parks. The many students milling to and fro create a most special atmosphere.

North Carolina Botanical Garden

The North Carolina Botanical Garden comprises some 700 acres (283 hectares), plus 210 acres (85 hectares) of nature preserves. It is operated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The object of the Garden is to research, catalog and promote the native plant species of North Carolina. Admission is free, and the Garden is open seven days a week.

In 1903 William Chambers Coker, the University's first professor of botany, began planting a teaching collection of trees and shrubs on the central campus. This collection was to become the Coker Arboretum. In 1952 the university's Trustees dedicated 70 forested acres (28 hectares) for development of a botanical garden. An additional 103 acres (42 hectares) were donated by William Lanier Hunt. Considerable additions and expansion took place after the 1960's.

Today the Garden and the Botanical Garden Foundation manage 1,133 acres of land, including natural areas, gardens and conservation easements. It contains 14 collections and display gardens, representing about 2,500 of the 4,700 plant species known to be native or naturalized in North and South Carolina.

Chapel Hill : NC Botanical Gardens 1 Chapel Hill : NC Botanical Gardens 2

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